Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Everyone Hates Congress. Always. Always.

I haven't had a chance to comment yet about Ezra Klein's Big Think Piece about Congress in this week's Newsweek.  Longtime readers will know that I'm a big fan of Klein's work, but I'm not really a big fan of this article.  Sometime soon I want to take on some of the substance, but right now I just want to comment on his framing of the issue, which depends on the idea that (1) people hate Congress right now, and (2) Evan Bayh is retiring because he's frustrated with how things work in Congress.  On top of that, we have Mark Schmitt today complaining now about the "legislative giants of an earlier era" and how they got things done because they felt entitled to rule.  Klein, meanwhile, claims that "Congress used to function despite its extraordinary minority protections because the two parties were ideologically diverse."

I'm sorry, but all of that is nonsense.

1.  People always hate Congress.  Mark Twain hated Congress.  Will Rogers hated Congress.  Johnny Carson hated Congress.  Jay Leno hates Congress, and I suppose the disembodied head of Jay Leno will be hating Congress decades into the future.  That Congress is unpopular is about as remarkable as a Joss Whedon show getting lousy ratings on network TV.

2. Members of Congress are always retiring and saying that they're frustrated by the legislative process.  As Hibbing and Theiss-Morse said fifteen years ago, "It is now common practice, both for those retiring from Congress and for those staying, to complain about the hectic pace, the difficulty of passing legislation, the lack of comity among members, shrill demands from the people, the demanding interest groups, the intrusive media, and the byzantine, balkanized legislative process."  That's not because of recent developments in the Senate; it's because it's frustrating to be one of 100 (or 435), not to mention that there's another House of Congress, and then the president.  But, Evan Bayh notwithstanding, this isn't a particularly high-retirement era.  There are quite a few Senate retirements this cycle, but a lot of those are GOP retirements probably having more to do with being part of a seemingly long-term minority than they are about any new frustration with the way the Senate works.  And House retirements are not high. 

3. Congress rarely functions efficiently..  Yes, the Democrats did manage to pass a lot of stuff in 1964-1965, and generally that kicked off a decade in which lots of things passed...but that's an exception, not the rule.  Before that, there was about fifteen years of bitter stalemate.  A year into the Kennedy presidency, many liberals were certain that American government was outdated and couldn't possibly work without massive, Constitution-changing, reform.  The big difference between now and then is that now Congress actually is passing lots of stuff.  That doesn't mean that reform is inherently a bad idea, but it's simply not true that Congress is more gridlocked now than it was, say, in 1937-1963.  In fact, it's a lot less gridlocked.

4.  Did I mention that everyone always hates Congress?  One of the most well-known articles by a political scientist was Richard Fenno's explanation of why everyone hates Congress but likes their own Member of Congress.  Two things about that: it was written in 1972, which presumably was the era of Schmitt's "legislative giants," and it was written in response to Ralph Nader's claim that Congress was the "broken branch."  This within a few years of the modern Congressional Golden Age of 1964-1965.  Everyone always hates Congress.  They hate it a bit more this year, because people hate Congress even more than usual during bad times, but basically everyone always hates Congress.

None of which is to say that Congress is or isn't in need of reform.  But please don't tell me that Congress needs reform because people don't like it, that Members slam it on the way out (or while running for re-election by running against Congress, another thing that Fenno knew thirty years ago), or that some bygone Golden Age dwarfs the current body -- I'll take Henry Waxman and health care reform against most Members, and most years, or even decades, from the past.  If one thinks that Congress needs reform, one needs a better case than that. 

Cheap Shot of the Day

(UPDATED below with a link you'll want to go to)

Ezra Klein flags this Shelby Steele column, tweeting that "[t]his might be the worst op-ed I've ever read" and then posting a perfect take-down.  But he skipped over the funniest part:
Reagan came into office as a very well-defined man with an unequivocal sense of direction. Agree with him or not, you knew what kind of society he wanted. Mr. Obama, despite his new resolve, remains rather undefined—a president happy to have others write his "transformative" legislation. 
Hey, Reagan was mischaracterized as a moron, sure -- but are we now supposed to believe that he wrote his own legislation?   That he had a firm grasp on details?  That Phil Hartman had it right, in the famous SNL sketch?  Hey, Shelby Steele -- did you ever actually watch a Reagan press conference?  Could you imagine Reagan holding a C-SPAN summit with Rosty and Moynihan and Tip O'Neill grilling him on on his major 1981 initiatives? 

C'mon.  To tell the truth, what Steele says about Obama, that he "may literally experience [him]self as a myth in the making," may or may not be true about the current president, but is surely true about Ronald Reagan, as Garry Wills memorably described him in Reagan's America.  At any rate, Reagan had his strengths as a politician, but "didn't delegate writing legislation" obviously wasn't one of them; in fact, one of George W. Bush's selling points way back when was that good presidents set general goals and then let others carry them out.

To the Klein implies, no one needs to explain why a Democrat elected president in 2008 tried to achieve universal health care.  Any possible Democratic nominee would have had the same position.

(UPDATE:  I am so not worthy...Adam Serwer totally nails this topic.  By the way, I should be clear -- I'm the one taking the cheap shot, either at Steele or Reagan or both).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


John Holbo (via Ezra) has a theoretical post asserting that a unified party will have two advantages over a less-unified party.  First, they will, all things equal, obviously win more often, since they will have fewer people defecting (he's talking about parties in the legislative sphere, but of course the same logic holds at the voting booth).  True enough.  He also says that the less-unified, or "Bipartisan" party:
...will have an ongoing optics problem. All the proposals of the Partisan Party will be bipartisan. That is, a few members of the other party will, predictably, peel off and cross the aisle to stands with the Partisans. None of the proposals of the Bipartisan Party, on the other hand, will ever be bipartisan...Result: the Partisan party, thanks to its unremitting opposition to bipartisanship, will be able to present itself as the party of bipartisanship, and be able to critique the Bipartisan Party, with considerable force and conviction, as the hypocritically hyperpartisan party of pure partisanship.
Again, I'd say -- true enough.  I'd add yet another problem for the less-unified party; they will constantly be facing stories about how disorganized they are.  But both parties will have to fight hard to keep their marginal voters in line (it's just a different set of marginals; the unified party will be dealing with the last one or two potential dissenters, while the less-unified party will be dealing with).

But wait!  Did you notice that little "all things equal" I stuck in above?  All things, it will readily be apparent, are not equal.  Parties cannot be simply "unified" in the abstract.  Parties are going to behave more unified, over the long run, if they actually are more unified -- that is, if they fundamentally agree on things.  In the short run, of course, a particularly effective leader might make a bit of difference, but over time, a more diverse party is going to act as if it was more diverse.  But that doesn't mean it is destined to lose.  In fact, the unified party is, and again all things equal, destined to be the smaller of the two parties.  After all, the diverse party can fight for practically any constituency, while the unified party -- in order to stay unified -- must surrender any constituencies who oppose the principles or issues around which it unites.

You might ask, then: can't that yield a death spiral in which the unified party constantly narrows itself, purging those who were formerly considered loyal but now are on the fringes of the (ever-shrinking) party mainstream?  Ah, here we're on ground that I've covered before, but it's worth going over again because it's potentially very important.  It shouldn't, because of the electoral incentive.  Normal parties want to win.  In fact, one way of looking at democracy is that its an ingenious system for coordinating incentives of self-interested individuals for the public good through the electoral incentive.  See, in a normal situation, everyone within a party wants to win elections.  Politicians and those who want to serve on their staffs want to win because their careers depend on it directly: they need to win to be employed.  Electioneering professionals want to win because it helps their reputations, which means more and more lucrative future clients.  Party-associated interest groups want to win in order for their policy demands to be satisfied.  Even "purist" activists, who may choose pure stances on issues of public policy over victory, still prefer winning to losing, even if it might not be their highest priority.  As long as winning is more important than party unity, then, there's no real danger of a death spiral.  A party at risk of losing elections will give up unity as a strategy if it is costing them seats.

The problem for the GOP right now, as I and others have said, is that it's not clear that the electoral incentive applies.  Important portions of the Republican network appear to have an incentive to be in the minority, because it's good for book sales, TV and radio ratings, and page views.  Others may find that its just as lucrative, if not more so, to organize Tea Party protesters than it is to organize winning electoral campaigns.  Even candidates may not be fully dedicated to winning if they know there's a very soft landing available to them as lobbyists, or as Fox News contributors.

OK, back to the effects of unity, and moving into more speculative material.  Interest groups, one would think, still have an incentive for their party to win.  That's why I've been so interested in the defection of doctors and groups during the health care fight.  If Republicans would prefer symbolic victories over actually affecting policy, it seems to me that their associated interest groups may well defect to the Democrats; better to fight for policy as a minority faction in the majority party than to control the issue positions of the minority party if it is truly a minority party, not just the (temporary) out-party.  But at the same time, the "unity" party may well gravitate anyway to purely symbolic issues over substantive issues, since its easier to unite against flag burning or for a balanced budget (in the abstract, as in a balanced budget amendment) than it is to unite over complex policy, which tends to have winners and losers.  It certainly is my impression that Republicans are relatively more interested in symbolic issues than are the Democrats, but that's really just a guess -- one could, however, go through party platforms or some such exercise to check on it, but I'm not going to, at least this week.

Last thing: what all this suggests is that "unity" might well be best seen in the abstract not as a potentially good strategy, but as an effect of a party that is shrinking, especially a party that is shrinking because it has become dangerously divorced from normal electoral incentives.  Is that what's actually happening to the Republicans right now?  I don't know!  I do think, however, that it's rapidly becoming probably the biggest current question worth exploring in the empirical or theoretical study of American political parties.  I am sure, however, that against that possibility, the "optics" (man I hate that word) of partisanship and bipartisanship is not at all important.

(Update: small edit for a collapsed sentence.  Gotta stop posting while sleepy!).


My best wishes for a great holiday to those celebrating various things this week.  As for me, Passover is my favorite holiday of the year, so I'm in good spirits. 

Between the Seders at the beginning of the week, and the Western Political Science Association meetings later in the week, and the Todd Burns League roto draft on the weekend, I'm afraid posting will be on the light side for a bit.  By Monday, things should be back to normal (and as usual we have a couple of openings in the league, so email me if you might be interested). 

Also, thanks to everyone (and especially Andrew) for the record traffic here at Plain Blog.  Hope you stick around!  Health care may be law, but its an election year, and we're apt to have a Supreme Court nomination soon, and there's still a large legislative agenda, plus implementation of all the things that have passed so far.  And Afghanistan.  And Iraq.  And the crazy -- just this morning, I heard a C-SPAN called go on about how Obama is nothing without his teleprompter...sorry, Fallows.   And all the things we don't know about yet.  I suspect there's going to be plenty of stuff to talk about.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Research Alert: 2008 Election

Just a quick item to alert everyone who doesn't regularly read the Monkey Cage (and shame on you!) that John Sides is running a series of items this week highlighting new research on the 2008 election.  First one here: Arthur Lupia throws a little cold water on the idea that new voters decided the election, finding that Bush -> Obama switchers were sufficient to give Obama the presidency.  Original article here (pdf).

One of the things about political science research is that it tends to run on its own timetable, which may or may not be convenient for, well, anyone else.  Not because political scientists lack interest in the real world of contemporary politics, but just because when you are doing research it tends to follow its own logic (not to mention the schedules of the academic year and academic journals).  For example, the thing that I'm working on right now uses data from the Eisenhower to Obama administrations, but what looks as if it's going to be really interesting out of it is about party changes, and their effects on the presidency, in the 1970s and early 1980s.  You may ask: why didn't someone do that study then, when it was happening?  But not only were the data not yet available (one couldn't have known in 1981 if some things were flukes or trends), but my research was inspired by other research that wasn't published in fact, there are a couple lines of research that my little piece depends on, and no one could possibly have figured out the piece that I'm working on without the major contributions that preceded me. 

This can be frustrating!  I'm sure people were way more interested in questions about the 2008 election on election night, 2008, when CNN was taking apart the exit polls, at least when it wasn't using that much-missed hologram technology.  Alas, it takes time to get things right.  So if you want to know what really happened in 2008, or at least the latest evidence, go over to the Monkey Cage and hang out with John Sides. Anyway, I'm glad someone has time on his hands today.

A CBO Triumph?

Stan Collender posts an appreciation of CBO for its role in health care reform.  I heartily agree that CBO earned the praise.  However, Collender believes:
[I]t is absolutely certain that the Congressional Budget Office came out of the debate in a far better and more highly esteemed position than when it began.
More highly esteemed, yes.  Better?  I wish that were true, but I don't think so.  In fact, quite the contrary.   Here's what I saw: the Democrats used CBO for two reasons -- first, to get the policy to work the way they wanted it to work, and second, to convince others that it would work that way.  For the first, assuming Democrats were sincere, CBO did as far as I know a terrific job.  However, partisan staff could have done that part of it just as well.  The advantage of having a neutral CBO is for the second part, convincing others that a policy will do what the proponents claim it will do.  In this, I think it's very hard indeed to consider health care reform good news for CBO.  Republicans, more or less to a person, simply rejected CBO's conclusions about the effects of the bill on the deficit.  Yes, Collender is correct that Republicans did occasionally cite CBO numbers, but that was surely just cherry-picking details that fit the GOP story.  In the light of CBO's projections, Republicans for the most part didn't quibble -- they simply rejected them, asserting that it was simply not believable that a "government takeover of one sixth of the economy" could possibly reduce the deficit.  Period, end of story.

As far as I can tell, some neutral observers followed CBO in their understanding of reality, but quite a few others adopted a he said, she said approach that in effect treated CBO as the Democrats' side of the story, not a nonpartisan estimate.

Meanwhile, relying on CBO was not without costs for the Democrats.  Good, solid estimates take time.  At least four times during the health care marathon, things ground to a halt while CBO scored the latest version of the bill (I'm counting Baucus's chair's mark, the final amended Finance Committee version, the merged Senate bill, and the reconciliation bill this month -- I don't recall a delay while the bill was on the Senate floor for the manager's amendment, but I might be forgetting that or another).  I'd say the total CBO delay was on the order of six to ten weeks over the course of the ordeal.  Now, of course, a staff estimate would presumably have taken at just as long, so assuming the majority cares about good numbers, then maybe calling it a "CBO" delay overstates the time.  Still, I think it's safe to say that a lot of Democrats would have been glad to have been glad to trade somewhat less solid estimates for, say, eight weeks off of the process.

In other words, I would assume that CBO is only worth it to the majority party if it can help the majority convince others that their plans are fiscally responsible.  So, I wouldn't be surprised if at least some Democrats right now, especially those relatively less concerned about budget deficits, were wondering exactly what they bought for all the delays.  Again, I agree with Stan Collender that CBO performed admirably, and is really what anyone would want in a government agency.  If, that is, what they want is an honest broker.  If only one party wants that -- and I think that's the real lesson of health care as far as CBO is concerned -- then it's not at all clear to me that there's much of an incentive to continue to use it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

OK, I'll Play: Ten Books

Everyone is doing it (as Tyler Cowen invitesJulian Sanchez explains and Andrew Sullivan anthologizes).  No particular order, but maybe more or less as I encountered them...I'm also limiting myself to one per author (almost), but in most of these cases it's this one, plus everything else.

1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  Logic, whimsy, words, nonsense, philosophy, comedy.  There must be a dozen bits in it that I find constantly in whatever I do.

2. The Tanakh (that's Torah, Prophets, and the other Writings, for those with different bibles).  Stories are not just for enjoying, or for learning simple lessons from (not my brother's keeper?  duh.), but they are also texts for endlessly analyzing, interpreting, and savoring.

3. Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1983.  His second mass-market Abstract, and the first I read.  Questions should be substantively important, and interesting.  Empirical questions can be answered by analyzing evidence.  Write well; write well about quantitative evidence.  Credentialed experts can be totally wrong.  (The HOF book is underrated).

4. Nelson W. Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform.  I was a Polsby student in grad school.  I miss him a lot.  The lessons?  See Bill James, above.  Really -- although far more systematically.  Substantively, ignore most of the particulars (which in my view are now dated) but pick up on wonderful stuff about the nature of political parties and American politics.  A terrific writer, too.  (In addition to his books and articles, his textbooky efforts -- Presidential Elections, and Congress & the Presidency -- have terrific stuff).

5. Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power.  OK, not every great book is well written.  But: "the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is supposed to have created a government of  'separated powers.'  It did nothing of the sort.  Rather, it created a government of separated institutions sharing powers."  Really understand that, and you'll be in pretty good shape in understanding American politics.

6. Garry Wills, Nixon Agonisties.  Beyond the specific stories, which he researches and tells so well, something that I couldn't explain about the interaction between culture, ideas, and politicians comes through when reading Wills.  And another wonderful writer; his retelling of Checkers is a classic.  (The Reagan and Washington books are my other two favorites).

7. William Shakespeare, Henry V.  Or anything else, really, doesn't matter; it's Shakespeare, after all.  As far as influencing me, probably the main thing would be that fiction -- especially plays, movies, TV -- can teach things about politics that we can't get to in other ways.  I hear there's stuff beyond politics in Shakespeare, too.  Yeah, I know, it's trite -- Shakespeare and the bible -- but fine, call me trite. 

8. Richard Fenno, When Incumbency Fails.  My real introduction to thinking seriously about representation.  Which, regular readers know, remains an obsession.  Plus I just admire anyone will to do what he does to collect data.  (All his home style books are essential).

9. Hanna Pitkin, Fortune is a Woman.   More about words.  Don't accept assumptions, about anything -- figure out what your assumptions are, and follow what happens if you suspend them.  Read all people fairly (except perhaps J.S. Mill), assuming that they have something to say, even if their assumptions trip them up.  Another outstanding writer, and brilliant thinker and teacher.  (Everything she's written is terrific).  Oh, and this is also a way to sneak Machiavelli onto the list.

10. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution and The Human Condition.  And everything else, but I couldn't narrow it to just one.  I don't really know how to boil this down to a sentence or two...for me, at least, she is essential.

And add a wildcard.  I'll mention Baum, Asimov, Heinlein, and Lloyd Alexander (yeah, I know it's not just politics, but that too); Duane Decker (and his Blue Sox heroes), John Tunis, and Roger Angel (think about baseball all the time);  Andy Beyer, Tom Ainslie, Donald Sobol (solve puzzles!); Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn, and James Madison (that USA place is sorta interesting); and a dozen or two political theorists from Plato and Plutarch on.

(Edited, to correct for my inability to count to ten)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Via Steven Rubio, Rob Neyer takes aim at Brian Sabean's latest move, dumping Kevin Frandsen.  I'm not a huge Frandsen fan...I'm not convinced he can really play SS, even as a fill-in, and if not he's not really worth a roster spot.  Neyer's overall point, however, I think is exactly correct, I suppose.

However, that's not the Brian Sabean story this episode reminded me of.  This is a recent story: 2008.  The Giants, frankly, were not going to be very good that was the first season after Barry Bonds, and since they had just finished in last place with Barry Bonds, there weren't exactly a lot of reasons to be optimistic.  Nevertheless, they had Tim Lincecum coming off his rookie season, and Matt Cain, and a fairly weak looking division, and youneverknow, right? 

But you do know, because not only did Brian Sabean not bother to get himself a replacement-level first baseman, but when an injury left him without a SS for the six weeks of the season, he did...nothing.  He let a A-ball guy start in the majors for 93 PAs worth, in which said A-ball guy hit all of 258 OBP, 156 SLG. 

The thing is, with a few weeks to do something about it, any GM should be able to find a guy who can play replacement-level SS for six weeks without costing the team much of anything.  It just can't be that hard.  Failing to bother getting one is really the kind of thing that should get a GM fired.  I mean, mistakes of judgment are going to happen.  Mistakes in negotiations?  Well, sometimes the other GM is just going to beat you.  But not even trying -- that should cost a GM his job. 

(Yeah, I know; anyone who cares enough about the Giants to read this already knows the story and shares the opinion.  But it's getting close to the season, and I need to get ready, which mostly involves practicing my Sabean-bashing.  If we can't get rid of him, we can at least improve the level of grief we give him, and I still need plenty of work with March winding down).

Henry Farrell bait

See the Monkey Cage for the explanation.  And the miscreant is (via a nice post from Yglesias)... from Brookings, Isabell Sawhill:
With this as background, I am waiting for a leader who is able to articulate the need for more sensible and pragmatic solutions. Such a leader would start a movement of like-minded citizens that eventually culminates in a third party win of the presidency. I realize that the history of successful third parties is not encouraging, but the most potent political force in this country right now is a public that is completely disillusioned and angry about the way Washington works and less extreme in its view than its representatives in Congress. Thus, the times are ripe for greater success than in the past. (Emphasis added).
Really?  I don't know what "most potent political force" means, but lots of people like Obama and the Democrats -- they aren't part of this force she's talking about -- and of those who don't, a fair number of them are Tea Party types, who bring the crazy, not the moderation.  As Henry Farrell puts it, "Me, the People."

Not that she actually explains what is less "sensible and pragmatic" about the agenda that Obama and the Democratic Congress are busy passing. 

I do recommend the pieces by Tom Mann and Henry Aaron, also available at the above link (oh, I'll give it again).  There's also a piece by Jonathan Rauch, who I generally think is very good in addition to being a proud member of the Jonathan club, which oddly claims that "the best way of inducing Republicans to behave responsibly is to give them responsibility."  Not only do Mann and Aaron make the point that rewarding the GOP for being irresponsible in 2008-2009 would be unlikely to encourage different behavior, and that at any rate the Republicans will have plenty of incentive to continue opposing the president regardless of whether they're in the majority -- but I think more to the point is that the last time the Republicans did have responsibility we got the Bush tax cut, the other Bush tax cut, two unfunded wars, and one unfunded Medicare expansion.  Meanwhile, the Democrats are not waiting for Republican support to be willing to reduce the deficit and tackle the long-term medical entitlements problem: they just did it!   Republicans, meanwhile, are not running on the Paul Ryan deficit-reduction platform; they're running on an "explode the deficit" platform.  If what you want is deficit reduction, it's hard to see why you would want the  party pledging to never cut Medicare, especially Medicare advantage while also never raising taxes.

Still Can't Look at Polls

Does it matter what instapolls after health care passes say?

Mostly, no. 

Nate Silver surveys the polls taken over the week, and finds...well, really I don't care what he finds. 

Look, even if we're just talking about the fall elections, it doesn't matter what people think -- or, more to the point, what they'll say to pollsters -- on March 26.  It just doesn't.  No one knows what kind of issue health care will be in November.  As Ezra Klein says, the midterm elections will probably be about the economy, not about health care.  But you know what?  That "about" is a tricky little animal, there.  There's no guarantee that candidates will be talking about the economy.  But whether they do or not, the economy is going to be what drives things, because it always does.  If the economy is bad, people are going to think that Obama is a lousy president and that Democrats are losers, and therefore are going to respond negatively to questions about health care reform.  Whether that produces an election in which candidates are talking a lot about health care or not will be driven by internal polling and focus groups (and, to some extent, by bargaining and competition within party coalitions), but the bottom line for election purposes is that single issues, even something that seems as momentous as the health care act, don't really push a lot of votes. 

Nor can one poll the alternatives.  Silver supposes that at this point, it's better for Democrats to have passed the bill than to have failed to pass it, and I strongly agree with that -- failure would, indeed, likely have demoralized Democratic activists and perhaps even directly demoralized voters.  He also supposes that:

I think if you polled Democratic strategists and they were being honest, they'd probably concede that -- electorally-speaking -- Democrats would have been better off if they'd found a different direction last year, focusing perhaps on financial reform and then only turning to health care if their numbers warranted it.
I don't know what strategists might think -- they have a professional bias in favor of believing that elections are more manipulable than academic research has found -- but my reading of the elections literature, along with the way Congress and the media work, suggest to me that it would be foolish to choose legislative strategy in 2009 based on the 2010 elections.  People just don't care that much about issues.  And it's impossible to guess at the alternative scenarios. 

A couple other things to add.  First, as I've argued, thinking of health care reform as a choice for Obama and the Democrats gets it wrong.  Obama was able to win the nomination only by promising to make health care reform a priority.  He, and virtually every Democratic candidate for Congress, campaigned on health care reform.  Presidents don't take office, and Members of Congress don't take office, with blank slates; they take office constrained, and often severely constrained, by the promises they've made while running.  If Obama had abandoned health care reform, he would have broken promises and lost the support of his election coalition.  Presidents can do that sort of thing, but it imposes high costs.

The second thing, and what I've been harping on all week, is that it's far too early to know how health care plays out -- mainly because no one has experienced the perceived good and bad about the new law.  Medicare recipients have all sorts of vague fears about it now; over time, those will be replaced by tangible changes, including I guess rebate checks this year for those who are in the donut hole.  On the down side, if Advantage cuts do harm customers, they will be very aware of it.  And then there are the scare stories to come, in which Republicans blame any terrible health or insurance outcome, including raised premiums, on the new act.  The Democrats are betting that all of that works out, on balance, in their favor, but there's really no way to know right now -- and polling is not the way to get at it.  The instant reactions people have just aren't likely to predict how they'll feel about health care reform six months (or years) down the road, and they're even less likely to predict how those reactions will affect their voting behavior.  One thing I could guess, however, is that the benefits of financial regulation are highly unlikely to be rewarded by voters, since those benefits are largely intangible to most voters (yes, I know, a new financial panic would be plenty tangible, but no one ever rewards pols for avoiding a disaster before it starts).

So: the effects of health care reform on the 2010 elections are apt to be small, consisting mostly of avoiding disaster for the Democrats if the bill had failed; beyond that, it's too soon to know what small effects there will be, and polling is the wrong way to get at those effects.

History Is Made

A lot of liberals have been disappointed in Barack Obama because he has not used his considerable oratorical skills in support of liberal principles, broadly speaking.  That is, Obama has not tried to convince people of the general proposition that active, vigorous government action is good for ordinary folks in all sorts of ways, and even more than that is a theoretically appealing position.  Kevin Drum, for example, has been on this for some time. 

What was interesting over the last week is that Obama certainly did not use the occasion of the passage of health care reform to argue for liberal principles in any simple way, but I think he may be building a profound case not for a liberal set of ideas, but for a positive view of political action in general, one that could then be harnessed for activist government, but is more broad than that.  I took a look at Obama's four speeches on the passage of health care reform: his statement Sunday night after the House passed the bill, his two sets of remarks on signing the bill into law, and his follow-up rally in Iowa.  Most of the remarks, of course, were about health care, about the new law, and about the benefits that people will get.  I can, however, identify a few broader themes Obama seems to be interested in.

1.  The least interesting, and the least impressive to me at least, theme is the old Wilsonian story of the people vs. the special interests.  Here he is at the Interior Department:
And although it may be my signature that's affixed to the bottom of this bill, it was your work, your commitment, your unyielding hope that made this victory possible.  When the special interests deployed an army of lobbyists, an onslaught of negative ads, to preserve the status quo, you didn't give up.  You hit the phones and you took to the streets.  You mobilized and you organized.  You turned up the pressure and you kept up the fight.
The same denunciation of "special interests" and "lobbyists" shows up in all four speeches; in his inaugural address, it was called "protecting narrow interests."  It's often paired in these statements with, I think it's fair to call, contempt for "mistrust and cynicism" which goes with pundits.  So: "Tonight, at a time when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics."  That's a striking way, I think, to begin his statement Sunday night; not that health care passed, but that the pundits were proved wrong.

2.  This gets to the second major theme, which is that America must do "big things."  What's wrong with pundits and special -- narrow -- interests is that they prevent those big things from happening.  In this, much of what he says sounds to me like a response to James Fallows (link is to his original article), who in fact saw it working as such.  Here's the key paragraph, again from the Interior Department speech:
Despite decades in which Washington failed to tackle our toughest challenges, despite the smallness of so much of what passes for politics these days, despite those who said that progress was impossible, you made people believe that people who love this country can still change it.  But as we tackle all these other challenges that we face, as we continue on this journey, we can take our next steps with new confidence, with a new wind at our backs -- because we know it's still possible to do big things in America -- (applause) -- because we know it's still possible to rise above the skepticism, to rise above the cynicism, to rise above the fear; because we know it's still possible to fulfill our duty to one another and to future generations.  (Applause.)

3. This gets us to the largest point.  Obama there contrasted doing "big things"  with "the smallness of so much of what passes for politics these days," just as on Sunday he began by saying that we rose "above the weight of our politics."  There are two ways one can go here.  The progressive, Wilsonian, move is to say that "politics" is the problem.  Politics is about petty ambitions and "special" interests, and in interferes with the president, who is the tribune of the people, doing what everyone really knows is right.  I do see hints of that in Obama's rhetoric.

But there's another, very different theme here.  It shows up in his phrasing -- politics isn't bad, but "what passes for politics" is impoverished, presumably compared to what politics is supposed to be.  I think this is also related to his famous inaugural insistence that "the time has come to set aside childish things."  So, at the bill-signing:
But today, we are affirming that essential truth -– a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself –- that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations.  (Applause.)  We are not a nation that falls prey to doubt or mistrust.  We don't fall prey to fear.  We are not a nation that does what's easy.  That's not who we are.  That's not how we got here.

Joe Biden emphasized, in introducing Obama at the bill-signing, that "History is made:" 
History is made when men and women decide that there is a greater risk in accepting a situation that we cannot bear than in steeling our spine and embracing the promise of change.  That's when history is made.  
Which recalls this, from the inaugural:
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given.  It must be earned.  Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.  It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.  Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. 
Obama there seems to be talking about industrial "makers of things," but he might will be also speaking of those who fabricate laws and public policy.  Politics, then, for Obama -- at least some of the time, or at least potentially -- is an active, positive, experience of making collective choices that organize our lives.  In Iowa:

What this generation has proven today is that we still have the power to shape history.  (Applause.)  In the United States of America, it is still a necessary faith that our destiny is written by us, not for us.  Our future is what we make it.  Our future is what we make it.  
And, from there, to the biggest point of all, only suggested once in these texts, but powerful if it is what Obama really believes.  From the bill-signing:
We are a nation that faces its challenges and accepts its responsibilities.  We are a nation that does what is hard.  What is necessary.  What is right.  Here, in this country, we shape our own destiny.  That is what we do.  That is who we are.  That is what makes us the United States of America.
This is, really, a very strong claim.  What Obama is saying here is that politics, rightly understood, is the very core of what makes this nation a nation.  Not individualism, not religiosity, and certainly not ethnicity or the land itself, but politics.  It's a view of the United States that looks not to underlying social conditions (as Lowry and Ponnuru do in their recent essay), but to its founding in political action, in the Revolution and then the framing of the Constitution.  Of course, the fact of the Revolution and the Constitution can be seen as a consequence of its underlying conditions -- but Obama here, at least, rejects that point of view.  We, in the United States, do not accept history, or live through history -- we have the capacity, Obama (and Biden) say, to make history, through collective action, whether it is in the Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, the civil rights revolution, or now, in tackling the challenges that face us in the 21st century.  America, therefore, is self-created, and continues to be self-creating, by political action.

Is that, in fact, what Obama is saying?  I'm really not sure.  As I said after the health care summit, there's yet another strain of Obama's thought that seems to be about Washington-speak -- that what's wrong with politics is that pols talk in poll-tested spin, instead of actually saying what they mean.  I'm not sure whether all the pieces here cohere into one general idea of politics and democracy.  Nor, of course, is it easy to sort through Obama's own spin and poll-tested language -- he may not like it, but he certainly engages in it as much as any other pol.  So for now, I'll just limit it to calling these a set of themes, and not try to put it all together or conclude what he "really" thinks.  I do, however, intend to continue to follow this thread.  He is, I'm starting to think, a most promising politician.

About Those Beltway Hacks

Andrew Sullivan pivots from my tantrum about the Sunday shows to a more ambitious positive agenda, including this proposal:
Real questioning of people in power; discussion of issues, not process; fewer Beltway hacks; no predictions; no sports-journalism masquerading as a serious discussion of politics. 
I want to think about the whole thing, but first...what about those Beltway hacks?   Andrew asks for fewer, not a prohibition.  I think that's right.  Beltway hacks aren't useless, but they aren't used properly.

Take David Gergen.  Please!  (Sorry about that).  No, really.  Why do we want to hear from him?  Well, he has some actual knowledge.  He can tell us something about how White Houses are organized; if he or someone like him is analytically inclined, he can describe the pros and cons of different types of WH organization and presidential (and Chief of Staff) style.  Even if not analytically inclined, a Gergen can definitely let us know what it feels like inside a White House that is winning, losing, under siege, at war, etc.  A Gergen can also give outsiders some sense of the historical perspective shared by insiders.  Beltway hacks can talk about the history, or at least their memory, of House-Senate rivalry, which can help outsiders understand something about why the House was so reluctant to trust the Senate on reconciliation.  Someone who can remember the BTU tax fiasco can really inform viewers with shorter memories.

The other thing that Gergen can do -- and here, any really entrenched Beltway hack can do it, regardless of whether his or her experience is in the White House, the media, the Hill, K Street, or whatever -- is to inform us out here about what the sense of things are back there.  The cliche is true; Washington is in many ways a small town, and there's no question, at least not to me, that Washingtonians often share a sense of how things are going in Washington in general, and with the president in particular.  That sense of things may matter quite a bit; it's what Richard Neustadt called a president's "professional reputation."  If people in Washington think that the president is weak, that's something that informed Americans should know. 

What Gergen can't do, what he's not qualified to do, is to connect that insider sense with what the nation at large is up to.  It is, I suppose, possible to know both, but expertise in one (which consists of collecting and evaluating dozens of conversations with other Beltway insiders) has very little in common with expertise in the other (which often involves reading polling data, but also involves understanding economic statistics, cultural indicators, and who knows what-all else.  He also may not be qualified to do a number of other things: to evaluate and analyze policy; to offer procedural expertise beyond his experience (so don't ask Gergen about Congressional procedure); or, perhaps, to understand internal party dynamics, especially the party outside of Washington. 

What can make a Gergen valuable is, to a large extent, as an informant, not as an analyst.  That's not quite right...Gergen's assertions, as an analyst, are not useful.  As an analyst, I need to hear his argument in order for his assertions to be worth anything.  But as an informant, all I need to know is that he's a good reporter.  In 2007, it's useful to outsiders to know if Washingtonians think that Rudy Giuliani is a viable presidential candidate.  What Gergen (or Broder, or whoever) happens to believe on his own is a lot less interesting or useful, although if he has a strong argument, I'd be willing to listen.

Multiple Beltway hacks might be a good idea to the extent that there are multiple Beltway communities, and especially because in a partisan era few insiders are able to accurately report the sense of the entire Washington community.  But the CNN set and TV news in general are lousy with them, and I agree with Andrew that fewer would be better.  I will amend it, however: fewer Beltway hacks, and a lot more narrow focus on restricting them to the sorts of things on which they have real expertise.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Patch Passes, Bicameral Distrust Remains

As expected, the Senate passed the patch.  House acts tonight, president signs it soon, and then health care reform is finally finished, at least this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ezra Klein tweets:

And the reconciliation fixes have passed the Senate. This should actually do a lot for relations between the two chambers.

And at almost the same second Marc Ambiner tweets:
Big political point today is that Senate Dems lived up to their promise to pass House reconciliation as is. Inter-chamber relations key.
My prediction?  Relations between the chambers will remain terrible.  There are two reasons why the House doesn't trust the Senate, rational and irrational.  The rational reasons have to do with structural differences between the houses, and nothing can make those go away.  Not just the filibuster, although that's a big part of it.  The irrational reasons develop over time, as individuals forget that they were let down by the other chamber for all sorts of understandable reasons, and come to think that the other house is duplicitous and untrustworthy, rather than just having different rules and incentives. 

The successful passage of one bill no matter how important will help reduce the irrational side, but do nothing about the rational basis for acrimony.   It's built-in.

(Bonus snark!  As I was writing this a friend -- longtime House staffer, long retired -- passed by my desk, and I told him what I was writing about.  His immediate response?  "Of course, because Senators are all running for president.  Pompous asses."  He wasn't joking, either.  As for how the Senate feels, I covered that last night).

While I'm at it, I think I owe a Plain Blog accounting.  I was right that reconciliation would sail through the Senate once the main bill was passed and signed into law, but I was wrong on the voting...I set the line at 58 and took the over, but Lincoln, Pryor, and Ben Nelson all voted against it, so that's just 56.  I did withdraw my "bet" after the student loan package was added to the bill, but it's still a weak call on my part -- although overall, it did sail through as I've been saying since January.

Impeachment Update

Things are looking up for "hotspur," who entered this prediction:
As a Californian, I like Darrell Issa's history of overturning perfectly valid elections. I'll take Issa on a goofy May 29, 2011 (JFK's birthday). By then, the American people will have had more than enough, etc., and President Obama you're no Jack Kennedy, etc. etc.
Could be!  On the other hand, calling for a special prosecutor could be a sign that Issa is too action-oriented to just file an empty impeachment resolution.  I'm running out of time for my own prediction (Bachmann, April 15, 2010)...but as I count it we only have fourteen Members of the House or candidates claimed, and that's counting the LaRouchie candidate who would almost certainly file the resolution but has no chance of being elected -- os it's not too late to make your pick (in comments here).

Big GOP Triumph. Sort Of.

As you may have heard by now, Republicans have successfully managed to find a successful point of order against the reconciliation patch, thereby knocking out a minor provision of the bill, which means that the House will have to vote once again on whatever final text gets through the Senate.  This will have the following political effect: none.  At all.  It will inconvenience a bunch of Members of the House, however. Or maybe not.

I think, however, this puts the final nail in the coffin of GOP claims about the process.  The Senate parliamentarian, as it turns out, was not just a puppet of the majority party (as Republicans alleged earlier this month); not only did he rule for the Republicans on this issue, but he also ruled that the main bill had to be signed into law before the Senate took up reconciliation, contrary to Democratic plans.  Nor did the Democrats use the Vice President to overrule the parliamentarian (something anticipated by both sides).  In fact, there was basically nothing particularly innovative or out of the ordinary in the entire process, with the only exception that I can think of being the "two bill" idea. 

As long as I'm knocking down Republican claims of Democratic abuse that turned out to be wrong, I might as well note that partisans of both parties were wrong in their expectations that Republicans would keep vote-a-rama going indefinitely.  They're going to wind up forcing about fifty votes, but that's neither unprecedented nor a real attempt to kill the bill by finding a loophole in the prohibition of filibustering a reconciliation bill.  And while I do think Democrats are right that the level of filibustering in this Congress is extraordinary and an abuse of the process, I don't think that Republican efforts to block health care reform are abusive.  Filibustering nominations or bills that one doesn't even oppose is an abuse, and one could argue that filibustering nominations or bills that one only mildly opposes is contrary to the spirit of Senate rules.  Health care reform does not fit those categories, and in my view Republicans have been fully justified in taking full advantage of their rights within Senate rules -- although whether they were smart to do so is another question.


(UPDATED below!)

OK, face it, vote-a-rama so far has been a big bust.  Republicans apparently have given up on the idea of throwing out an infinite number of amendments in order to force the Democrats to put an end to it by calling them dilatory, so instead they're just forcing embarrassing votes, most of which (but not all) are fairly dull. 

I can do a bit of reporting, despite having no official certification in the arts of journalism.

As of 12:30 AM Eastern Time, they had taken 23 votes.  I just watched Harry Reid come to the floor and, in the most oblique and restrained parliamentary language, ask the Republicans to put a cork in it already, followed by Mitch McConnell, in equally impenetrable language, telling him to go fly a kite, after which Reid, using the most excruciatingly correct verbiage, told the Republicans that he'll keep them up all night voting if they don't cut it out.  Both of them and all assembled Senators within range of C-SPAN2 microphones seemed in excellent humor, and both of them copiously congratulated the august United States Senate on how well-mannered they all had been during the debate, not like some other Chamber of Congress that they declined to name or even refer to directly.  No Senator called out "baby killer" or "you lie."  After which they resumed voting on the 24th amendment or motion, which they completed while I wrote this Item, and just now began voting on the 25th amendment or motion.  None of which has come really very close at all to passing.

I can also report that Johnny Isakson is seriously messing up his attendance record, having fallen ill earlier this week and now missing a huge number of votes.

I am tempted to put it all on the DVR overnight (there's only about five minutes of action per hour, the rest if voting, so it would be easy to forward through and watch), but alas the DVR is clogged up with stuff I haven't watched yet, so I'll pass.  No way is this worth losing season two of Star Wars: Clone Wars.

(Update:  This is getting much better -- the very next amendment after I posted this, by Senator Bennett of Utah, would have required the District to conduct a referendum on same-sex marriage.  I'm not sure, but I suspect the text of the amendment also certifies that Senator Bennett is too a conservative, take that you Tea Party splitters.  It's still no Star Wars: Clone Wars, but it's getting a little more amusing.  I guess I'll take any further updates to Twitter).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Read Stuff, You Should

My version of the tab dump, beginning as usual with something that you really should not read.  In this case: I'll recommend to stay away from Sara Mosle's post today about Nancy Pelosi.  Apparently, she's the first "trailblazing...feminist icon" who doesn't have "an incoherent personal style or a messy/nonexistent love life or family life."  She seems to be referring to Hillary Clinton (and at that, see Matt Ylgesias)...I guess I don't know all that much about the "personal style" or "love life" of Barbara Jordan, or Pat Schroeder, or Liddy Dole, or Bella Abzug, or Diane Feinstein, or Barbara Boxer, or Shirley Chisholm, or Madeleine Albright, or (although she says these don't count) Sandra Day O'Connor, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Sonia Sotomayor, but none of them seemed to violate Mosle's qualification of being "comfortable and confident in her own skin."  Nor did Gerry Ferraro or Sarah Palin, although I'll admit that I'm not a big fan of either...maybe that's who she was talking about when she talked about " life," as if that's rare among men in politics.  Ach, I've talked about it too much already...but I do want to say that while Nancy Pelosi is a first-rate Speaker, the rest of that is useless.

On, finally, to the good stuff.

1. Health care.  I can't remember if I linked to this one already, but either way Andrew Sprung loves him some PelosiSo does Yglesias.  Kevin Drum looks to the future (it's the best post-passage post I've seen so far).  Alex Massie appreciates what he sees.  Greg Marx on choices for reporters

2. Yglesias puts the final stake through the heart of the Ponnuru/Lawry exceptionalism idea.

3. Ezra Klein looks at the long-term deficit from a different angle.

4. Ross Douthat is, in my view, a dull columnist but an excellent blogger; a good part of that is he's honest, as this example shows.

5. Not so honest?  Marc Thiessen, as Jane Mayer explains.

6. TNC on Andrew Sullivan -- I recommend the full lecture, by the way; it's top-notch.

7. Brendan Nyhan: Obama, Reagan, midterms.

8. And to wind it up...Steven Rubio looks at a magazine because it's there (if you click, read to the last line); Andrew Gelman does cutting-edge research; and a totally off topic recommendation.

More on Change in the Senate

I agree with Chris Bowers: the more that Republicans engage in pointless but annoying obstruction (in this case, refusing to allow committees to meet), the more likely it is that Democrats will move in either January 2011 or 2013 to reform the rules of the Senate, assuming they are in the majority.

What I'm not sure is which will be the biggest factor: pressure among Democrats: pressure from party activists demanding filibuster reform, or just getting frustrated and annoyed with Republican grandstanding. 

I don't really think that eliminating the filibuster is the most likely outcome (more likely is a threat to eliminate it by majority rule, followed by a compromise to adopt somewhat more majoritarian procedures), but overall I agree that Republicans are really risking quite a lot with these tactics, assuming that they don't want party majority rule in the next Senate.

Public Option

As Ezra Klein notes, everyone now is speculating about how the newly reformed health care system will evolve (via Ezra, we have Cowen, Yglesias, and Douthat).  I wasn't going to post on this, because it seemed to focus on substantive policy issues, but after reading Klein's post, I realized that there's quite a lot of politics involved here that some of these pieces are overlooking.    What sparked it for me was this comment:

    I think there's virtually no chance that this system evolves toward single-payer.

Which then made me realize than none of these posts made any mention of a public option.  In fact, as I've argued, there's a very good chance that a future Congress will add a public option to health care reform as early as next year (if Democrats lose relatively few seats in the 2010 elections) or, perhaps more likely, 2013, should Obama be re-elected along with health Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress.  This has little to do with how the current reforms are perceived, but everything to do with the politics of Democratic primaries, and the politics of passing legislation.  Basically, it's very likely that Democrats elected from 2010 on will be public option supporters, and once they're in Congress the public option is an attractive item to try to pass, because it scores well and can be done (almost certainly) through reconciliation.  Not only that, but because Democrats will be returning to the issue with more forceful and prominent positions on the issue, it's likely that the public option that will be adopted will be at least as "robust" as the most ambitious versions offered this time around. 

(I'll note that Chris Bowers argues that the big fight will be over expanding Medicare.  I'd be surprised if liberals move in that direction, rather than push for a public option.  If they do push candidates for, say, a Medicare buy-in at age 50 I suspect that they will be successful with candidates in very liberal districts, but much less successful in marginal districts -- and they'll face a lot more resistance to adopting it within Congress).

Now, beyond that, I have no predictions, but I will add that lots of people on both the left and right believed that once enacted, a public option was likely to expand over time, and that it was quite plausible that it would wind up expanding to become single payer.  Whether that is actually likely or not I'll leave to the economists and policy analysts, but I do think that if the Democrats retain their majorities we're very likely to get a public option as the final piece (for now!) of the Obama health care reform plan.

Sunday Shows

There is a controversy over the last couple days because Tom Shales, in the Washington Post, made a shockingly foolish attack on the decision by ABC to hire Chistiane Amanpour to host their Sunday news show. 

My only contribution to this is to point out, again, that the Sunday shows have long since outlived most of their usefulness.  It may be that within the world of broadcast journalism these host jobs are a very big deal in status and (I suppose) money.  For consumers of the news, well, pretty much nobody cares.  Once upon a time, the Sunday shows offered a rare opportunity for relatively long-form interviews with key administration, Congressional, and other political figures.  However, we're about to hit the 30th anniversary of the first CNN broadcast, and Fox News and MSNBC are each over a decade old.  Together, they have hour after hour after hour of interviews with important people, and Wolf Blitzer or even Olbermann or Hannity are just as likely to produce news that gets people talking as are the Sunday shows.  For that matter, I suspect that Jon Stewart has conducted more attention-generating interviews in the last year than all three Sunday shows combined.  That's not because the current hosts of the Sunday shows are bad at what they do; it's because there's just nothing special about them any more for most news consumers. 

The big deal about the Sunday shows, their real remaining actual function, is that for years the shows have been used to float trial balloons.  Any trained monkey could handle that, which makes me think that Amanpour is a poor choice -- not because she couldn't handle it (please!) but because her considerable talents as a real reporter will be largely wasted there.  Beyond that, I have to say that no one should care who hosts the Sunday shows, and that any attempt at "improving" them is a total waste of time. 

Jimmy Who?

I'm reading through Barack Obama's remarks today for another post, but I was struck just now by this paragraph:
I’m signing this bill for all the leaders who took up this cause through the generations -- from Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt, from Harry Truman, to Lyndon Johnson, from Bill and Hillary Clinton, to one of the deans who’s been fighting this so long, John Dingell.  (Applause.)  To Senator Ted Kennedy.  (Applause.)  And it’s fitting that Ted’s widow, Vicki, is here -- it’s fitting that Teddy’s widow, Vicki, is here; and his niece Caroline; his son Patrick, whose vote helped make this reform a reality.  (Applause.)
Not to rain on anyone's parade, but...I can't help but wonder if that wasn't deliberate.  FDR, HST, LBJ, WJC, and EMK.  Four Kennedys are mentioned, actually (although not, oddly enough, JFK).  But no mention of the other Democratic president, who did, in fact, push for health care reform, but if I recall correctly grudgingly and mainly in reaction to Kennedy's initiative.  Of course, it was entirely appropriate to praise Ted Kennedy, and FDR, Truman, and Johnson all belong, and it would have been impossible to omit the Clintons -- and Teddy Roosevelt is there for partisan cover, and because, anyway, almost everyone likes TR.  Not everyone likes Jimmy Carter, and I do wonder which, if any, of those who regret that Carter was twice nominated by the Democrats for president was responsible for that paragraph.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One More Time

"Everybody" I've been told, again and again, thought that health care reform was dead when Scott Brown won -- and so, everyone says now, the question is how Obama/Pelosi/whoever managed to revive it from death.  Well, I have just a small blog, so I'm fine with big cable net anchors and pundits not noticing that I didn't buy it..and actually, there were several of us who saw clearly.  However, as much as I'd like to say I was the first to call it, I wasn't.  I've quoted it several times, but he deserves the kudos he's been heaping on himself, so on bill-signing day, here's Jonathan Chait, January 20, 9:39 AM:
Here is what I think will happen. The shock and panic will play itself out over a few days. Then the Democrats will assess the situation and realize that letting health care die represents their worst possible option. And then they will make a deal to pass the Senate bill through the House. I am not positive this will happen, but it's my bet, because elected officials at the national level, dim though they can be, are usually shrewd enough to recognize their political self-interest.
I don't remember whether Andrew Sullivan has an award category for good prognostications, but you can't call it any better than that. 

Repeal Rhetoric

I said that Republicans might well be pressured to talk up repeal of health care by the talk show hosts and other vocal conservatives; Kevin Drum takes it from there:
I wouldn't be surprised if that produces a backlash. It's one thing to campaign against the bill — it might even be a winning strategy among right and center-right voters — but the Drudge/Fox/Rush axis is going to force conservative candidates into ever shriller and more baroque denunciations (see, for example, Mitt Romney claiming that "President Obama has betrayed his oath to the nation"), and that might not wear so well even out in the fabled heartland. That's especially true when it turns out that the fabric of the nation doesn't collapse the way it was supposed to on the day after the bill was signed.
See also David (my brother) Bernstein.  Ezra Klein, however, has a more benign view of what the Republicans are saying this week:
I'd take the talk of constitutional challenges and the talk of repeal as the necessary end point for the GOP in this debate. You can't spend a year calling something a dire threat to American freedom and then shrug your shoulders once it's passed. You at least need to assure your allies that you believed what you were saying all along. But as the days and months and years go on, it's going to be very difficult to keep up that intensity. 
I can see it working out either way.  Perhaps the repeal rhetoric will fade, perhaps it won't.  Either way, I'll stick with my more confident expectation, which is that Republicans will run against the health care system, blaming everything that goes wrong with anybody's health care or insurance on big bad Obamacare, just as they blamed the economy on Obama as soon as he was sworn in to office.

I'll give Drum the last word:

Generally speaking, the D/F/R axis isn't that visible outside its direct audience. That's a good thing for Republicans since the stuff they spout really doesn't go over well with anyone outside the true believer base. But if Republican candidates feel like they have to toe the axis line, suddenly it's going to be a lot more visible — and it might turn off a lot of people. We'll see.

Back to the Senate

The Democrats, quite sensibly, celebrated the end of the health care debate today with the signing of the main bill.  Reconciliation, however, trudges on.

Could the House trust the Senate?  Well, they took the first test vote the afternoon, on the motion to proceed to the bill, and the Democrats prevailed 56-40 (as I guess everyone knows by now, this is reconciliation, and only 50 votes are needed).  The missing Senators were two Republicans and two Democrats, Robert Byrd, and Tom Udall, whose father just died.  The Dems lost one vote -- the Benator.  As far as I know, neither Byrd nor Udall has any objections to the patch.

In other words, at least on the procedural vote, it looks as if the Dems have 58 votes.  Now, earlier in the process, I said that I would set the line at 58 votes and take the over.  I backed off from that when student loan reform was added, since I wasn't sure whether that might cost Democratic votes, and thought it would firm up moderate Republican opposition.  So far, at least, it looks as if the former was wrong, but the latter was true.

Meanwhile, we're now into twenty hours of  (I assume) very boring debate.  The big action is on the points of order and the amendments, both of which are just about forcing the House to vote again, and then eventually the efforts to cut off endless amendments.

(Update: botched sentence corrected)

Stories From the Sausage Factory

There are, of course, a number of behind-the-scenes stories being reported this week about just how the health care reform got done.  Here's a good one about Pelosi's efforts to lobby Members; here's a good one about Pelosi standing up to Rahm Emanuel after the Massachusetts Senate results.

First, I'm glad I read these stories, and I don't want to knock the reporters, who I think in both of the cases I cite did a good job.  Second, nothing I say in this item is intended to knock down Pelosi, who as I've said is perhaps the best of the modern Speakers, and certainly the best outside of Tip O'Neill.

However...I'd caution everyone to read these and other similar stories with a heavy dose of skepticism.  Politicians...brace yourself...don't always tell the truth!  They try to make themselves look good!  Sometimes, you can see it right in the story:
Baird made clear to leaders early on that they should neither take his vote for granted nor bother whipping him, since he would be making up his mind based on his own analysis of the final bill text and its budget impact. “Everybody knew in my case — no point in cajoling me. They were likely to get punched in the mouth if they said, ‘You’re not running,’” he said. “You say that to me, you insult me personally, because it implies all I care about is election.”
The Evergreen State Democrat nevertheless got the full treatment from the White House: a personal meeting with President Barack Obama and talks with Vice President Joseph Biden and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former governor of Washington. On Sunday morning — after staying up until midnight on Saturday reading the final analysis from the Congressional Budget Office — Baird said he called Obama budget chief Peter Orszag and went through it “point by point,” before talking it over some more with Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), a top health care adviser to Pelosi. “I felt at the end, I’d done my due diligence,” Baird said.
Obama, Biden, Locke, Orszag, Andrews...that's a lot of insults!  No wonder he...oh, wait, maybe he can be cajoled.

When you read these stories, then, think about who is talking to reporters, and what they want reporters to hear.  No Member of Congress wants to admit that his or her vote was only available to the Speaker if she needed it.  Yet, it is very likely that in fact a whole lot of Democratic Members of Congress preferred, as some of us have been saying for months, for the bill to pass without their votes (I'm remembering a nice Karen Tumulty post, which I mention just to point out that working reporters know this stuff just as well as more distant observers.  At least the good ones do).  Most of what happened in the last week or two wasn't about Members carefully studying the bill to decide if they thought it was a good idea or not, whatever they say now; it was about making a political decision, and about (for Pelosi and Obama) coordinating those decisions.  Oh, and all those stories about how everyone's a hero but Rahm Emanuel?  Maybe they're true...but it's also the case that the White House staff, and especially the Chief of Staff, are really convenient scapegoats.  Their job is to make the politicians look good -- so when you read a story about Rahm Emanuel that makes a politician look good, well, maybe it's true, or maybe he's just very good at his job.

One more thing: I'm for all of this!  I'm not complaining about it.  I like politicians, and I think it's perfectly fine for them to make themselves look like Serious Statesmen if they want, or whatever.  Virtually no one (other than me) likes grubby, vote-mongering pols, and so part of the job of grubby, vote-mongering pols is to pretend to be something else.  That, oddly enough, is good representation, too.  I'm just saying that when you read an "inside" account that "reveals" that politicians are doing things that make them look good to be hesitant to treat them as strong evidence for anything.

"You Knew That Going In"

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains the first rule of how to fight when you think they're all out to get you:
My thing on this for ACORN and all sorts of lefties who cry foul over right-wing tactics is simple. If you really believe that you're facing a vile enemy armed with an array of dirty tricks, the correct action is not to be institutionally sloppy and then decry the deep evil of your opponents. You knew that going in. The correct response is to run your ship that much tighter.
Hey, Tea Party types, and conservatives in general: the same goes for you.   No, you're not all the kind of people who would throw slurs at John stop allowing signs and posters at your events that make you look like a group that would be fine with that.  Stop using language that stops oh so carefully short of inciting people to violence.  Run a tighter ship.

This advice is unlikely to be heeded on the left or the right. 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Questions 5: The Big Mo?

Via email:
Will this win on health care give the Democrats momentum to use the rest of the year to take on the rest of the big legislative issues...or will they instead be so battle-weary that they avoid the hard issues?
Good question.  My initial reaction is: no idea!

Wait, I can do better than that.  Let's think about this.  March, legislatively, is more or less done.  So we're talking about April, May, June, July, August, September, October.  Six months.  But of course there are breaks in there, including one large one, and they'll want to get out of town as early as possible before the election.  So there really isn't a ton of time remaining. 

The next question is what has to get done.  Unless I'm forgetting something, the must-pass things this year are the budget, of course, and, most likely, a Supreme Court nomination.  The budget is lots of items, and lots of floor time -- it's the budget resolution, and then appropriations bills, and perhaps a budget-centered reconciliation package, although I'm not aware as I write this of anything in particular that's really budget related that needs to go that way.  Of course, several major items are already through the House, and only -- only! -- need Senate action (and then we'll play some ping-pong). 

The emailer lists finance reform, climate/energy, education, and immigration as the major agenda items.  Sounds right.  I'd be shocked if immigration gets to the floor of either chamber this year...I can't imagine very many Members want to vote on it unless it is going to become law, and as far as I can see there's no way that can happen this year.  Doesn't mean it won't get some attention, but in my opinion, no way. 

I do think there's a fair chance that we'll get education and finance regulation.  On the former, there's a real incentive for Dems to get it done with the current Congress.  On the latter, there's I think a general feeling that it's important to get it done, although there's also the point made by Matt Yglesias that it's a good issue for the Dems to demagogue.  Er, strike that, a good issue for the Dems to forcefully state their position and challenge Republicans to oppose them.  But something could certainly pass.  That leaves climate/energy...I'd have to think a lot more about the politics of this, and perhaps know more about the substance, to guess how it plays out. 

I should actually address the question, though.  Does passing health care make the other things more or less likely?  I guess the answer is: compared to what?  Compared to losing on the floor yesterday, or having to yank it back at the last minute and give up -- yes, it's much better for the other things that they passed health care.  Compared to giving up in January?  Hard to say.  I do think, following Richard Neustadt, that the president's professional reputation matters, and if that's true then Obama should find everything a little easier with such a high-profile win, especially one in which he was perceived to have very little chance at several points.  So I guess I'll go ahead and say it helps, but whether it's something that makes a difference is a lot harder to say.

Harry Reid and other Heroes of Health Care

I'm seeing a lot of praise for Barack Obama today, and a lot of praise for Nancy Pelosi.  Both well deserved.  I'm not hearing nearly enough praise for Harry Reid.

Pelosi did a very good job of using the office that Tip O'Neill more or less created.*  Pelosi, however, managed to hold together about 87% of her caucus, not counting the one she lost to the Republican conference a while ago, or the two who resigned (one from scandal, one because he didn't want to wait a bit before getting his campaign for governor fully underway).  Harry Reid had to, and did, hold together 100% of the Democratic Senators, including the one that he helped entice into switching to the Democrats earlier in 2009.  Pelosi needed to get a vote on a rule, on final passage (twice), and on the one amendment that the Republicans were allowed to offer, on abortion -- the same was basically true on original passage, with the Stupak amendment as the tough one to deal with.  Reid had to deal with various procedural motions, all of which required every single Senator to attend whatever the hour despite illness, injury, old age, and Shabbat restrictions.  But he also had to deal with amendments on abortion, on Medicare, on taxes, and on drug reimportation, most if not all designed to make it hard for Democrats to hang together.  To be fair, Reid didn't need unanimity on most of those votes, but he did need unanimity for moving to the bill despite everyone knowing that numerous tough votes were coming. 

And he had to do all that without many of the sticks that Pelosi can command -- Senators don't really care that much about committee assignments or even committee chair positions, and the leadership can't freeze them out of other goodies nearly as easily as can the House leadership.  Not to mention that he had to do it while facing an uphill fight for reelection, something that Nancy Pelosi never has had to spend five minutes on.

I don't know how much of it was Harry Reid, and how much was the president, or Rahm Emanuel, or what, but from what's on the record so far I'd have to say that Reid really deserves a much larger share of the huzzahs than he's received to date.

As long as I'm at it, by the way: also very much deserving of credit are, I'd guess, Henry Waxman...wait, I want him in a sentence by himself.  OK, continuing on...George Miller, Chris Dodd, Max Baucus, Charley Rangel.  Phil Schilero, and Peter Orszag.  Members of Ted Kennedy's staff, I suspect, whose names I don't know.  That's the people I'm pretty confident deserve a lot of praise. There are others I suspect also did very well, but I know less by reputation or good reporting, so I won't list them...what I can say is that I watched the House Democratic leadership's press conference late last night, and I was impressed that I didn't really know of any weak link among the group (which included the key committee and, I think, subcommittee chairs).  A lot of these are old-fashioned workhorses, people who aren't necessarily on MSNBC three times a week (granted, I don't watch enough to know, but I don't recall seeing, say, Rosa DeLauro on there all the time). 

 I'd love to see a few feature stories on some of these people.  Yes, Obama did a great job, and so did Pelosi, but they were not the only ones.

*It's shorthand -- modern Speakership was created by reforms that took place over roughly 1959-1975, and Tip O'Neill was the first one to really figure out and use the reforms to create a powerful office -- and until Pelosi, I think, the only one to really master it.

Questions 4: Changes in Congress?

Jefferson Smith asks:
I'm also wondering what you think the effects of this recent struggle will be, institutionally, on the Congress and how it operates. What lessons will congressional leaders draw from it that might affect how they approach their jobs in the future? And will D and R leaders (or the leaders of the two Houses) draw similar or different conclusions from it?
Great question.

Obviously, any answer I give is speculative at best.  I don't see any reason for this to lead to any changes on the House side.  Democrats there are happy with the way things worked, Republicans have no power to affect change now, and I don't see any reason to believe this will change what they do whenever they next have a majority.  I certainly don't see Republicans opposing self-executing rules, or reconciliation, or anything like that.

The big innovation, I guess, was the business of passing a bill in one House of Congress, forcing the other House to pass that bill as-is, and then passing a second bill to amend the first bill.  It seems to me that all of that was driven by special circumstances, and so I don't think it's likely we'll see it again.  It highlighted, to some extent, the fact that conference is broken, but for better or worse that's been true for a while now, and everyone seems to be okay with ping-pong along with informal majority-only conferences as the current de facto means of interchamber agreement.

As for the's my latest thoughts on what's likely to happen.  Generally, I do think that the current situation isn't long-term stable.  If the Democrats do fairly well in the 2010 elections, I think there's a good chance that they'll try, and possibly succeed, in modifying the filibuster.  On the other hand, if the Republicans do well, then odds are against reform in 2011.

It will be interesting to find out more about White House - Congressional cooperation, and whether there were significant differences between how the Obama WH does things and how the W. Bush and Clinton administration did things, but I don't think we know enough yet to speculate at all about what sorts of things might change in the future.

Questions 3: Public Opinion and the 2010 Cycle

hwickline asks:
David Gregory held up public opinion on the stimulus yesterday to point out that the Democrats' expectation that heath care reform gets more popular over time might not be true, at least in the short term. That the stimulus is almost universally praised by economists and only unpopular because of massive demagoguery by the Republicans abetted by his colleagues seemed lost on Gregory, but this is MTP we're talking about, so what can you do?

What do you think? Are the situations analogous? What happens with public opinion over the next few months? And for that matter, is the stimulus a net positive come November?
Well, the first thing I'd say is that if you're interested in public opinion, you can't say "if only they didn't spin it," since we can be sure that both sides will try to spin health care reform, just as they tried to spin the stimulus.

I don't know what will happen to public opinion on health care reform over the next few months.  I can say that it will probably be affected by public opinion about Barack Obama, which in turn will be affected most strongly not by what people think about health care reform or the stimulus in the abstract, but by how the economy is doing, although there are other factors.  If the economists have it right that the stimulus was a significant help to the economy, then it's a plus for the Dems in November, regardless of what the public believes about it.

For more, see Seth Masket (bottom paragraph, not when he quotes me!), John Sides, Sides again, and Joshua Tucker.  Oh, and Brendon Nyhan is relevant here, too.

Questions 2: Repeal

Two or three people asked some variation on whether the Republicans will really run on a demand to repeal the bill.

Well, as I've said, the main thing to expect is that Republicans will campaign against the health care system.  As they did with the economy from January 20, 2009 on, they will attribute every insurance premium hike, every medical error and every bureaucratic nightmare with insurance forms to the new law, beginning as soon after passage as they can.  Really -- someone gets a cough, and Fox News will run an hour-long special about how Obamacare caused it, complete with Beck's sobbing analysis of how the Progressives caused the Great Influenza and Sarah Palin's cutesy gibes at the liberalmedia for ignoring this critical story and picking on her (kids, wardrobe, diction, whatever). 

Will they explicitly call for repeal?  My guess is will feel heavy pressure (self-inflicted or otherwise) to follow whatever Rush & Co. say, and there's certainly competition among the talk show hosts to be the most rejectionist at all.  And in a campaign context, it's even easier to call for repeal, followed by passing simple common sense steps to eliminate pre-existing conditions, etc. than it was in a legislative context; there's no threat of them having to submit an actual proposal, or having it scored by CBO.  Certainly, Republican activists and primary voters believe that the new law is incredibly unpopular (and will probably continue to believe that regardless of polling), and so they will not believe that a "repeal" position is dangerous in a general election.  So, all in all, I do think the odds are good that many GOP candidates will run on repeal in 2010, and probably in the 2012 presidential nomination process as well. 

The centerpiece, however, is going to be attacks on the health care system.

Questions 1: The Democrats' Agenda

First, thanks for all the great questions, and keep them coming.
Chris Mealy asked:
Is a major bill passing like a big software launch? With software you always have version 1.1 coming out soon after 1.0. Will Congress have to pass a lot of little bills in the near future? What's the politics of that?
And anon at 11:26 asked:
What do you expect the average Democrat's platform on health care to be in the future? Is the issue going to sit on the back burner for a while before the next steps are taken, or is something like campaigning on the public option going to become an immediate feature of Democratic campaigns?
Ah, hitting at the edge of my expertise in two ways: policy substance, and software launches!  I guess the first thing to know is that a bill -- well, as of tomorrow, a law -- isn't really a completed product.  Laws tend to leave a lot of room for the agency or agencies that implement them to actually fill out the details.  Sometimes that's because the details aren't available to lawmakers; sometimes, it's because lawmakers kick the fight over details over to someone else so that they can pass the damn thing.  That doesn't mean that Congress has no influence over the details, because they can influence the bureaucracy through the budget, through oversight hearings, and through the appointment process.  You might think that the president controls implementation, but that's not actually true; he, too, can only fight for control of implementation -- his weapons are his influence over appointments, over the budget, and through the publicity he can bring to any issue.  Interests groups, too, battle over how a law is actually carried out.  And the bureaucrats who run the policy often have their own ideas of how to do it, and tend to resist outside interference (which includes Congress, interest groups, and the president).  So a lot of battles will be fought at that level.  Often, Congress will only pass a law as sort of a last resort in that sort of fight -- because passing laws is really hard, often a lot harder than, say, putting a hold on a nomination and bargaining for something.  Of course, that's especially hard as long as the Republicans hold 41 or more Senate seats and pursue a rejectionist strategy.

Now, all of that said, I think the public option is going to be a major plank of future (including 2010) Democratic campaigns, and is likely to become law in the not-distant future.  Short version of the argument: liberals really love it, it polls well and so candidates are unlikely to believe that it will hurt them, and it can be passed through a future reconciliation bill (and it scores well, so it can be used to "pay" for higher subsidy levels, or unrelated items, or even deficit reduction).  I think there's going to be a lot of pressure from liberals to add a public option through reconciliation in the next Congress, if Democrats still have the majority, and if it doesn't happen then I do think Obama is likely to campaign for it in 2012. 

As for smaller things that need to be done legislatively, I don't really know.  I think it's a lot harder to imagine getting a restructuring of the exchanges through Congress (to switch to the "national" exchanges in the original House bill rather than the "state" version in the bill that passed...scare quotes there because my understanding is that those are shorthand words for the differences, not really accurate descriptions.  But there may be one or more relatively small things that Republicans wouldn't strongly object to, probably tucked in to some larger measure rather than passing as stand-alone items.  Again, however, it's more likely that the Dems will try to affect things administratively, rather than by passing new laws.
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