Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reconciliation Update and Questions

Ezra Klein's reporting agrees with the logic that I set out after the Finance Committee votes on public option amendments yesterday: it's very unlikely that we'll see the Democrats use reconciliation for health care this year.

Two questions I'd have would be:

1. If a bill passes this year without any public option, might Democrats try to add one through reconciliation next year? I believe that a pure public option bill would probably be viable through reconciliation, although again I don't know that the votes are there. It's also possible that there might be more votes for public option after the 2010 elections, even if Democrats lose a couple of seats overall (suppose that Lincoln, Bennett, and Dodd lose, but that the new Republic from Connecticut winds up supporting public option, while the Democrats pick up new seats and public option votes in Ohio and New Hampshire).

2. How likely is it that cap-and-trade winds up moving through reconciliation next year? I'm no expert on that bill, but the politics of it, from what I can see, are slightly better for bipartisanship but a lot worse for beating a filibuster -- all Democrats have an interest in having health care pass in some form, but that's just not going to be the case with a climate change bill.

Fighting the Hype

Great post by John Sides today over at the Monkey Cage about Gallup hyping results which are probably just random variation or the results of sloppy questions. Here's how he concludes:
The problem is that the Gallup question’s ambiguity admits of too many interpretations. No single survey question, or any combination of questions, is going to provide a bulletproof depiction of public opinion, but surely we can do better. Gallup is up to the task at other times — e.g., in this comparison of multiple surveys on health care, each of which uses somewhat different questions. They should do more of this, which is a much more satisfying meal than bowls of mush about “traditional values.”
Alas, one of the most difficult things for political scientists do to as public commentators is to convince people that something isn't important. But I also think it's one of the most valuable things we can do, and kudos to John for fighting the good fight.

Bad Idea Revived

Andrew Samwick (via Ezra) asks:
So I'll ask a different question, as a form of a modest proposal to get the money out of politics. Why should it be legal to make a political contribution to a candidate who is not running for an office that represents you as a constituent? I do not think it should be. Imagine how different this senator's incentives would be if he could only raise money from the residents of Montana as individuals and not from organized interests.
This is not a new idea; it's an old Republican chestnut from the 1980s and 1990s. It was a lousy idea then, and a lousy idea now.

First, as Ezra Klein points out, it would increase parochialism. Indeed, given the Constitutionally-mandated malapportionment of the Senate, campaign finance through donations from citizens of other states is a democratizing element of the system, albeit a fairly blunt tool.

Second, Ezra is correct (depending on the specific regulations adopted) that it would end Member-to-Member donations. For him, this has the positive effect of removing some of the "pressure for the politicians who can raise industry money to do so." Perhaps so. But Member-to-Member donations are best seen as a form of party strength and potential party discipline. And that's not all. Ideological PACs are another partisan source of money in the campaign finance system, as are the relatively new phenomenon of internet-directed flows of money to ideological and partisan targets, such as the recent surge of donations to "you lie" Rep. Joe Wilson. In other words, it's a mistake to think of national money as a function of narrow economic interest groups; quite a lot of national money is party money of one kind or another, so if you like strong national parties you should oppose this idea.

Matt Yglesias joined the discussion of this proposal today with this contribution:
The main impact of the rule being considered would, it seems to me, be to make House incumbents much more electorally vulnerable. Most House members would simply find it very difficult to raise a great deal of money from in-district contributions. That would necessarily tend to level the playing field between incumbents and challengers. Which is probably why we won’t see it happen. But it would also probably be a good idea.
Matt gets it backwards here. There's no reason I can think of that in-district donors would be particularly interested in supporting challengers. In fact, as can be seen in the Wilson case, challengers usually depend on party money coming in from outside the district to have any chance to win. More fundamentally, as Gary Jacobson found, incumbent spending just isn't very important (because all spending has diminishing returns, and what spending can buy -- name recognition, and letting people know a couple of positive things about the candidate -- is something that most incumbents already have). So a system with less money overall is going to help incumbents, not hurt them.

And, FWIW, I'm pretty sure that Republicans in the 1980s were correct that limiting campaign money to in-district donors would in fact help them, and that is still true today. For that to be true, it would require Republican donors to be distributed relatively equally around the nation, while Democratic donors are lumped together in a relatively small number of states and Congressional districts. I don't have a citation for this off the top of my head, but as I said I'm pretty sure that's how things break down.

One more thing: on the theoretical merits, I think the case for this proposal is extremely weak. American elections are both local and national. The results of the elections for Senators and Representatives in Virginia, Montana, and New York have a profound effect on me even if I live in Texas, so it's reasonable to allow me to attempt to affect those results. On top of that, because of the nature of single-member districts, most of us live in House districts with little or no partisan competition; if we're limited to donations in our own districts, we essentially can have no effect at all on the partisan makeup of the Senate.

Defending (Yikes!) Palin

All pols use ghostwriters for speeches and books. Not only is it no sin for Palin to have done so, but to the contrary, it's one of the few really professional things she's done in the last year plus that we've all been watching her.

She'll of course have to take responsibility for whatever she says or "writes." But there's nothing at all wrong with having someone else put the ideas into words -- and there's nothing at all wrong with purchasing her ideas, as long as she takes the trouble to understand them well enough to get through real interviews.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Counting Senate Votes on Health Care

I didn't think we'd have news today, but I agree with Chris Bowers and Steve Benin that we did get some news. (As usual, this is all process and politics; if you want to understand the substantive case for and against the various possibilities, I'll still recommend Jon Cohn and Ezra Klein -- here's today's best from Jon and here's today's best from Ezra). I take a while to get to it, but the bottom line below is that I think the most likely outcome now is final passage of a bill that goes through regular floor procedures (i.e. gets cloture), that does not contain a strong public option but may contain a weak public option or, more likely, some sort of trigger or other compromise, but that is otherwise somewhat closer to what liberals want than the Senate Finance bill.

To recap:

The Rockefeller "strong public option" failed, with (Bill) Nelson, Carper, Conrad, Lincoln, Baucus, Snowe, and the rest of the Republicans against.

The Schumer "weak public option" failed, with Nelson and Carper flipping and supporting it.

On both votes, Baucus said that he supported the amendments on substantive grounds, but was voting no because he thought they would sink the bill.

So, where does that leave us?

First, I think it kills the strong public option. Even if Baucus might flip and vote for the Rockefeller amendment in some particular set of circumstances, that's still four solid votes against, and since there are twelve Democrats currently somewhat to the right of Bill Nelson and Conrad (and another couple between them and Carper), I think it's highly unlikely that there are 50 Democrats willing to cast an up-and-down yes vote on the Rockefeller amendment. I'll list Ben Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu, Webb, Dorgan, Hagan, Tester, Pryor, McCaskill, and Lieberman all as unlikely, and the liberals would need at least three of those (and Baucus, and a couple of other iffy votes) -- although I should note that this scoreboard has Webb and Dorgan as likely yes votes.

Second, it means that there probably are 50 votes for a weak public option, again in a simple yes/no vote. Probably. We know Bill Nelson and Carper are on board; odds are that's what Webb and Dorgan would support, given their comments.

But to know the fate of the weak public option, even if this count is correct, we need to know a few more things that we do not yet know.

The most important of these is the strength of the opposition among the opposition Democrats (and, to some extent, Snowe). If the bill winds up including the weak public option over their votes, would they then vote against final passage? (since it's possible that one or more of those who support the weak public might vote against the bill for other reasons). Would potential yes/no votes (vote for cloture but against the bill) switch to no/no votes if the public option was included? If the weak public option has to be added as a floor amendment, would opponents of the provision who are either yes/yes or yes/no on the bill be willing to vote yes/no on cloture on the amendment? (Yes, there can be multiple filibusters on single bills at different stages of floor consideration).

Next, we'd need to know a bit more about the marginal supporters of the weak public option. Are they all (or enough of them) still on board if reconciliation is used? Is weak public option their preference compared to a trigger of some sort (if, for example, the bill on the floor has a trigger, would the Schumer amendment lose a vote or two that it would have if the default bill had no trigger)? And the, finally, we would need to know whether the managers of the bill believe that reconciliation is worth the risks if there are 50 solid votes for the weak public option but not 60 for cloture with the public option -- but there are 60 votes for cloture with a trigger, or coops, or some other compromise. Is keeping the weak public option really worth that?

My guess, and it's only a guess, is that the numbers as they sit now kill off reconciliation as a procedure to get this done this year -- unless it turns out there aren't 60 for cloture for even the Senate Finance bill. However, I think it's looking very likely (80%? Maybe a bit higher?) that the Democrats can get cloture on the Senate Finance bill, and in fact they can probably get cloture on a somewhat stronger bill than whatever Senate Finance produces. Since I agree with those who say that such a bill, whatever its faults, would be a major, historic, achievement, I think supporters of health care reform should be pretty happy with how things are going -- given what was theoretically possible following the campaign that Obama ran last year (i.e. single-payer wasn't going to be on the table this year).

Still a lot of things we don't know, but it is, slowly, coming into better focus.

Interpreting the Benator 2

It's probably worth also noting that one of the things going on here is that the internet really has changed things a bit. Back when Richard Fenno was doing his original research in the 1970s, Members of Congress could pretty much say anything they wanted back in the districts and no one in Washington would ever know. There were no videos available of Members in their districts; there were no local bloggers. Not only that, but there was essentially no way for ordinary people in Washington to read stories that were reported by local reporters for local papers. The only real way things could be transmitted would have been if the story got picked up by a wire service and then run in a Washington paper, but that wasn't going to happen. Sure, every once in a while a David Broder could go out into the country to report on what was going on, but all of the national reporters who did that put together might have managed to cover a dozen or two appearances by all Members combined.

Information flows in the other direction as well. I suspect that the current Senate Finance markup is featuring the most scrutinized committee legislative votes in Congressional history (various nomination votes, especially Supreme Court votes, and the July 1974 actions of the House Judiciary Committee, were more scrutinized, but I can't think of any others).

If I were evaluating Members of Congress for partisan loyalty, I'd pay a whole lot more attention to the second of these sources of information (actual votes) than the first one (what they say in the district).

Interpreting the Benator

Greg Sargent and David Kurtz are upset, again, with Ben Nelson today because of Nelson's comments at a Town Hall in Nebraska.

Let's see what Nelson said and how we should interpret it. First, on supermajorities:
Nelson said health care legislation should be bipartisan and supported by at least 65 senators because it would have more credibility with the American people...Nelson said Democrats have a responsibility to seek Republican support and the GOP has a responsibility to “look favorably on something and not just be against everything.''
And from a second cited article:

Nelson appeared to settle on 65 Senate votes as a figure that would provide him a comfort level in terms of establishing a level of bipartisan support for a bill.

"I think anything less than that would challenge its legitimacy," he said.

Notice what he says, and what he doesn't say. He doesn't say that he'll only vote for something that can get 65 votes. He's certainly saying that's his preference, but that's hardly remarkable. What he's doing, I think, is setting himself apart from both Democrats and Republicans; he's performing a classic run-against-Washington home style. He's leaving himself open to voting against a bill (by claiming that Democrats didn't sufficiently seek GOP support) or in favor of a bill (by claiming that Republicans were just against everything). I think the key excerpt, from the Journal Star story, is:
"My vote is not on autopilot for anybody," he said to a round of applause.
He's not saying he'll vote one way or another. What's he doing? In the run-up to a vote that's going to make some constituents unhappy whatever he does, he's just tending to his reputation in the state. He's making a classic Fenno-style promise -- not a promise on substance (which would leave lots of constituents unhappy), but a promise on style. He's promising to be independent, and he'll later defend his vote (whatever it is) as an independent vote, not a party-line (or party-defecting) vote.

Now, what he says about reconciliation is different. The World-Herald has Nelson explicitly saying he'll vote against a reconciliation bill.

But that too is unremarkable, because the Democrats would only use reconciliation if Ben Nelson isn't going to vote for a free-standing bill (or at least cloture on a free-standing bill). No one thinks that there's a (just) 50 vote majority for health care that includes Ben Nelson.

So I really don't see much going on here. Sargent says that he's annoyed because "Nelson has presented himself as a passive observer of the process, rather than an active member who’s declarations and actions influence what happens." But that's not quite what he's doing; he's setting up a contrast between what Those Idiots in Washington are doing (partisan bickering) and what Ben Nelson is doing (independent thinking). That's what lots of Members of Congress do at home (or in Washington for consumption back home), and it really doesn't harm anyone.

Bash Nelson all you want if he announces against cloture; even more so, bash him if the specific amendments he wants don't make any sense (which I think was the case with the stimulus bill, for example). But nothing is going to stop a lot of politicians from talking about how independent they are, even if it annoys the pundits.

Well, especially if it annoys the pundits. That works, too.

The GOP and its Interest Groups

This report from Steve Benen about utilities quitting the Chamber of Commerce over climate issues strikes me as potentially very significant news. It's also a good excuse to think about the reasons for the general Republican strategy as they react to the 2006 and 2008 elections, and whether it's a long-run viable strategy.

By following a rejectionist strategy of opposing anything Obama proposes, Republicans give up the chance to reach compromises that can protect their interest group allies.

Republican Members of Congress may choose this strategy because they think it will be best for their electoral prospects in the long run, but they also may choose it because they believe primary electorates will demand it.

Primary electorates, in turn, may demand rejectionist strategies because they are prompted to do so by Republican opinion leaders. And why do Republican opinion leaders demand absolute opposition to Obama and the Democrats? Without getting into their true beliefs, it's certainly the case that they have an economic incentive to do so. Indeed, and even more troubling for Republican politicians, opinion leaders who depend not on votes but on ratings (or book sales, or other revenues) are almost certainly better off with Democrats in the White House and controlling Congress.

This brings us back to interest groups, specifically groups with purely economic interests. Companies and their associations that normally ally with Republicans do want Republicans in power in Washington. But when Republicans are in a minority, will they prefer the GOP to follow a rejectionist or an accommodationist strategy? I don't think there's an absolute answer to that one. Rejectionist strategies are best if they work (on climate, for example, no bill is preferable to a compromise bill), but not if they don't work (a compromise bill is better than a bill written by environmentalists with no business input). But if businesses believe that compromise is best, and the party they look to won't consider that option, then the party might have a problem.

It's a bit more complicated than that, however. In an era of networked parties, the Washington leadership of the interest groups themselves may be so closely tied to the party that they lose touch with the immediate economic interests of individual businesses. That may be what's happening with the Chamber. Rejectionist ideas on climate change may be caused more by partisan and ideologically based leadership than by the actual interests of specific businesses, and as a result the Chamber is losing members. It's not certain that's the case -- it could be that most members simply are better off with rejectionist strategies, and so the splitters are just in the minority -- but if not, the really scary thing for Republicans here is that they may be running up to the edge of where Beck and Rush are about to lose a lot of important institutional support for the party.

On health care, Republican-oriented businesses simply worked directly with Democrats to reach a compromise. Now, on climate, Republican-oriented interest groups are going public with internal conflict. In both cases, the Republican party risks becoming increasingly marginalized. At this point, it's probably nothing that a solid electoral victory in 2010 or 2012 can't fix, but I do think there's a real danger here for Republicans if they remain in the minority for long. The stereotype of Republicans as strictly limited to a mainly religious faction in the South and the upper Mountain West has been a big exaggeration, but it doesn't have to stay that way.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Good NYT Reporting

I agree with Steve Benen that this Sheryl Gay Stolberg story tells us some useful things that we didn't know about White House efforts on health care. It's a good piece. For one thing, it tells me that Collins is probably a likely yes when all is said and done, assuming of course that Snowe is a yes -- although I suspect that's only true if she's not the deciding vote.

It still leaves me with several questions, however, even given that poker players aren't going to reveal much while the hand is still being played...

Is the White House whipping to preserve the various deals with interest groups from amendments in Senate Finance?

What about Lugar and Voinovich? Are they likely to join as the 63rd and/or 64th votes?

What exactly does Collins (and Lugar, and Voinovich) want?

If the votes ultimately aren't there for public option, what do liberals want in exchange for voting for the bill after all (which they will no doubt do)? Affordability? Something outside of health care?

Is any pre-negotiation going on now either at the Senate level (outside of Finance, that is) or between the House and Senate? Or are they just waiting until the formal process moves to that point?

And with that, out of here until Tuesday, or at least until after sundown Monday. Greetings and good wishes to all those observing the holiday tonight and tomorrow.

Tweaking the Sunday Times




...the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000.

In other news, I hear that the current economy has caused far more activity on Twitter than any previous recession.

Elsewhere, I think Rich actually has a reasonable column about Afghanistan, but the opening conceit is silly:
The most intriguing, and possibly most fateful, news of last week could not be found in the health care horse-trading in Congress, or in the international zoo at the United Nations, or in the Iran slapdown in Pittsburgh. It was an item tucked into a blog at George Stephanopoulos reported that the new “must-read book” for President Obama’s war team is “Lessons in Disaster” by Gordon M. Goldstein.
I'm willing to bet heavily that this is not the most fateful news of the last week; I suppose there's no accounting for tastes, but I found many of the more, well, event-oriented events more intriguing.

Party of Newt

Continuing readers know that I refer to Newt Gingrich as Tom Baxter, Business Visionary, after a character on News Radio who was, it turned out, a total fraud. Newt's on my mind today because of this nice post from John Sides:

You have no idea what you’re asking me to do. It takes me forty-eight hours to get the Republicans to flush the toilet.

Harry Reid, on Sept. 17, 2008, in the meeting where Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke first asked Congressional leaders for “several hundred billion dollars” to buy toxic bank assets.

From James Stewart’s fascinating account in The New Yorker.

John titles his post "Annals of Party Polarization." And fair enough, but I don't think it captures all of what's going on there. After all, Republicans weren't rebelling against Reid; they were refusing to go along with the Republican President of the United States of America, just as Newt's House Republican back-benchers did in 1990 when they opposed a budget deal reached by President George H.W. Bush. There's more to it, then, than just Republicans opposing Democrats.

These episodes, along with the 1995-1996 government shutdown, have a couple of things in common. First, they are episodes in which Newt-inspired Republicans rejected something which everyone believed to be the responsible course of action. And, second, they were total disasters for the Republican party. In all three subsequent presidential elections, the GOP got clobbered, and generally the results on the Congressional side weren't very good, either.

Since the early 1980s, Newt Gingrich and his followers have had one strategy: destroy the establishment in order that Republicans can pick up the pieces. They have consistently acted as if there's no penalty for short-term irresponsible behavior, whether it's impeaching Clinton in 1998 or running up huge deficits in Bush's first term. During eras of unified Democratic government (1993-1994, and the current Congress), that strategy might make sense, although I'm not really convinced (see note below). When the GOP does have some responsibility for governing, I think it's massively counterproductive to act irresponsibly, even if it polls well or registers nicely in focus groups.

This is not to say that Democrats always behave responsibly, but only that they don't appear, as far as I can see, to have a basic strategy that involves indifferent to the effects of their governing choices. Historians will debate whether Clinton was right to care more about deficits than traditional Democratic priorities in 1993, or whether Pelosi, Reid, and nominee Obama were right in fall 2008 to support Bush's bailout plan. My only point is that I can't think of similar actions by the Newt wing of the Republican party -- which, as of now, appears to be the overwhelmingly dominant portion of that party. Well, that's not really my point; my point is that choosing short-term populist boosts over actually governing well has worked really, really badly for the GOP, as can be seen by the long exodus of people such as Bruce Bartlett from loyalty to the party. Well, that, and all those seats in the House, the Senate, and the statehouses now held by Democrats.

Note on 1994: I thin evidence shows that the 1994 electoral debacle for the Democrats was only minimally caused by Dole's filibuster strategy, and not at all by Newt's bomb-throwing (or, for that matter, contract-writing) on the House side. Clinton's poor management of the presidency, especially in 1993 and with regard to the health care bill; the slow jobs recovery from the 1991 recession; and, more than anything, a whole bunch of context stuff about southern realignment were the real big factors in that one.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Me, Clueless (DC Statehood Edition)

Can someone explain to me why the Democrats aren't pushing for DC Statehood?

I've argued before that it's an obvious play for both substantive and (especially) pure partisan reasons, but not only are elected Democrats ignoring it, but liberal activists don't seem interested, either. Why not? Indeed, the last time that Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House, DC Statehood made it to the floor of the House (although it lost badly, with 100 Democrats defecting and only one Republican supporter; President Clinton supported statehood, although I don't think he did anything beyond announcing his support). Democrats used to support statehood in their platform, but it seems to have disappeared; I found it in the 2000 platform, but not the two most recent ones.

Hey, I can understand some reluctance in the early 1990s; Marion Barry had only recently been Mayor, and it was easy for opponents to make the case that the District was horribly governed. Of course, they would still make that case now, but it seems to me it's a far harder argument these days.

Really, I don't get it. Even if some Democrats in marginal seats might be reluctant to support statehood, liberals (and their activists allies) should be demanding it. Even the weak House-vote-only bill has been allowed to die (over a gun amendment); where's the liberal outrage over that one?

Really, if Tom DeLay was in this situation, does anyone have any doubt at all that he'd immediately ram through a measure that gave him two extra votes in the Senate? I tend to defend Democrats against accusations that they don't play the game hard enough, but in this case I think it's dead on correct.

But perhaps I'm missing something. Can anyone explain it to me?

Cover Me

Greg Sargent yesterday noticed that people apparently get that Republicans are following a rejectionist strategy, but nevertheless think that Democrats should be compromising. Matt Yglesias correctly explains that this sort of finding:
mostly re-demonstrates the familiar result that outside a fairly narrow band of questions the public doesn’t necessarily have detailed, stable, and coherent opinions. That these two views don’t really make much sense together suggests that a substantial swathe of the population just hasn’t thought these questions through very thoroughly.
He concludes, then, that all that matters is whether health care reform actually works, and that Democrats therefore shouldn't care about getting a handful of Republican votes:
A bill that’s bipartisan enough to be supported by the opposition party leadership (like TARP or to some extent the Iraq authorizing vote) probably does buy you some political cover by actively compromising your potential critics. But it’s hard to see what difference one diffident minority legislator or four or zero or two is going to make.
I think that's partially correct -- it's certainly true that mass publics don't pay much attention to procedure details -- but there's another dimension to this that Yglesias doesn't capture here. Mass publics don't have "real" (that is, well-formed and carefully considered) opinions about these things, but political elites do pay a lot of attention, and they do form opinions. And those opinions can affect the behavior of other elites, and if they're broadcast enough they can eventually affect mass opinion and behavior.

That is: people such as David Broder and David Gergen do form opinions about these things, and those opinions eventually filter down -- not in detailed form, but in the general sense, for example, that Ben Nelson is or isn't just another liberal. Moreover, even if these opinions don't filter down, pols act as if they do. So marginal Democrats are more likely to draw a strong Republican opponent if "everyone knows" that those Democrats have gone Washington and aligned themselves with a Pelosi- and Schumer- led effort, than if "everyone knows" that the marginal Democrats have pushed the bill towards the center. And the handful of Republican votes, or in lieu of that the obvious attempts to compromise, help to build that impression.

Now, it's also true that these sorts of effects, while real, are mostly around the margins, and that Members of Congress tend to be incredibly risk-averse, and therefore overreact to what are in reality fairly small threats. But that's as much the real world as are mass publics indifference to most of what goes on in Washington, so we're left with, in the real world, the search for bipartisan cover of some sort matters quite a bit.

Friday, September 25, 2009

30,000 Pounds of Something

I do the work so Yglesias and Marshall don't have to....

I haven't actually seen their comments, but I'm assuming that Rove, Hannity, and Steyn, not to mention Senators McCain and Bond, and especially Krauthammer, will now denounce Israel as a Banana Republic.

(Of course I'm being silly. Prosecuting people from the previous administration isn't sufficient to make a nation into a Banana Republic; you also have to intend to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine any day now. Really. We're not kidding.)

Don't Read That Bill

Via Sullivan, there's a lively debate over at Volokh in which David Post and Jonathan Adler are arguing that Members of Congress should in fact read every word of every bill that they vote for -- in fact, Adler goes so far as to say that Members should not only read the bill, but should also read every law (and regulation?) that the law would alter. Since I've said that such claims are "annoyingly stupid and dishonest,"I suppose I should see if they have a case.

First, Post (top of the linked page) makes a straightforward point: "you can't know what a law means unless you've read its language, and you shouldn't be voting on a law if you don't know what it means." I see no justification for the first part -- that you can't know what a law means unless you've read its language. It's true that someone has to read the language, but I see no argument here for why its insufficient for Members of Congress to hire experts to do the reading for them. Post counters that lawmaking is a primary function of Congress, and therefore "the idea that they should 'rely on experts' to do their job is pretty spectacularly wrong." But that's mistaken. People rely on expert help all the time in doing important job tasks -- you wouldn't storm out of a fancy restaurant because you found out that the Big Name Chef gets help chopping the salad. What we hire Members of Congress for is their judgment, not their expertise in legislative drafting. That's why no one ever campaigns for the House on a platform that she is an expert in understanding legal language.

Adler's argument...well, I guess I don't see an argument. First, he says (bottom of the linked page):
Since the legislator is the principal, I believe the legislator must, at the end of the day, assure him or herself that a given piece of legislation does what it is intended to do, and have some understanding of how it will achieve that end. This does not require tremendous expertise, but it does require, at a minimum, reading the bill's language (perhaps with the Ramseyer comparison already required in all House committee reports), meeting with more expert staff and, in many cases, hearing from experts.
Since the question here is whether reading the bill's language is helpful in assuring that "a given piece of legislation does what it is intended to do," then I see nothing here but an assertion that, well, it is.

Eventually, however, he argues that if Members were forced to read bills
[I]t would make it harder for narrow interests to insert favors into highly complex bills, it would tend to encourage less complex legislation, and it would also further the goals of accountability and transparency. Legislators could be held accountable more easily, and the legislative process would be more transparent because if legislators had to have time to read the bills, then the interested public is more likely to have time to read legislation as well.
OK, let's take these one by one. Would it make it harder for narrow interests to sneak things into bills? I don't see why not. Congress is responsive to the needs of narrow interests for all kinds of well-understood reasons. Political scientists may disagree about how much of this goes on and what the causes are, but I've never seen a serious argument that ignorance of Members of Congress about what they're doing is any part of it.

Would forcing Members to read bills "encourage less complex legislation"? Yes. Is that a good thing? Not at all. Anything that Congress fails to specify winds up being decided by either regulatory agencies, who are a lot less responsive to voters, or courts, which are even less responsive to voters. So requiring (or encouraging) Congress to pass short, vague bills isn't a recipe for Congress to ignore big problems; it's just a recipe for a weakening Congress within the political system.

Would forcing Members to read bills "further the goals of accountability and transparency"? On transparency, his argument is just that inserting a bit of time before floor votes would be a good the extent that this is true, the part about actually reading the bills is irrelevant. As far as accountability is concerned, Members of Congress are already accountable for their votes, and any Member foolish enough to claim that he only cast a vote one way because he didn't know what was in the bill is going to be in big trouble, regardless of what mechanism he uses to "know" the bill.

Look, Members of Congress have serious and difficult responsibilities. They need to vote on bills that require knowledge of arcane and difficult areas of public policy, of economics, of national security, and much, much more. Because they aren't going to be able to be experts in each area, they absolutely must depend on division of labor (i.e. the committee system), on delegation to staff, and (most of all) listening critically to interested groups as they make their cases for or against things. One of the most important skills a Member needs is the ability to know which things she really must understand, and which things it is safe to trust to others' understanding. The question the "read the bill" advocates need to address is what actually reading bills would add to any of that, and I'm not seeing anything in these posts that makes a serious argument for it. Why, for example, is it OK for Members to defer to CBO on how much a bill will cost, but not OK to defer to a summary of what the bill will do? Why shouldn't Members have to do the economic analysis themselves, instead of trusting CBO? Why shouldn't Members test weapons systems themselves, or survey newly proposed national parks themselves? If we are to have a functioning Congress, Members have to use experts for all sorts of things, and I'm not hearing any reason why bill language is a special case.

Bottom line: those who say they want Members of Congress to read bills have no case at all.

Are Pols Regular People?

James Fallows posts a letter from a friend of his, who suggests:
as an aside: i've long thought it would be an interesting commentary on the stratification in this society to have political candidates asked during a debate if they'd ever shopped at a wal-mart. i have to think that very few could honestly answer yes--and the higher the office the fewer the yeses. to think that a democracy's leadership class should have no connection (other than owning stock--or, in hillary clinton's case, being once on its board) to the biggest corporation in the country, how strange!
Fallows agrees that "a candidate should be asked when was the most recent time he or she enjoyed Every Day Low Prices."

I have no problem with the question -- but I think that most pols would do well on this test, although I can think of some problems with it. What we know about Members of the House is that they do, in fact, tend to be pretty comfortable within their districts, which includes doing things that normal people in their districts do.

On the other hand...Members of Congress are probably somewhat less likely to do "normal" errands for themselves than are other Americans, mainly because of the time constraints involved in keeping two households going.

The second main caveat would be that among the Maddow-watching, Kos-reading, union-supporting portion of the Democratic base, there's a major partisan aversion to Wal-Mart. I doubt if any Democratic pol is going to get into trouble because she answers that sort of question by talking about her trip to Target to get shoes for the kids last week, or how he just stocked up on beer at Costco.

And the third caveat would be that we do have quite a few very wealthy Senators, and while I would guess they are closer in their everyday activities than their wealth-and-class peers, I don't think you will find Jay Rockefeller or John McCain at any discount grocer too often.

At any rate, any pol (whether a candidate for city council or the White House) who isn't prepared to answer questions about the price of bread, milk, or gasoline -- or for that matter, the ad slogans of major retailers in the district -- isn't doing his or her homework. But as to the question of have they ever shopped at Wal-Mart? My guess is that over 80% of the House, and well over half of the Senate, could honestly answer that question with a solid yes.

Little Lost Robot

Over at the Plank, Jason Zengerle has a nice little post up about the success Romney has had in ingratiating himself with John McCain. I have to disagree with his conclusion, however:
Of course, this whole approach only seems to reenforce the most potent line of attack against Romney--namely, that he's a robotic fraud. Wouldn't it be more beneficial to Romney at this point if he demonstrated that he could nurse a grudge?
Really? I'd say the opposite -- since Romney's obviously a robotic fraud, his only chance is to convince Republicans that he's a sincere robotic fraud. The last thing they want to hear is that he has some shred of authenticity or true beliefs, because the odds seem fairly good that his true beliefs, if he had any, would likely be anathema to the Beck/Palin know-nothing portion of the party. Sure, Romney would betray them if it's in his self-interest to do so, but there's not much he can do to convince them otherwise; the much more serious charge against him would be that he intends to betray them because he wants to.

Fortunately for Romney, he's probably safe from the accusation that he has any secret agenda any larger than his own ambitions. Unfortunately for him, odds are good that Republican voters will prefer the real thing to his simulation of it, but I'd say he's doing what he can, given the situation.

I feel like this item should have something on John Edwards for balance, but I'll let it pass. Sort of.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Read Stuff, You Should

Haven't done one of these for a while, so some of this stuff is older...first, as always, what you shouldn't waste your time on. Let's go with pieces from Sunday's Week in Review. First, Frank Rich acts surprised that the rally on the mall organized and cheered on by Glenn Beck was really into...Glenn Beck. And I was less than thrilled to learn that rappers and talk radio hosts both use words, and like to rile people up -- quick, tell Bill! But the real winner was this gem of a lede from Bill Marsh:
Few were indifferent to President Obama’s cancellation last week of a plan by his predecessor to put defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles, presumably from Iran, in Eastern Europe.
Hmm....I'm guessing that millions and millions of people were indifferent. Really.

OK, on to the good stuff:

1. You might think that since you know where Sullivan stands on torture that you can skip his Letter to Bush. You would be wrong. 100% must read. (Also on torture, see Serwer)

2. I don't agree with everything that Matthew Dickinson says about Obama's speech to Congress, but he's not someone I disagree with confidently. Well worth checking out.

3. On missile defense, as usual, you want Fred Kaplan.

4. Ezra Klein is smart about Washington here.

5. On the crazy: interesting pieces from Rick Perlstein on the ACORN flap and journalism; from Conor Friedersdorf on Thatcher, Truthers, and Birthers; Seth Masket on party politics and race; and TNC on why the Cowboys are Evil and the Giants are Good...wait, my notes must be crossed -- just read TNC. Always. (But it is a good week to be a Giants fan. At least the football Giants).

OK, now, get to it...

Markup News (and What We Don't Know Yet)

Nick Beaudrot is filing some interesting posts about the continuing Finance Committee markup, including the defeat today of the Bill Nelson amendment that would have stuck it to the drug companies and financed lots of things that liberals like. Nick interprets it as evidence that the dissenting Democrats (Carper, Menendez, and Baucus) are in hock to PhRMA.

Another (and I think fairly different) possibility, however, is that what's really going on here is that Democrats are not going to break the deals that the White House cut with various key interest groups. It's not Senators paying off interest groups; it's Democrats enforcing the deals which they probably see as responsible for getting reform to the point it's at now. It sure makes sense that Team Obama would be making an effort here, but are they?

Hey, reporters! We want to know whether the White House is whipping to enforce deals with the interest groups against the instincts of liberal Senators.

Mainstream Democrats

From Ezra Klein's chat today:
Washington, D.C.: In watching the Senate Finance committee hearings, it seems like Baucus and Conrad are acting more like Democrats (despite Conrad's talk about the French health care system). Both have refuted Republican Senators' points and have called them out for peddling falsehoods and using dilatory tactics. What do you think accounts for this change in behavior?

Ezra Klein: I'm not sure it's such a change. When the attacks are coming from the left, they seem right-leaning. When they're coming from the right, left-leaning. Baucus and Conrad are moderate for Democrats, but they're still a lot more liberal than Republicans. And both of them do seem to want to pass this bill.

That's exactly correct. It's easy to get carried away, but the basic situation in the House and Senate is that every single Democrat is more liberal than any Republican. Ben Nelson votes to the left of Olympia Snowe, and there's really a very large gap between Conrad (or Baucus) and, say, Voinovich or Lugar. Indeed, one of the main differences between 1994 and 2009 is that there still were a few real southern Democrats remaining back then, notably Richard Shelby in the Senate, who did have a lot more in common with mainstream Republicans than with mainstream Democrats. Today, basically the entire Democratic party (as it exists in Congress) is all in the same "mainstream" position. They have their differences, but they all belong (ideologically at least) in the same party. The only real significant exception to that is Joe Lieberman on national security issues -- although if it's the issue you care about, then any particular position can be very significant.

Moreover, it's not as if there are no constituents out there who fall more or less where Conrad and Baucus fall. So while it's obviously painful for liberals to find that they worked real hard to get Obama elected only to find that their brand of progressives are not a clear majority and can't automatically get what they want, it's also the case that there are plenty of people who voted for Obama (and Democratic Congressional candidates) even though they aren't as liberal as Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and John Kerry. All of which is to just repeat what I always say, which is that some types of frustration are just inherent in democracies.

McCainmania, 2009 Edition

Steve Benen is all bent out of shape because the Sunday shows have John McCain on. A lot. This compares, apparently, to 2005, when the Sunday shows didn't feature John Kerry all the time. All of which has Benen really upset.

To which I'd reply: So what? Who cares?

Hey, I'm as happy to make fun of John McCain as anyone, but we're talking about the Sunday shows. Which just about no one in the real USA cares about at all, and I suspect very few inside the Beltway care about any more, either. Moreover, while I suppose people would have a right to be upset if the ideological balance of those shows was off (although I wouldn't -- I swore off the Sunday shows years ago, and haven't felt any loss from it), presumably McCain is just taking up time that otherwise would be spent on other Republicans. If anyone has a legitimate complaint, it's McConnell, or Boehner, or Romney, or whoever has been bumped to make room for McCain.

The only real thing that matters about the Sunday shows is that they are traditional venues for Washingtonians to communicate with each other through the press -- I think they're still the preferred launching site for trial balloons. If they want to fill the other 90% of the time with their favorite pet pol, more power to them.

[Update: it's not just Benen; lots of liberals are inexplicably steamed about this (TPM is giving it a prominent link, too). Go figure.]

How Little They Know

Before we all get too carried away about yesterday's big birther news -- almost two thirds of Republicans either believe Obama is foreign-born, or are not sure -- it seems to me there's at least one plausible explanation other than the conclusion that most Republicans are foaming-at-the-mouth bonkers.

Remember the overlap -- I don't have a link now, but it was several weeks ago -- between supposed birthers and people who nonetheless thought Obama was born in Hawaii? It seemed that at least a handful of Americans weren't quite sure that Hawaii was really one of the United States. I don't think that 40% of Republicans think that Hawaii is foreign. But I do wonder, after seeing results like these about the ever-appalling ignorance of the American people, whether a large chunk of supposed birthers may believe Obama is foreign-born but not think it's any big deal. That is, we're assuming that anyone who believes that Obama is foreign-born is buying into the idea that Democrats have perpetrated an elaborate conspiracy against the USA, involving decades of doctored documents and carefully developed lies. But I strongly suspect that a large chunk of the respondents in this poll don't know anything about that, or that there's a relevant Constitutional provision -- they just know that some guy named Barack Obama is President of the United States, and gosh that's a weird name, maybe he was born abroad?

Really -- we've all seen polls showing how few people know what's in the Bill of Rights, or other fundamental things about the American political system. It wouldn't surprise me at all if very large percentages of Americans didn't know that it would be a big deal indeed (legally, that is) if Obama was foreign born, and were entirely ignorant of the controversy (if that's the right word) about his birth. And with that in mind, I'd be especially wary of interpreting the "not sure" 22% of Republicans as birther fellow travelers, when they could just be clueless.

If anyone is thinking of another round of birther polling, I'd love to see questions that get to that distinction. Also, the ever-important Hawaii/United States distinction.

I'm just guess is that if we ever have a President Maria Garcia from Santa Fe, New Mexico, that we'll get a good 40% responding yes or not sure to a birther question even in a universe without Orly Taitz.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Deficit Politics

Steve Benen and Matt Yglesias are stumped by poll result Benen noticed: people seem to be far more concerned about the budget deficit than about economic growth.

I absolutely agree with them that politicians should ignore those poll results. Not just because people are wrong about economics, or that it's an illogical preference, but because I think there's an excellent chance that people have basically no idea what they're talking about when they refer to a budget deficit. I've referred before to the "ordinary citizen" who stumped George H.W. Bush with a question about how the deficit affected him personally; she seemed to think that "deficit" meant the economy. Similarly, people use metaphors about balancing checkbooks, but of course balancing a checkbook (of course? do people still balance checkbooks?) has to do with knowing how much money you actually have, not about having enough money.

Yglesias says, "I assume the real issue here is that many people are explicitly rejecting the premise of the question and just think that deficit spending aimed at boosting the economy won’t actually boost the economy." That's certainly possible, but I think it's at least as possible, and actually more likely, that people think that larger deficits have a certain, direct effect on them. I don't know; maybe people believe that stuff about how everyone is going to personally have to shell out $$$ for their share of the national debt.

At any rate, for better or worse, I don't believe that any actual candidate has ever lost an election because of the budget deficit, so I'd certainly advise pols to ignore polls to the contrary.


I'm wondering about the rhetoric that Republicans are using against health care reform. I think "government takeover" is a good attack; it's consistent with conservative ideas, and while it may not be exactly true on the merits in the sense that the government won't actually own and operate either health care delivery or insurance (other than what the government already does -- VA, Medicare, Medicaid), it is true in the sense of the Democrats establishing health care as a right that government is responsible for maintaining.

I'm much less impressed with the procedural complaints: that Members should read the bill, that the bill is too long, that the Democrats are moving too fast. I'm sure these things test well; they certainly seem to transmit successfully, since they were echoed back by Town Hall attendees, for example. I just don't see them as preaching to anyone but the converted. Today's battle cry -- screw plain English, we want lawyer-speak -- was sort of the extreme version of that. It seems to me, and granted this is speculative, that these are the sorts of things that work fine only as long as there's no counterargument. Read the bill carefully vs. don't read the bill is a winner in focus groups -- but delay vs. action is not going to be a winner, and that's the obvious reframing Democrats will make.

One thing I wonder is whether the ruthless efficiency of how information is transmitted from elites to masses on the Republican side has made them just plain lazy. When you know that whatever talking points you use will move automatically from your keyboard to Fox News commentators, radio talk show hosts, and bloggers, and from there to viewers, listeners, and readers who are eager and ready to echo them...well, it doesn't much matter what you say, as long as you say something, right? You need to keep the intermediaries happy, of course; it's not clear that Rush and Hannity would swallow accommodationist tactics even if GOP pols wanted to go there. But the actual substance probably doesn't matter a whole lot, as long as your just talking to your (self-) captive audience.

The bigger question here is about whether the type of party the Republicans have built, especially on the communications side, is actually a good idea or not. But that's a very big and difficult question, so I'll leave it aside for now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Much More Impressive

Earlier today, I bashed the Finance Committee for wasting everyone's time with boilerplate opening statements. They've kicked it into gear now. I very much recommend to anyone who is interested in policy and politics to watch a few minutes. It's not always good -- there's still a fair amount of repetitive speechifying -- but if you're never watched laws get made, it's a real good introduction.

At least, I think it is. I'd be real interested in finding out the reactions of people who are interested enough in the outcome to be tempted to watch, but who have no real training in the issues or in legislative procedure (if anyone who feels like they're in that category and is reading this wants to give it a try, please leave a comment!).

It seems to me that CSPAN's ratio of hearings to markups has always been heavily in favor of hearings; basically, I don't remember seeing too many markups at all on CSPAN. So I'm glad they're showing this one -- I've always found most Congressional hearings plenty dull, whether I've been watching in person or on TV -- but markups are almost always interesting, and I've always thought you learn a lot more about the quality of Members of Congress from markups than from anything else, or at least anything else you're going to get to see.

Dogs, Not Barking

Plenty of new readers, so I'll add the explanation that this is a continuing item about stories that haven't been in the news, and are therefore interesting.

But first, an update. The last dogs, not barking had an item about the surprising lack of Bush administration scandals uncovered so far this year. That was a couple weeks before this LA Times story about an investigation into possible corruption in the Bush Interior Department. Hey, I'm not predicting that the dogs will stay silent! The other two items that time (Palin's other shoe not dropping and Biden's test not occurring) are still safe, for now.

On to the new items:

1. There's a lot of buzz about 1994 and Democratic disaster. What hasn't happened so far are retirements. While a bunch of Republican Senators are retiring, so far the Democrats who are leaving the House are doing so in order to move up: Sestak in Pennsylvania, Hodes in New Hampshire, Abercrombie in Hawaii, Melancon in Louisiana. It's of course still early, but not too early for this to be worth noting.

2. There hasn't been a gas price spike this year.

3. And, running item, still no action on Fairness Doctrine. Hey, when Biden talked about the future agenda yesterday, you think maybe that's what he was talking about? If the Democrats survive the 2010 cycle, then they'll be repealing the Fairness Doctrine once a day and twice on Sundays all through 2011. Bonus dogs, not barking item: I don't think Biden's speech counts as a gaffe, which means he's really gone an awful long time without one.

Shot With His Own Gun

Jonathan Cohn wonders this morning whether Republicans could be making a big mistake by following the rejectionist model of 1993-1994 rather than trying to cut the best deal. Similarly, Matt Yglesias wondered recently whether Republicans rejectionist strategy on the economy (including blaming Obama for Bush's policies in 2008) isn't apt to be a problem for the GOP once the economy improves.

The problem here, however, is that the Republicans are increasingly playing inside their own little bubble. Remember that very few people vote in primary elections -- and that those who do vote in primary elections tend to be the most rabid and intense partisans. That's true of presidential primaries; it's even more the case for congressional primaries. Normally, those people are also the best informed, but "best informed" for Republicans these days more often than not means that they watch lots and lots of Fox News and listen to lots and lots of talk radio.

On the economy, near as I can tell, what most Republican primary voters will believe is something like this: after a recession in 2001 that was the fault of Bill Clinton and the September 11 terrorist attacks, the economy then boomed thanks to the Bush tax cuts. It faltered because Chris Dodd got a cheap loan and a bunch of poor people who shouldn't have owned houses took advantage of a Clinton program (or Carter program, or someone -- certainly the Dems), and then went into a recession thanks to Obama Bailouts and deficit spending, and it hasn't emerged from that recession yet.

That most people don't think of things quite that way won't matter, because most people don't vote in Republican primaries.

On health care, it's safe to predict (if the bill passes) that even though few provisions will go into effect before the 2010 and 2012 election, Obama and the Democrats will totally own health care, at least for high-information GOP primary voters. We can expect lots of medical horror stories (true ones -- there are always true medical horror stories) that are attributed to Obamacare. On top of that, there will be death panels; not real ones, of course, but newly invented scary future effects of the newly passed bill. Any Republican who cut a deal and voted for that bill will be risking the blame, along with all Democrats, for every medical horror story that happens for the rest of their careers, but especially over the next couple election cycles (I should note that Republicans are hardly alone in that; for the past forty years Democrats have pinned all medical horror stories on reform-blocking GOP candidates. The special genius of the 2010 and 2012 cycles is that the responsibility will flip, at least for GOP primary voters, even though reform won't yet be implemented).

And the worst part is that GOP leaders almost certainly don't control the crazy. Rush, Beck, and the rest of the gang have a major (financial) incentive to play to the most extreme fears of their audience, and it's really not clear what if anything the candidates and elected officials could do to get them to go along with an accommodationist strategy even if that's what they wanted. It's safe to say that no one is going to turn to talk radio to hear how brilliant Olympia Snowe is for getting a slightly-less-bad bill (from a conservative point of view). Not when there are death panels and racial rationing to be bandied about.

That's what Republican candidates are up against. It's hardly surprising that most of them find it safest to stick with rejectionist strategies. But it really isn't a safe path back to a majority, once they enter the wider world of general elections.

Health Care Collective Action Problem

No, not any of the obvious policy or political ones that you know about. I'm talking about the mind-numbing exercise going on right now in Baucus's committee. I flipped on the TV this morning, thinking I'd watch a few minutes of the markup, only to find that they're giving opening speeches. Long opening speeches. Long, long, long opening speeches. Grassley -- that noted orator -- was on when I first tuned in, so I didn't watch at all, but when I checked in next it was Olympia Snowe. Now, we all know how important Snowe is right now, so I decided to stop by for a couple of minutes, but all I got for my trouble was a bunch of boilerplate that told me nothing at all about, well, anything.

Hmmm....I was going to write more about it, but really, it just was the most dull thing you're ever going to see, and a total waste of the Senators' time. Hey Senators: Get on with it!

Good Reporting

Excellent idea from TNR's Jonathan Cohn. He's put together a solid panel of experts (academics Jacob Hacker and David Cutler, budget & policy expert Robert Greenstein, economist Henry Aaron, the SEIU's Andy Stern, etc.) to rate each of the health plans out there right now. Basically, he's trying to rate them on Obama's own terms, rather than on some ideal scale -- the question is whether the bills would actually achieve the president's stated goals. Each bill gets rated on security, cost, and quality, and then put on a 10-point "Truman" scale. He kicks it off with the Baucus mark, which gets a 6.1.

Best promised feature: he's going to have the panel also rate the status quo.

Biggest drawback: because he's deliberately stacked the thing in favor of Obama's general approach, he won't be able to rate Republican substitutes or, for that matter, single-payer alternatives. If he winds up doing that anyway, I'd suggest taking the results with an extra grain of salt.

My suggestion: he should have included a fourth factor indicating how adaptable the bills would be to future changes. There's a big difference, for example, between something that could be improved through the appropriations process and something that would require establishing new agencies to fix what's wrong.

Now, granted, you're going to be better off studying the plans carefully if you really want to understand them, and barring that you're going to be better off studying what Cohn and Ezra Klein and the other wonks say about the plans than just relying on Cohn's magic number. But since most of us aren't going to do that but still would like to be able to compare, say, the HELP bill and the Baucus mark, I'm all in favor of this sort of thing. Good gimmick, Jonathan Cohn!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Movies Post

What's the best ever TV show about the politics of governing in a democracy?

Well, I'm not sure I can give a conclusive answer...I haven't watched The Wire (I know, I know) yet. There's some bits of BSG that are awfully good. At it's best, The West Wing had good stuff about governing, although it was overwhelmed by Mr. Smithism, by annoyingly knee-jerk politics, and just too much soap opera junk (even if then it was saved by a terrific cast).

But the best sitcom about governing? No question at all about that: it's Yes, Minister.

Again, I have no idea how well-watched this show is (here in the US; I pretty much assume that all the Brits watched it back when it was on). After its run on PBS, it comes and goes according to the whims of PBS and A&E programmers, whose ways cannot be fathomed by mere mortals. It is available on DVD.

So: first, it's just a terrific comedy. The players -- mainly Paul Eddington as the insecure but ambitious James Hacker, Derek Fowlds as the punning "young" bureaucrat Bernard, and the wonderful Nigel Hawthorne as the consummate bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey -- are superb. The comic writing is first-rate. I think that it took them a few episodes to get it down right, and I think they pretty much ran out of steam for the final sixteen (Yes, Prime Minister) episodes, but the bulk of the original 22 are outstanding. As a sitcom alone, it's a clear Hall of Famer -- not quite, I don't think, in the very elite of workplace sitcoms (Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show, News Radio), but certainly in the next tier.

And, miraculously, they get the politics right. They understand (and show) how politicians and bureaucrats fight -- with leaks, with public statements, by commissioning rigged reports and through misdirection. What's best about it is that neither Hacker nor Humphrey is the bad guy. They both are, in their own way, well-intentioned. Hacker means well, and can't help it that he's incredibly craven and not nearly as knowledgeable about how things actually work as the bureaucrats are, but he actually does mean well. And Humphrey, although at least for me it took several episodes to see it, really does mean well too; he's totally convinced that if government was left to the bumbling politicians then the empire would have fallen long ago. It works because Hacker really is bumbling; of course, at the same time, he's never quite able to square the circle of how the empire fell despite the bureaucrats running everything. Here, the deadening influence of Mr. Smith is nowhere to be found; neither of the lead characters is pure hero or pure bad guy, and if you get that part right then your chances of getting politics right go up quite a lot.

So: Yes, Minister, highest recommend. If you want to skip around, the one not to miss is the opener for the second series, "The Compassionate Society," featuring the hospital open fifteen months with no patients but 500 hard-working administrators. But really, they're all excellent.

Actual News (Perhaps) on Health Care

I read the people who read the amendments so you don't have to:

In a long and interesting post about the amendments filed by Finance Committee Democrats to the Baucus bill, Nick Beaudrot over at Donkeylicious has this to say:
It should be noted that most of the amendments offered by Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln tended to improve the bill (his emphasis).
Nick's a liberal; "tended to improve" is from a liberal perspective. But what's really important here is the indication that Nelson and Lincoln actually want a bill. These two Senators are terribly important; if you told me now that Nelson and Lincoln are willing to vote for a bill that, say, Rockefeller would also vote for, I'd say that health care is going to pass with at least 60 votes. Given Ezra's optimistic take on Snowe's amendments, and I'd make that 61 (and I still think that once it gets to 61 it may well get to 63 or 64).

Lots of details still to go, and the margin is thin enough that anyone could get bent out of shape by some seemingly minor provision and throw a monkey wrench into the whole deal, but I consider this all very good news for those who want to see a significant bill pass. Specifically, if Nelson, Lincoln, and Snowe have some flexibility to vote for a bill somewhat more liberal than Baucus's mark, the bill may be less vulnerable than I feared to (liberal) killer amendments. It may instead be the case that all sixty Dems (and Snowe) prefer a wide range of bills to inaction, in which case we're very, very likely to get a bill signed into law.

(For those more interested in the substance of the thing than the politics, you're just going to have to go through the extremely informative posts linked to above).


In response to Jay Rockefeller's comment that Republicans enforce party discipline in the Senate while Democrats don't, and that Rockefeller prefers the Democrats' style, Matt Yglesias says:
This is a recipe for endless progressive frustration. If the more progressive political party is deliberately organized so as to be less effective as a caucus than the more conservative political party, then it’ll always be very hard to enact progressive legislation. And if even the members who are fully aware of this dynamic and who don’t like its consequences nonetheless support maintaining the status quo because it maximizes their personal self-interest, then we’re a long way from changing things.
But of course that's not the case at all: in fact, Congress is very close to changing things -- health care reform is very likely to pass this year.

And part of the reason for that is that the Republicans booted away seats in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania because they insist on strict discipline, while Democrats retained Joe Lieberman despite about as much provocation as one can imagine. The results? Arlen Specter now behaves like a mainstream Democrat instead of like a swing vote, and Joe Lieberman still votes mostly with the marginal Democrats on issues outside of foreign affairs, instead of shifting over to where mainstream Republicans are.

It's obviously a mistake to assume that just because you're winning it must be the case that you're winning because your strategy is correct, but I do think it's odd that so many liberals believe that the correct response to winning is to adopt the losers' strategy.

Off-Season Veepstakes!

Andrew Gelman has a post up about Vice Presidents as punchlines, and tries to figure out why. The main thing that he omits from his speculation is that even Vice Presidents who were absolutely serious people were punchlines as Vice Presidents, as Tom Lehrer makes clear (from 1965: "I wonder how many people here tonight remember Hubert Humphrey? He used to be a Senator..."). Lyndon Johnson was no one's patsy, but he was just a punchline from January 1961 until Dallas. So while Andrew lists Biden as a punchline, and that's true as far as it goes, I don't think that Biden was a liability in the campaign or in office.

What I'm more interested in is the set of lists that goes like this:

List A: Eagleton, Shriver, Dole, Ferraro, Quayle, Lieberman, Palin
List B: Mondale, (George H.W.) Bush, Bentsen, Gore, Kemp, Edwards, Biden

List B are Vice Presidential nominees who had previously run for president, at least a little; List A are those nominees who had not run for president before their selection for the #2 spot (I think Cheney goes in List A, but it's a close call; he had at least flirted with running for president, and had far better qualifications for high office than anyone on List A).

I suppose a more serious study would be necessary, but just on quick inspection there sure seems to be an enormous gap between the two lists, no? I think everyone on List B was regarded as a decent pick; there certainly are no wash-outs. List A, on the other hand, is a disaster area. The contrast is even stronger if we recall that Edwards wasn't the joke in 2004 that he became in 2008, with (as far as we know so far) his affair still in the future, and if we recall that Dole was largely perceived as a disaster in 1976 -- the impressive portion of his Senate career was largely in the future at that point.

I wouldn't try to push the analysis earlier than the reforms of the presidential nomination process before 1972 and the onset of newer media norms between 1960 and 1980, but I will mention that Nixon and Agnew (List A) were a lot less successful as Veeps than were Johnson and Humphrey (List B). If anyone wants to do an empirical study, I'd suggest checking for the word "dump" with the various nominees. I think you would come up positive for most of List A, and negative for everyone on List B.

No question in my mind: if a presidential nominee asked me for advise about Vice, I'd tell him or her to make a short list limited to people who survived a presidential campaign with their reputations intact. Anything else is asking for trouble.

Liberals: Still Not Losing

Some really good stuff today from Jon Chait and Ezra Klein on the state of the health care reform effort. First, Chait:
Health care, alas, seems to be following the same track. My liberal friends seem convinced either that Congress will reject health care reform, or that it will pass a meaningless palliative. The main exception among this admittedly unrepresentative sample consists of liberals who study health care reform for a living and those (like me) who regularly communicate with them. These wonks (and wonk acquaintances) all think Obama will sign a historic health care bill. Sadly, the wonk cohort is starkly outnumbered.
I think Chait is right that liberals have been unduly harsh about the stimulus, and as Ezra points out liberals are unduly pessimistic about passage of a significant health care bill. Part of this is that, as Chait points out, liberals actually involved in the negotiations have an incentive to denounce the compromises made with more moderate Democrats, because they want to keep pushing the bill in their direction.
That's not the only reason, however. I suspect a lot of Democrats are simply convinced, after sixty or so years of failure, that health care reform just won't ever really happen. Other Democrats, I think, misunderstand the lessons of 2001-2003. There's a sense that marginal Democrats caved to Bush and let him win on taxes and Iraq back then, and so marginal Democrats are not to be trusted, and will eventually sink health care reform now. But that's not really a good reading of 2001-2003 (marginal Dems mostly hopped on a bandwagon that was leaving town with or without them, rather than "letting" Bush win, among other things), and it's not clear what implications it has for 2009 and health care.
Yet another reason is that liberals don't understand what happened in 1994 (Ezra is right on the money about this; I haven't yet read his longer piece that he links to, but anyone who talks about Ira Magaziner is definitely on the right track, IMO).

One of the things that fools people about 1993-1994 is that on the surface, the numbers look very similar -- the Democrats had 57 Senators in January 1993, compared with 58 in January 2009 -- but by fall, the numbers had shifted to 56 in 1993 and 60 (once Kennedy's replacement is seated) in 2009. Moreover, while Ben Nelson is certainly not very liberal, he's much more of a "real" Democrat than was Richard Shelby, who pretty much voted like a conservative Republican even before he switched parties after the 1994 elections. There's just a tremendous difference between having 56 Democrats -- including Shelby and another future party-switcher, Ben Nighthorse Campbell -- and having 60 Democrats. That's easy to see in the difference between the stimulus package this year, which passed with 61 votes (without Al Franken, a solid liberal vote for health care) and the Clinton budget package, which squeaked by with 50. Granted, there are a number of differences between the bills, but there are more differences between the two Senates.

All of which is to say that, as we get ready for Senate Finance's markup, I agree with Ezra and Jon that things look pretty good for passage of a very significant bill.

60 vs. 50

L'Shana Tovah again, (and the [baseball] Giants season, alas) is over, and I'm catching up.

Starting with this post from Mark Kleiman, who says:
3. Basic negotiation theory starts with the question, “What happens if there isn’t a bargain? How good or bad is that for each side? In jargon, what is each side’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA)? The worse the BATNA, the stronger the need for a deal, and the weaker the bargaining position.

4. Right now, the good guys want a bill and the bad guys don’t want a bill. It’s hard to imagine any bill that’s better for Mitch McConnell than no bill. So the obvious outcome of bargaining is no deal, or a very, very bad deal for the Democrats.

But that's not what's been going on. The main thing to understand is that Mitch McConnell isn't part of the bargaining -- and neither were Grassley or Enzi, appearances notwithstanding.

The negotiations that have been going on in the Senate from the start are between liberal Democrats, marginal Democrats, and Olympia Snowe.

And the tricky part for getting a bill passed (which I think all sixty-one of those Senators want) is that the political incentives of the marginal Democrats are to avoid supporting a Democrats-only bill, but the GOP rejectionist strategy means that a Democrats-only bill is the only one available. So there's been a major incentive for Democrats to demonstrate as clearly as possible that they are open to a bipartisan bill, even though everyone "knows" that it ain't gonna happen.

On top of that, there are real differences (on both substance and procedure) between liberal Democrats and marginal Democrats in the Senate. Liberals may not like that, but Ben Nelson isn't just a fraidy cat; he really does have different preferences.

Mark wonders why reconciliation isn't an obvious path. The answer is that reconciliation, while totally legitimate in one sense, would certainly be seen as a partisan move, and there are a lot of Democrats who wouldn't be happy about being the 50th vote for a bill opposed by all 40 Republicans and 10 moderate Democrats. Indeed, because there's very little separating the, oh, 43rd most liberal and the 58th most liberal Democrat, it may well be about as easy getting to 60 as it is getting to 50.

So the current strategy is driven mainly by the distribution of votes in the Senate. That doesn't mean that Obama, or Reid, or Baucus is always following the best possible negotiating strategy, but only that a good critique has to start with recognizing who the real players are in this negotiation.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday baseball post (and etc.)

I usually do these while listening to the Giants game, but I'll be shut down for the holiday by then, so I'll just hit a quick baseball note, a couple other things, and wish all those celebrating L'Shana Tovah:

Baseball item: Does anyone know why teams are using the disabled list this September? Normally, the (15 day) list stops functioning after rosters expand on September 1, but not this year. Granted, not an earth-shaking issue, but I'm curious nonetheless.

Baseball item: Speaking of which, it sure seems to me that non-contenders are shutting down more players than ever this year. It makes sense for non-contenders to be risk-averse, but I think they're a lot more aggressive about this than they used to be. I have no data, though, so I could easily be wrong.

Non-baseball item: Star Tours II? Finally. Excellent news.

Non-baseball item: I'm a big fan of all goofy and/or eccentric candidates. Glad to see them coming out of the woodwork.

Baseball item: It's do you wind up with your injured, no-hit SS having a key 9th inning PA? Even worse, while the one that bothered me was (natch) the Giants on Thursday night, I saw the Red Sox do the same earlier in the week, and I bet three or four other teams did it, too. 15th inning, sure; 9th inning, it just shouldn't happen.

And with that, I'm gone until sundown on Sunday. Rosh Hashanah isn't my favorite holiday, but the food is excellent -- hope yours is as good as what I'll be eating!

Getting to 60 (Hey, Reporters, We Have Questions)

OK, reporters, here's what we want to know about health care:

Is the bargaining going on now one-dimensional, or not?

What I mean is that there's a tendency to think of bills as sitting on a liberal/conservative single dimension. Make Ben Nelson happier, and you make Jay Rockefeller less happy. If that's the case, then the question is whether there exists a sweet spot that both liberals and moderates can live with, and how good a job the leadership (Baucus, Reid, Waxman, Pelosi, Obama, etc.) are doing at finding that spot.

But that might not be true. As I read Ezra Klein's excellent interviews with Rockefeller and Wyden, and the NYT interview with Snowe, the sense I get is less a question of ideology and more a case of idiosyncratic Senators with potentially non-conflicting demands. Maybe. If that's the case, may Wyden happier, and Ben Nelson might not care at all as long as whatever he cares about isn't affected. That story isn't necessarily a better one for reaching 60 votes, since deadlocks between any two Senators over some seemingly small provision could sink the bill, but it is a different story than the one about left/right conflict.

Reading these interviews and other coverage, I'm really not sure which of these stories is correct. Overall, I get the sense that the policy experts (such as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn) need a little help here from Capitol Hill reporters (again, I thought Ezra's interviews were very good, but where are the Hill beat reporters?).

Frustration and Baucus

I've talked before about two types of democratic frustration. Type one is when you lose, even though it sure seems like you have lots of people on your side. Type two is when, despite winning elections, you don't always get what you want. That can happen even in majoritarian systems, but it is particularly common in the US anti-majoritarian, Madisonian system.

Well, type one was on display on the Mall last weekend, but type two is all over the place right now. Everyone is upset with Max Baucus. John Dickerson, in Slate, says that people should be upset with the president, not with Baucus.

But the truth is that efforts to pinpoint blame on someone miss the real point, which is that the rules of the game are that any major legislation is going to be subject to a filibuster, that it takes sixty votes to beat that, and that the 60th most liberal Senator is Ben Nelson. And that on specific provisions, the 60th most liberal Senator might be Kent Conrad, or Evan Bayh, or one of seven or eight other Democrats -- most of whom come from states that voted for John McCain. And there are enough of that last group that a 50 vote reconciliation path to a pure liberal bill isn't available, either.

Now, it's fair game to attack individuals for the inconsistency of their centrist positions, but those positions, however illogical, are what Obama (and Baucus) have to work with.

It's just going to be hard going. I'm not saying that Baucus, or Obama, is necessarily following the best strategy, but any winning path has to take account of the reality of people such as Nelson, Conrad, and Bayh, none of whom is the fault of the committee system, the chair of any particular committee, the Senate Majority Leader, or the president.

In other words, most of what we're hearing is type two democratic frustration, not analysis. Just as most the implausibly desperate attempts to inflate the numbers of the Beck march were type one democratic frustration.

Nut Cracking

I can't say I care much about ACORN either way, but I will make one rather obvious prediction: there will be copycat video ambush squads trying to take down other liberal organizations (Planned Parenthood seems like the obvious target), and opposite-side groups trying to take down conservative organizations. Hmm...I seem to recall that there have been similar "sting" operations against PP in the past, but not ones that I remember propogated by viral videos...there are going to be a lot more of them now. A lot more.

And we'll get successful stunts, with people losing their jobs and organizations taking hits. Some of those will be undeserved -- it's pretty easy to edit video to tell a story that you want, and there's plenty of partisan media on both sides to accept stories that advance their cause. Some of it will be deserved. We're going to get some poor sap at a conservative organization agreeing to all kinds of wacko racist stuff (quotes from Mein Kampf, anyone?), and some poor sap at a PP office agreeing to wacko eugenics stuff. Some of it may turn out to be entirely fraudulent. But it's certainly coming.

Politicians have been preparing for video ambushes since "macaca." Now it's time for receptionists, caseworkers, and others to get ready. Oh, and reporters might want to put in some thought about how they're going to deal with these things as they bubble up through the system.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Post-Presidential Reputation & Jimmy Carter

Greg Sargent flags a poll that gives Jimmy Carter high marks for his post-presidential career, saying:
[T]he numbers are noteworthy, because even before this week, Carter has generally been assumed by some Dems to be terrifyingly controversial, largely because of his writings on the Middle East.

With the focus on the Mideast heating up again, Carter will likely be making more news, and the Obama administration will likely be distancing itself from him again, as it did yesterday. Worth recalling that the public doesn’t take all that dim a view of the stuff he’s done since leaving the White House.

I don' t think that's a reasonable interpretation of the poll, however. Carter is one of four modern presidents who have benefited from a strong post-presidential reputation campaign. Well, one of the four, Nixon, didn't benefit very much from what was, in his case, largely a one-man operation. The two big success stories were the two organized by others on behalf of Presidents Reagan and Kennedy. Both presidents, as a result, are pretty significantly overrated in polls about past presidents (here's a good sampling).

The fourth story is Carter's. Carter, like Nixon, has pretty much run a one-man operation to improve his reputation. But Carter's "new" reputation is almost entirely separated from his presidency, and I think, almost entirely separated from issues of public policy. When people say they approve of Carter's post-presidency, I think it's almost certainly the case that they are thinking about building houses, serving as an election observer, and perhaps writing books of poetry and religious belief. I very much doubt that the first thing that comes to mind for very many people is Carter's views on Palestinians. They see good works, not good policy -- in fact, people still (correctly; I guess I should add a IMO) think he was a dud as a president.

Bottom line? I think Democrats would be well-advised to continue to keep as much distance from Carter as possible.

[Update]: Matt Yglesias makes a good point about this, too, plus he has a way better post title than I do.

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