Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Saying "Torture"

In torture news today, there's a study out demonstrating what those following the issue already knew: that editors decided not to use the word "torture" for Bush-era torture policy, despite using that word in the past when other nations used torture.  In Andrew Sullivan's words, they failed to tell "the unvarnished truth to their readers and listeners in plain English."

I am generally sympathetic to Adam Serwer's speculation about the causes for this failure, which center on the media's institutional norm of  even-handedness rather than on, say, the media's institutional norm of cravenness.  But (and I think Serwer agrees): that's an explanation, not an excuse. 

I don't have much to add here.  This was a clear, serious, disastrous failure by the New York Times and other newspapers and broadcasters.  I believe the Times has a new "public editor;" it seems to me that this issue is by for the most important item for that agenda. 

CBO's ACA Follies

I agree completely with Brad DeLong (the "technocrat" reaction) and Kevin Drum about the CBO's strange decision to include future changes in the ACA as part of their alternative fiscal scenario.

A quick explanation...part of CBO's job is to let Congress (and the rest of us) know what is likely to happen to the budget well into the future.  That's difficult enough because it requires guesses about long-run demographic and economic trends, which become wilder and wilder guesses as they go farther into the future.  It's even trickier if everyone knows that there are certain things that Congress is going to do that are not reflected in current law.  So CBO, quite sensibly, does separate estimates: one for current law, and one for what everyone knows is going to happen.

Of course, the latter is tricky.  There are a two significant easy ones: the alternate minimum tax, and the doc fix.   The baseline, in each case, is clearly phony; every year, Congress takes action to change the law so that the "baseline" (that is, current law) -- which no one wants, in either party -- does not take effect.  Others are more complex.  It's pretty clear that majorities of Congress want some of the Bush tax cuts to continue (while under current law they would expire), but there's a lot of uncertainty about what's actually going to happen.

But the ACA?  Democrats just passed it; they presumably support the changes in taxes and Medicare spending that they just voted for.  Republicans, to be sure, opposed it, including those two things...but it's hardly CBO's job to estimate the effects of the minority party's agenda, let alone a selective portion of that agenda.  At any rate, there's a huge difference between something that both parties say they intend to do, and which they've done many times, compared to something that only one (currently minority) party says it intends to do, but has never done before.  

Drum sums it up nicely:
The CBO does itself a disservice if it starts getting too heavily involved in political calculations like this. They've already made their best estimates about what effect healthcare reform will have on the federal budget, and if they want to change those estimates they should do so openly. But simply assuming that a future Congress will kill all cost savings measures with no special evidence to back that up? That's just not their job. CBO is supposed to be an honest broker, not a Washington Post op-ed columnist.

Do You Wanna Dance

I'm a little behind reading the Sunday papers (I've been thinking of doing a continuing twitter feature in which I notify everyone when I finish them, local and NYT.  I think the average is around Thursday lunchtime, not counting the Book Review).  At any rate, I finally reached the state news of my local paper, where I learned that Texas Democrats are retaining the famous -- infamous? -- Texas Two-Step.  That's the presidential nomination procedure in which most of the delegates are selected in a presidential primary, but a significant chunk are selected in a caucus/convention system, beginning with precinct caucuses that take place just after the polls close for the primary.  As you may recall, in 2008 Hillary Clinton won the primary by a narrow margin, but Barack Obama defeated her decisively in the caucuses, with Obama walking away with a slim majority of Texas delegates at the end of the day.

Anyway, the Texas Two-Step wasn't new in 2008, but it was news to almost everyone, because Texas hadn't actually been a meaningful stop on the presidential nomination tour for some time.  As a result, first of all the caucuses were chaotic...normally sleepy precinct caucuses were overrun by enthusiastic, committed, activists, hardly any of whom had ever attended such a meeting before.  In many of the cites, the rooms were too small, and there weren't enough materials for the number of people that showed up; in almost all cases,  no more than a handful of people had any experience with the procedures that were supposed to be used.  Good fun! 

One way or another, they've decided to retain it at this point.  Of course, barring anything unforeseen, the caucus portion will be back to a half-dozen voters per precinct or less in 2012, and for all we know it may be decades before Texas plays a key role in a Democratic presidential nomination again.  For those of us who chronicle the demands on the American voter, however, it's good to know that it's not easing up any time soon, at least not for Texas Democrats.

Against Laura Roslin and Glen Walken

Matt Yglesias uses the turnover in the office of Senate President pro tempore to complain about that the current presidential succession plan is both foolish (#3 after the president is someone in a ceremonial role that you qualify for by being superannuated?), and perhaps unconstitutional.  Fortunately, there's a plan already drafted.  The Continuity of Government Commission -- a bunch of big names from past Congresses and administrations, with political scientists Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein as the major players -- released their report on the presidency one year ago.  While their main focus was, as the title of the commission suggests, focused on the dangers of a catastrophic terrorist attack.

The Mann/Ornstein report suggests removing Congress from the line of succession.  Furthermore, they also want to remove the tail end of the cabinet, limiting cabinet-level succession to State, Defense, Justice, and Treasury (in that order).  After that, the commission suggests that presidents select in advance "four or five" additional people to complete the line of succession.  This would have to be an actual office (presumably unpaid!), nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.  It could be filled by prominent party politicians -- governors, for example -- or it could be filled, as Mann and Ornstein envision, by senior party politicians.  So Barack Obama might designate, oh, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Walter Mondale, and Tom Foley.  This would serve the commissions goal of making it harder for a terrorist attack to disrupt the American government (by spreading the line of succession around the nation, instead of concentrating them in Washington).  Beyond that, it certainly seems likely that if the president, vice-president, and the Big Four cabinet officials were all dead or incapacitated, Walter Mondale would be a better choice for an emergency president than, say, Tom Vilsack

(Yes, Laura Roslin was a terrific character, and perhaps a terrific president, but still...).

The commission also made suggestions for other weak areas and potential loopholes in the current presidential succession scheme, which is based on a 1947 law (along with the 25th Amendment).  Before 1947, by the way, Congress was not part of the order of presidential succession.

I think the commission's suggestions are a solid solution to a real weakness, and Congress should enact them.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from the commission's web page, little if anything is happening...but it should!  Whatever one thinks of the late Senator Byrd, I can't imagine that anyone thinks it's been a good idea for him to be close the presidency over the last couple of years, and the same was true of Strom Thurmand when he was president pro tem.  Hey, Congress!  It's been almost a decade since the September 11 attacks -- fix this stuff!

Feingold vs. the Bank Tax

Here's Kevin Drum, Monday, on Russ Feingold's decision to oppose the banking bill as it came out of conference:
But seriously: WTF? This is the final report of a conference committee. There's no more negotiation. It's an up-or-down vote and there isn't going to be a second chance at this. You either vote for this bill, which has plenty of good provisions even if doesn't break up all the big banks, or else you vote for the status quo. That's it. That's the choice. It's not a game. It's not a time for Feingold to worry about his reputation for independence. It's a time to make a decision between actively supporting something good and actively supporting something bad. And Feingold has decided to actively support something bad.
That's  Monday.  And what was, apparently, the real-life effect of Feingold's stubborn stand?  Well..back to Drum, on Tuesday:
After three Republican senators threatened to vote against the financial reform bill unless its $18 billion bank fee was removed, Democrats briefly reopened conference committee proceedings today and voted to remove it.
Granted, I don't have any idea whether Feingold's support would have save the bank fee, which I assume Feingold actually would support..  But it might have!  The truth is that the practical effect of Feingold bailing on the bill isn't to sink the bill; it's to empower the three New England Republicans a bit more than they would have been had he supported the bill.  Which, in this case, meant something that the banks, presumably, will be happier with. 

My larger point here is just to echo what Drum said: when politicians worry more about posturing than they do about making the best of what they have, there are real consequences.  That doesn't always mean that liberals in the Senate, for example, should just give up and do whatever the 60th most liberal Senator wants; there's plenty of room for fighting and negotiating and bargaining.  And sometimes, walking away may still be the best choice. However, what I'd say is that walking away better have some real-life, substantive benefits, or else the Senator is simply being self-indulgent and/or irresponsible. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kagan. Day One

Day one of the questioning, that is.  Just two quick notes for now...

First of all, I try to keep up with all the wacky ideas out there, from all factions and fringes of the political culture.  From the Tea Party crowd I know the arguments for why income taxes are theft, why the ACA individual mandate is unconstitutional, and why direct election of Senators ruined the republic...but I have to say that the flat-out attack on precedent was a new one for me.  For those not watching carefully, and for those who were wondering what Tom Coburn was talking about in his questioning today, please see this op-ed by Senator Jim DeMint declaring that he opposes Elena Kagan's confirmation on the basis of her commitment to respecting precedent.  It's true, of course, that liberals spent much of the last decade increasingly clinging to stare decisis, so I'm not exactly surprised.  But as Coburn and DeMint tell it, it sounds less like a case of pragmatic adjustment on questions of procedure than the direct election of Senators thing, a principled-but-ignorant, well, wacky idea. 

(By the way, Senator Coburn: exactly how is allowing for a federal minimum wage responsible for budget deficits?  Oh, never mind).

Second thing...I'll continue live-tweeting tomorrow, at least through the first round of questions.  I hope those who are following it enjoy it.  I also recommend Adam Serwer and Dahlia Lithwick, who I think are giving somewhat more substantive tweeting coverage than I am -- although I'm the only one who noted that shell have to recuse herself from any cases with robot litigants.  I like think that I'm fairly good at judging how these things are playing, but in this case...well, my wife grew up about six blocks from where Kagan grew up; my dad's from the Bronx; and, overall, I may be a westerner, but Upper West Side New York Jewish sensibilities aren't exactly foreign to me.  In other words, while I think she's doing amazingly well as far as the theater of it is concerned, but I have no sense at all of how her humor and attitude would play in Michigan, or North Carolina, or Iowa (where, I'm told, they just really love Chuck Grassley.  Go figure).  So I'll be looking out for some coverage from people as unlike me as possible, just to get a reality check.

Moving to a Partisan Press and...???

Is Sarah Palin's choice to avoid the press during her VP run an aberration, or the path of the future?

Let's sort this out a bit.  First, while I respect the frustration that Andrew Sullivan expresses over the situation, I think it's fair to say that Palin's strategy leaves reporters with a set of bad choices.  She's clearly decided that she's only willing to talk to reporters on her own terms, so they're faced with the unpleasant choice of either granting her a softball interview and trying to sneak in a little serious questioning, or refusing her terms, in which case she'll only be interviewed by a sympathetic partisan press.  Add to that a market incentive (Palin sells), and one can understand why reporters have pulled their punches in the rare chances they've had to speak with her.  That's not to say it's the correct choice -- only that reporters have only bad choices.

So, is the Sage of Wasilla winning?  Is she "getting away with it"? Well, that's where it gets interesting.  For her troubles, Palin is massively unpopular. has her at favorable/unfavorable averages at 35/52...that's pretty awful.   For a comparison, Romney is at 32/33; Obama is currently at 52/40.  What Sarah Palin has done is to retain the extremely strong support of a fairly small number of Americans.  But that's probably something she would have even if she was giving interviews!  Meanwhile, her media strategy is obviously doing an absolutely terrible job of selling her to anyone outside that small group.  Granted, in my view the product is at least as much of the problem as is the sales campaign, but then again all anyone is asking here is whether she's liked (as opposed to the much tougher sell of whether one would want her as president), and she's failing on that one, too.  It doesn't mean that she could never reach the presidency, if that's what she wants, but it's hard for me at least to see that the press strategy is helping her get there.

Meanwhile, we now have a Palin model of press relations for candidates to follow, and according to the NYT, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle is doing the Palin, taking questions from conservative talk show hosts but ducking TV correspondents and print reporters.  Will it work?  I have no idea (see here, too).  But we all know that at a state and local level, all most pols need is a basic and limited ability to spout cliches.  I'd love it if that wasn't the case, but it's been a long time since state and local reporters were up to the job (actually, there are plenty of good local reporters and correspondents, but few who are given the organizational support or resources to do good political reporting).  That's not universally true, but it is true more often than not.

Look, there are two things going on here, two ways that the media is in transition.  One of them is that we're moving from a 20th century ideal of a neutral press to a system that has some large place for a partisan press.  At the same time, we have a transition going on as a result of technological change, which is playing havoc with the sorts of communications channels that go back in some cases fifty years, and in some cases over a hundred years.  And in both cases, we really have no idea where we're going.  Will we have a robust, vigorous, and almost completely partisan press?  Will there still be a place for neutrality?  How will this play out for state and local politics?  What kinds of norms will the partisan press develop -- and will those norms be the same for each major party, and will norms in the national press apply to the local press?

What I do think is that during times of rapid transition, and in this case multiple, overlapping, and interacting transition, that all sorts of odd things fall through the cracks.  I think that's what's behind the Sharron Angle situation, and in a completely different way it's behind the Dave Weigel story.  That doesn't mean we should ignore those things!  To the contrary: we don't (at least some times) want the oddities to set precedents by default, because the way all these things are going to shake out is probably contingent: it depends not just on how the political parties are structured, and not just on the interaction of technology and the media, but also on how everyone involves acts.  And so I think it's great to see Andrew Sullivan dive in strongly where he sees a gap in the reach of the press, and it's great to see all the self-examination by reporters in the wake of the Weigel fiasco.  As far as answers, however, well, I don't think anyone has them, yet.  I just think that we're far better off if everyone involved thinks about what they're doing, rather than just bemoaning the demise of the old order. 

Sullivan/Palin, Again

I asked Andrew Sullivan for why he thought the story of Sarah Palin and her youngest matters; he answered.  (By the way, see also the comments to my post, many of which argue strongly for Sullivan's position).  Conor Friedersdorf makes the pragmatic anti-Palin case for leaving the story alone. I do urge those who are interested to read both pieces. 

I don't really have much to add to the Palin part of the story.  My bottom line, I guess, is that I'd like to give pols as much privacy as possible, and I really don't believe that fibbing about private lives is necessarily correlated with lies about public affairs, although I'll readily admit that's a belief without much evidence one way or another.  (Although Sullivan makes a good case that Palin has forfeited her own claims to privacy in this case because she has made it so public). When all is said and done, my feeling is that if the case that Palin has a history of telling whoppers can't be made without reference to this story, then I'd give her a pass on this story; if it can be made without this story, then I'd give all other pols a break by letting it go, because I want to allow them to smooth over the rougher edges of their intimate lives.  As it is, I think the case against her on these grounds comfortably reaches overkill without any reference to her children, so if I was a reporter I'd leave it at that.

That's the Palin side of it.  I may have some thoughts later on the press side of things.  I do appreciate Sullivan's comprehensive response.  For now, I'll give him the last word:
I have never claimed I know the truth. I don't. I only know that none of us does. We all have to rely on the word of Sarah Palin - something about as reliable as a credit default swap. I want to know the truth. Because if I am loony, I deserve the pushback and criticism for suspecting a story that turned out to be true. And because if Palin has lied about this, it's the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics. Not knowing which is true for real - and allowing this person to continue to dominate one half of the political divide - is something I think is intolerable. In the end, this story is not about Palin. It's about the collapse of the press and the corrupt cynicism of a political system that foisted this farce upon us without performing any minimal due diligence.

You Won't See Me

Chris Bowers is concerned about future Court selections:
That Republicans are basically giving up any attempt to defeat Kagan, despite her low poll numbers, is a ratification of the blank slate strategy for Supreme Court nominees...At the end of a very hot June, with political attention still turned elsewhere, and with Kagan effectively pulling off a blank slate strategy her whole life, her confirmation appears certain.  More worryingly, it also seems certain that any future President will be able to replicate this blank slate strategy with any nominee.  If there is a way to defeat it, no one appears to have figured it out yet. 
Matt Yglesias agrees.  

I'm not so sure.  Yes, Elena Kagan is by all accounts going to be confirmed.  But I'm really not sure things would be all that different if she had a somewhat longer paper trail, complete with controversy.  The Sonia Sotomayor case isn't identical, but it's similar -- and in that case, 31 of 40 Republicans voted against her.  I expect about the same number to oppose Kagan.  If there were 55 Republicans instead of 40 or 41, then we'd be talking about somewhere around 45 "no" votes, and it's fairly likely the nomination would be defeated by filibuster. 

On the other hand...what kind of evidence would push moderate Democrats and the two Senators from Maine to vote against a nominee?  In fact, moderate Democrats have a history of supporting nominees from both parties: they voted for Roberts, Alito, and Sotomayor, for Ginsburg and Breyer.  Even, for the most part, for Thomas.  The same with Snowe and Collins (who were not around for Thomas, so we don't know about that).  The only (fairly) recent nominees to lose support from the center was Robert Bork, and he needed a highly controversial paper trail and a confrontational hearing style to manage that.  Now, that's before the full 60 vote Senate, and I don't think it would be possible for Thomas or anyone else to get confirmed 52-48 today.  But the question here is about the voting behavior of the moderates, and the evidence is that they like voting "yes" on confirming Supreme Court Justices. 

So my guess is that Barack Obama had very little trouble finding someone who could get confirmed, given the size of the Democratic majority. On the other hand, Yglesias says:
So arguably if Obama really likes Kagan, he should have kept her in his back pocket as a possible “blank slate” nominee to be deployed in the future at a time when the Republicans have a stronger objective position in the Senate. 
Perhaps -- but  I'm not entirely convinced that there are a set of Republican Senators who are going to base their decision on, well, the nominee.  At any rate, I don't think the "blank slate" strategy is working with most Republican Senators; we'll see, but as I said I expect Kagan to draw about the same level of opposition that Sotomayor received.

The larger point here is that it's important not to assume that winning -- whether in elections, or confirmation battles, or in getting a bill passed -- implies that the strategy employed was correct, much less necessary. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

McCrystal/Bonds??? I Don't Think So

Can't save this one for Friday...minimal political content, though, but a bit about the press, I guess.

Andrew Sullivan posts a comment from a reader who compares the McCrystal episode to the Barry Bonds story:
Bonds spent years cheating but very few sports reporters would report the truth because they feared losing their access to the locker room. Bonds would quite bluntly threaten that access, as I remember. His hitting performance, due to the cheating, was making him a big draw for reporters. But if they asked about the cheating, they lost access.  Eventually it took two investigative reporters from SF to expose the cheating. Those reporters, who were not covering sports, did not value access to the locker room, so could not be manipulated by Bonds.  
The point about reporters in general may or may not be correct, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Barry Bonds story.  Reporters never liked Bonds, and never hesitated to report anything negative they came up with on him (and, as far as I can tell, Bonds never liked reporters and generally treated them like dirt -- I believe that it goes back to the treatment he believed his dad, the great Bobby Bonds, received from the press).    When Bonds began his amazing late-career surge, it took approximately no time at all for steroids accusations to start.  What the "two investigative reporters" uncovered was testimony from the grand jury investigating the steroids lab that (allegedly) supplied Bonds and others -- which was, I suppose, good reporting, but I don't think it constitutes "expose the cheating."   What it did expose was the court proceedings, which I continue to believe have been mainly a farce.

Moreover, while it's very likely (but still, at this late date, not really proven) that Bonds used steroids, the other stuff is not as clear.  Since steroids were not banned within baseball when Bonds (presumably) used them, it's not clear why that was "cheating" -- and if it was, then (1) dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of others were cheating in similar ways, and (2) virtually everyone with the likely exception of, oh, Dale Murphy had been cheating by using amphetamines for decades.  Including such "clean" players as Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and...well, pretty much everyone.  Pete Rose, to name someone who actually broke baseball rules.  As far as I'm concerned, I don't think there's been very much definitive evidence on a lot of this.  We know for sure that a lot of players used things that now are banned.  We know that some of those things almost certainly helped players bulk up...but we also know that a far bigger factor was the end of the old superstitions about conditioning and baseball (it was long believed that "musclebound" players were at a disadvantage.  No, really; Brian Downing, who played in the 1970s and 1980s, was considered something of a freak because he did weight training. There are a number of players who have claimed they used steroids; I believe them.  Beyond that, it's all speculation, for Bonds and everyone else.. 

As for far as I'm concerned, Barry Bonds could have never used anything now banned and gained all his late-career bulk from his fanatical workout regime; he could have used steroids without realizing what they were; or, for all I know, he may have used steroids throughout his career.  I'm sure he drank the special coffee his entire career, and that was (as far as I'm concerned) absolutely no different, so in my book he's equally "guilty" of whatever he's guilty of regardless of the details surrounding his late-career surge.  But as far as that goes, if the story that Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams is correct, then we still have pretty much no idea how much (if at all) the steroids contributed to his record seasons, how much (if at all) his (well-documented) fanatical new workout regime contributed, how much changes in technique that had nothing to do with physical changes contributed, and how much those factors interacted.  Nor do we know how many pitchers that Bonds faced were aided by various now-banned stuff (and if so how much it helped him), nor about most of the other hitters from his era.

Barry Bonds wasn't protected by the press.  Barry Bonds, almost certainly because he didn't cooperate with the press, was singled out by the press and turned into a symbol for all that ails baseball.  Given that by all accounts his trouble with reporters was at least in large part his own fault -- and that he was well-paid, to say the least, for the stuff he had to put up with, I don't particularly feel bad for him (except for the legal stuff, which is outrageous).  But as a baseball fan, I feel bad for myself and other fans because we have to read about this stuff, instead of, you know, baseball.  Not to mention that we were robbed of the declining year or two of the greatest player alive when he was hounded out of the game.  That's a shame, and something that no one involved -- not the press, not the prosecutors, and not the embarrassment of a commissioner of baseball -- has any right to be proud of themselves for.

The President and Primaries

Yes, back to this topic, again.  This time at the request of Eric Alterman:
Moreover, the fight over "primary-ing" useless Blue Dogs like Blanche Lincoln strikes me as the wrong argument. My question would be why would the White House get involved in these races at all. (And those people making the "weak presidency" argument are uniquely required to answer this question.) Certainly, it isn't because they were backing the favorite; neither Lincoln, nor Arlen Specter before her, were strong candidates in their respective general elections. (In fact, IIRC, both of them fared rather worse in prospective final elections than their primary opponents did.) Certainly, given their records, the White House could have lived with either Bill Halter or Joe Sestak just as easily as with Lincoln and Specter. So why even bother to get involved? The only answer, to me, would seem to be that the White House preferred Lincoln and Specter for its own reasons. Be nice to know what those are.
Yes, it would!  Well, it would be nice to know what deals were made, or what strategies went into it.  Granted, I'm not sure why the "weak presidency" crowd would be the ones asked this question.  No one thinks that the presidency is weak and so the president should just wait for bills to veto, or something like that.   No -- because the presidency gives very little uncontested formal power to the person who sits in the Oval Office, he has to be aggressive about using all his opportunities to help him achieve his goals.  In this, he's like everyone else in the political system -- except that he has more of those opportunities than anyone else.  Including the ability, at least if the conditions are right, to help or hurt incumbents seeking re-election.

As far as what happened in these cases, we really don't know...but I'll try a little speculation.

My guess would be that support for the two incumbents was the result of bargains that the White House struck (whether the agreements were explicit or not)..  In the case of Arlen Specter, what the White House received was a mainstream Democrat instead of a moderate Republican for most of the current Congress.  That's a fairly big deal!  Among other things, it's hard to believe that pre-primary Republican Arlen Specter would have voted for health care reform; without him, the Democrats would have been a vote short.   Specter was the 60th Democrat (once Al Franken was seated).  If the cost of that involved having the White House support a marginally less liberal candidate in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, it seems like a pretty good deal to me -- certainly, it isn't evidence that Obama had a general, abstract preference for less liberal Democrats.

What about Lincoln?  Well, it's a lot harder to know about that one.  We know that Lincoln has been with the president on a number of critical votes: the key cloture votes on health care, the stimulus, the banking bill.  We also know that she opposed liberals on several items, perhaps must obviously the public option, but also labor legislation, and on the details of various other measures.  It's worth noting that (as far as I recall) Lincoln was never the deciding vote against anything supported by mainstream Democrats; on the public option she was one of perhaps have who opposed it in its weakest forms, and one of probably a dozen or more who opposed stronger versions.  But there's no question that she's been on the conservative end of the party.  We also have a lot less access to information about what, if any, bargaining was involved.  With Specter, it's pretty clear that support for reelection was the price for getting him to switch parties.  With Lincoln, we have no idea whether she voted for the stimulus, health care, and banking reform as part of a deal to obtain support in her primary.   Perhaps those were her preferred votes anyway, and Obama got nothing for his support; perhaps she was inclined to oppose the entire Democratic agenda, and he persuaded her to stick with him on the big votes.  We really don't know.

Moreover, there could be bigger picture issues involved, as well.  There may be several Democrats concerned about primary challenges (and not just from the left).  Obama may believe that he's better off supporting most incumbent Senators if they're challenged in primaries; if so, he may consider his support for Lincoln as a down payment in earning the trust of other Senators.

It's also worth mentioning that in neither the PA or AR case was the challenge a clear case of left/right.  Nor was there clear trial heat polling data, at least in my opinion, indicating that either the incumbent or the challenger would be a much better candidate in the fall -- both challengers and incumbents were clearly strong, qualified professional politicians, so its not as if any of them could be expected to run a lot worse than early polling would indicate.  I can certainly understand arguments for challengers Bill Halter and Joe Sestak based on the belief that they would be more electable, but at least in my view, the evidence is far from clear-cut (and was even less clear cut when the decisions were made).

It's also worth remembering that White House support is certainly welcome from all candidates, but it isn't a magic wand.  For one thing, Obama clearly cannot control all Democratic Party resources, as seen by all those within the party network who supported Sestak and Halter.  Nor do we know that he could control Bill Clinton, who campaigned in Arkansas for Lincoln; we don't know whether Clinton did that on behalf of the president, or in response to his own political alignment within his home state.  As it turned out, the Arkansas primary was very close, and so even if Obama's help was fairly marginal it was certainly important.  However, no one knew that would be the case when the decisions were made (as it was not, it turned out, the case in Pennsylvania.  That's important to remember because it means that Obama was probably not able to simply demand whatever he wanted from Blanche Lincoln in return for his support, as Glenn Greenwald claimed:

Back when Lincoln was threatening to filibuster health care if it included a public option, the White House could obviously have said to her:  if you don't support a public option, not only will we not support your re-election bid, but we'll support a primary challenger against you (emphasis his).
He certainly could have said that, but we have no idea how she would have responded.  Perhaps she would have said: screw that -- there's no way I'm going to vote for the public option, and unless you support me, I'll never vote for health care or banking reform.

We don't know, and Lincoln's narrow margin doesn't prove anything, one way or another, about it.

I suppose I need to be clear here: nothing I'm saying here means that Obama should be immune from criticism from the left for his actions in these primaries, or for that matter for anything.  What it means is that Obama's actions should be looked at with the understanding that most of what he does is in the context of bargaining and dealmaking -- what Richard Neustadt called "persuasion" -- and not in the context of giving orders.  As I've said, for activists it's not really a viable strategy to admit to not knowing who's responsible for something and leaving it at that, and it may make sense to push the president even when it's possible that he's actually doing everything you want behind the scenes (and, of course, it may turn out that he's opposing you behind the scenes, in which case pushing him is also a good strategy). But smart advocates will recognize that presidents cannot simply order everyone to do what they want, and that therefore it's certainly possible that the president is working on their behalf even when things turn out the other way.

West Virginia

I find that I don't really have much to say this morning about Senator Robert Byrd, who died today, so instead I'll just talk a bit about West Virginia and presidential elections.  I've never seen a really good explanation for it, but West Virginia's recent shift from blue to red has to be one of the most significant movements of any state over the last forty or so years.

Nate Silver has this well-organized in a post way back in April, 2008, showing how each state compares to the national results.  What he shows is that West Virginia was more Democratic than the nation as a whole in every election but one from 1948 through 1996, deviating only in the Nixon reelection landslide in 1972.  Silver groups 15 southern and border states together, so it's easy to compare where WV lies within that group (the 11 confederate states and WV, OK, KY, and MO).  At the beginning of the period, West Virginia is in the middle of that region.  In 1952, it's the 7th-most Democratic of the 15 states, trailing Solid South states such as Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.  By 1964, however, West Virginia has stayed solidly Democratic, while the rest of the region has flipped -- Johnson does better in West Virginia than in any other southern or border state.  That continues right up through the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s; in Bill Clinton's reelection, West Virginia is second only to Arkansas in pro-Democratic tilt.

And then, suddenly, it's a Republican state.  In the two Clinton elections, West Virginia was seven and then six points more Democratic than the nation as a whole; in the two George W. Bush elections, it was seven and then ten points more Republican than the nation, and McCain carried West Virginia by 13 points in 2008.  That kind of shift is fact, it's possible to construct a rule that fits WV but no other state over the elections covered in Silver's chart (at least three elections with at least a +5 tilt to one party compared to the nation, followed by at least three with at least a +5 tilt to the other party).  I really don't know the reasons for the shift -- the emergence of climate as an issue in national elections?  But whatever the reason, it's pretty dramatic.

Of course, West Virginia has still elected Democratic Senators, and they've elected Democratic governors more often than not; current incumbent Joe Manchin won easily in 2004 and 2008, while West Virginians were supporting Republicans for president.   So I'm not sure that the presidential vote predicts anything about Byrd's replacement.

Beyond that, I think Adam Serwer had some useful words on Byrd in his new blog that everyone should be reading, and Nate Silver seems to be the go-to guy for updates on the procedure for replacing Byrd, which appears to be up in the air at the moment.

The Kagan Hearings

I haven't had time to check out the paper about confirmation hearings by Lori Ringhand and Paul Collins that's getting plenty of attention this morning.  What I can say is that the questions are generally (but not always) substantive; the answers are often not; and it's unlikely that any of it changes any votes in the Senate.  But that doesn't make the process useless.  Lots of stuff in democracies is about putting things on the record, and about forcing our elected and appointed leaders to explain themselves.  In general, our political culture doesn't do well with pre-ordained outcomes.  We tend to, on the one hand, look for the Perry Mason moment when one side concedes that the other is correct; on the other hand, we want everyone to make up their own minds based only on the arguments they hear today, without any long-term commitment to groups or ideologies interfering with our pure exercise of unattached reason.  Since both of those things are far more myth than reality, people get frustrated with things such as judicial nomination hearings, Congressional floor debate, and for that matter candidate debates, even though (in my view) each of those fulfill very important and useful purposes.

Now, all that said, the opening statements are almost always disasters, and I'd be happy if we could dispense with them and jump straight to the questions...or, better, get each side to pick their two best and limit opening statements to just four Senators. 

I'll have the TV on and I'll probably be tweeting on and off throughout the hearings, if I hear anything worth reacting to.  As usual, my live-tweeting is far more like theater review than it is careful analysis...the smart money seems to be on Al Franken to be the star player for the Dems, but again the format it pretty unwieldy for anyone to make much of a positive impression.  It's a lot easier to look like a doofus, and more to tweet about, too -- so we'll see who achieves that.

Catch of the Day

Well, actually, catch of Friday, but I didn't get around to reading it until much later.  Ed Kilgore's been doing must-read work on 2010 cycle primaries (so read the whole piece)...but beyond the useful background and analysis, he also has a good eye for stuff like this from the Utah Senate race:
To understand that these Men of Principle haven’t gotten rid of the hypocrisy of traditional politics, check out the web site of the losing candidate, Tim Bridgewater. At the top is a pre-primary jeremiad that includes this line: “My opponent, D.C.-based attorney Mike Lee, is spending $200,000 on TV and radio, spreading lies and distortions about my business background.” A bit later he accuses Lee of “a desperate lie.” But over to the left on the page is a new bulletin that, predictably, endorses that desperate liar for the general election.
Gotta love that.

Learning and Passing Laws

I've mentioned a couple of times now that one of the key things about the public option during the health care fight was just how new a policy idea the public option really was -- it was basically invented for the 2008 campaign.  I think that was part of why it was so hard to get it passed.

By contrast, health care as a general topic was, in legislative terms, ancient.  Supporters knew the terrain real, real, well, and a large part of why 2009-2010 had a different outcome than 1993-1994 was that Congress and the White House over the last two years treated the previous failure as a trial run.  Now, we don't know yet exactly which things made a difference -- and the composition of the Senate, which had nothing to do with legislative strategy, was a key part of success this time.  So I don't mean to suggest that we should put too much weight on strategy.  However, I tend to think that to the extent that strategy mattered, the Democrats consistently chose the path that made eventual passage more likely, in large part because they learned from previous mistakes.

What strikes me about climate change, then, as I read things such as this interview, is how new this issue really is.  Sure, it's been around for over a decade, but this is really the first-ever serious legislative effort.  Energy, of course, isn't new, and neither is the environment.  But climate change?  It really is a fairly new legislative topic.  As such, I think there was an enormous amount of uncertainty going wasn't clear which interests had to be coddled, and which ones opposed; which Democratic Senators were likely to be on board without trouble and which would be tricky; which political allies needed to be enthusiastic and which needed only to be satisfied.

Now, I have to say that I'm not a policy expert, by any means, so I'm not as familiar with any relevant literatures as I might be.  I know of Nelson W. Polsby on Political Innovation, and David Mayhew's America's Congress, which is about individual Members and how they affect policy, but neither of those is really about what I'm talking about, I don't think.  And there are numerous how-a-bill-becomes-a-law books, such as Victoria Farrar-Myers and Diana Dwyre's Limits and Loopholes (about the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill) that invariably span several Congresses from the introduction of an idea until the president's signing ceremony.  I'm not aware, however, of any study about how long it takes successful bills to become laws.  At any rate, it sure seems to me that the normally time frame for successful legislation is just short of forever, and that the relative inexperience everyone had with climate as an active issue may turn out to have been a big part of the difficulties the climate/energy bill has encountered during this Congress.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Baseball fans have to put up with quite a bit of nonsense about competitive's a favorite of baseball sportswriters and pundits, and in my experience a favorite of baseball haters of all kinds.  Baseball is perpetually supposedly rigged in favor of big market teams, and people tend to believe that whatever the evidence actually shows.

What I'm curious about is whether anyone complains about it in basketball.  I rarely get involved in conversations about the NBA, and I pretty much skip most of the coverage in my local newspaper, but I certainly don't get the impression that people consider it a major problem.  I guess I'm aware of conspiracy-like theories about the draft lottery supposedly having been fixed to favor the Knicks at some point...that's about all I remember.  As I said, I don't pay a lot of attention, but as far as I know there's no such dominant conversation, certainly nothing like what baseball has.

And yet...

The Lakers are the NBA champs (again); the Yankees are the defending World Series champs (again).  The biggest three cities in the US -- also the biggest three TV markets -- are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, right?  So let's see, now. 

In baseball, one team from NY/LA/CHI was in the World Series in 2009.
In the last ten years, 2000-2009, there were seven of those teams.
In the previous ten years, 1989-1999 (no WS in 1994), just three.
The previous ten years, 1979-1988, it happen four times.
Before that, 1969-1978, eight times.
And before that, 1959-1968, nine times.

So: it used to be almost an average of one team a year from the top three cities in the World Series, but in the last thirty years it's only happened about every other year.

What about the NBA?  There was one of those teams in the NBA Finals in 2010.  So:
In the last ten years, 2001-2010, it happened eight times.
In the ten previous years, 1991-2000, ten times, with only one year without such a team.
The previous ten years, 1981-1990, just seven times.

Before that was 1971-1980, only five times.
And before that, 1961-1970, eight times.

That would be, if my count is correct, twenty-five teams in the last thirty years, and 38 in 50 years -- compared to 14 in 30 years in baseball, and 31 in 50 years. 

Of course, basketball also has a dominant "other" team from a very big market, although not from the top doesn't really have anything like that.  I'm not sure how to think about that, one way or another.  But, really, I'm not trying to make a strict comparison between big market advantages in baseball vs. basketball; I'm just wondering why market size is a huge big deal in baseball, but not in basketball.  Or, perhaps some readers who are far more rounded sports fans than me could tell me if I'm wrong: do NBA fans worry about market size? 

Logjam Update

And so, after seventeen months plus, the administration finally has someone in place at the top of TSA, as third-times-a-charm nominee John Pistole was confirmed by voice vote today.  That ends a pretty good week for confirming nominees.  By my (quick) count, there are some forty-four executive branch nominees remaining that have made it through committee and should be ready for floor action.  Not great, but better than it was.  I have no idea how many openings there are at other stages of the process, including those with no nominee yet, but at least the silliest category -- uncontroversial nominees cleared by committee but stuck waiting for floor action -- has been mostly cleared out.  I should note, as I always do, that Barack Obama appears to be completely undamaged by the two failed nominees who preceded Pistole, and the White House would do well to learn from that to find a way to dramatically reduce vetting of nominees, preferably with the cooperation of Congress.

Movement remains very slow on judges, with most of that being the president's fault: there remain 50 district court and six court of appeals vacancies without a nominee, along with another 21 announced future vacancies without a nominee. Hey, Barack Obama: how about some judicial nominations!

Reporting Presidential Approval

Anyone who believes that Barack Obama's approval ratings have been damaged by the oil spill should head right now to Brendan Nyhan's comprehensive examination of the evidence.  Shorter Nyhan: we don't know!  And reporters or pundits should, really, leave it at that.  See also a nice story by Greg Marx, to basically the same effect.

There's nothing new here.  Just to recap what people have been saying for years...

1.  Use all the polls, not just one poll (even if you're working for the news organization that commissioned the poll).  Always set any single poll in the context of polling averages, such as the ones at the terrific

2.  Very small changes are often just random noise, not real changes.

3.  Causation is extremely difficult to prove in most cases.  Hey, we can be pretty sure that George W. Bush's approval rating record spike had something to do with the September 11 attacks -- but knowing the effect of the oil spill on minor changes (if they exist) on Barack Obama's approval ratings over the last two months is a lot harder.

4. Also, things don't necessarily move in the same direction.  For all we know, the oil spill has boosted Obama a couple of points, but the economy (or Afghanistan, or something else) has pulled him down by the same amount or a bit more. 

5.  On approval ratings, even when it's pretty clear what general event may be behind shifts in approval ratings, it's still not going to be clear what specific part of that event is doing the work (and, not all parts of it are necessarily pushing in the same direction).  So even if we know that Obama's approval ratings have gone down over the last couple months (probable, not totally certain) and even if we knew that the oil spill was responsible (we don't), that would still leave a lot more questions than answers.  Perhaps people are happy with Obama's demeanor, but not with the results.  Perhaps most Americans aren't affected by it one way or another, but there's a small segment of oil company enthusiasts who previously liked Obama but for whom Joe Barton's accusations ring true.  Perhaps the fact of the oil spill puts everyone in a negative mood and would have cost Obama 10 points, but his well-regarded performance meant he only lost two or three points (or the other way around -- perhaps the fact of the oil spill would have produced a rally effect that Obama ruined by performing badly).  Finding out that the president's approval rating changed over some period basically does nothing at all to help answer those questions. 

Good Congress, Bad Congress

I wrote an item earlier in the week casting doubt on the idea that people would ever pay attention to the mind-numbingly boring details of the banking bill conference committee, but I should have added one other thing: it's too bad that they don't.  It makes Congress look good.  They're obviously hard at work (and going late into the night at times); they seem to know what they're doing; and overall it's a much better side of Congress than most people ever see.  There's some posturing, sure, but a whole lot less than people are used to.  Which comes to mind not just because I watched some of the conference committee late last night, but also because we're coming up on one of the occasions that makes Congress look about as bad as possible: the round of opening statements during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a Supreme Court nominee.  Alas, that's one of the things that people actually do watch -- the cable networks go live, and the arguments and topics of discussion are all familiar and relatively easy to follow. 

Now, I assume that most people watching the conference committee in action would be totally lost, in one sense -- the procedure is obscure, and the issues technical (OK, maybe it's just me -- I just can't bring myself to get interested in the policy details of this issue at all).  Still, I don't think people would watch this and get the impression that politicians are preening clowns, which is exactly the impression people will have of Senate Judiciary when their hearing gets started, at least if past results are any guide to future performance. 

My suggestion for those of you reading this -- and if you are, you're certainly in the upper sliver of high-information, high-interest citizens when it comes to politics and public affairs -- my suggestion is that if you've never watched a Congressional committee markup or conference committee, that you make an effort to watch one.  Floor action, hearings, election campaigns...that's when we see our Members of Congress, but it isn't when they do serious legislating.  Now, a fair amount of legislating goes on behind closed doors -- which is entirely appropriate, by the way.  But, still, if you're interested in politics, I really do recommend watching a mark-up sometime.  Well, at least fifteen minutes, half an hour, something like that, to get a taste of it.  I'm certainly not claiming that if more people watched committee markups that everyone would love Congress; I know everyone hates Congress, and they always have and they always will.  I'm just saying that it would be nice if at least those who care the most and spend the most time on politics would at least get some sense of what Congress actually does when it writes laws.

Me, I'm trying to figure out how to survive the Kagan hearings.  I'm thinking maybe a lot of really sarcastic live-tweeting, maybe. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Read Stuff, You Should

I don't really have anything in particular to recommend avoiding this time, so I'll do a general one: avoid reading anything that attributes America's relative lack of interest in soccer to anything about the game itself, or anything in America's national character, or anything about why Americans are different than people in other nations.  I'm skipping Doris Kearns Goodwin's piece on Lincoln and Obama in the NYT, but that's on general principle; since I skipped it myself, I can't recommend avoiding it to anyone else.

Now, on to the good stuff.

1.  TNC, always.

2.  I do links pages like this one whenever I get around to it, and feature whatever I happened to enjoy; Bruce Bartlett is doing them frequently, and organized around a different topic each time -- it's a great service.  Here's one on state and local government budgets, another seemingly dull but shockingly important topic.

3.  Seth Masket saw the Bill Clinton shift (to the extent it happened) from the inside, and lived to tell the tale, or at least his corner or it.

4.  Digby understands that liberals can be unhappy with some of the things that Democrats do and still prefer they're in power.

5.  Brad DeLong: against balance (when not warranted); Greg Marx shows how to use what political scientists know.

6.  On those Nate Silver pollster ratings: Brendan Nyhan is very good, John Sides is if anything even better.  I'm sitting in third place in my roto league thinks in large part to Silver's numbers, so I'm not an unbiased observer (but actually, John nails it).

7.  Sarah Libby on Ross Douthat.

8.  Andrew Sullivan's recent essay on Obama is well worth your time; Matthew Dickinson doesn't want Obama to panic about the oil spill.

9.  And Matt Yglesias makes an excellent and little-heard point about lobbying.


C'mon, Reporters: Of Course It's a Filibuster

Jeff Sessions today claimed that (1) he hasn't decided whether or not to filibuster Elena Kagan; (2) there was no filibuster against Sonia Sotomayor; (3) he and other Republicans are respecting the "Gang of 14" agreement to limit filibusters to what he calls "extraordinary circumstances," and (4) oh by the way, it's different now because with Scott Brown, we have 41 Republicans.

In other words, Sessions is trying to get credit for not filibustering except when the extraordinary circumstance exists of 41 votes against a nominee.  Apparently, from the two stories I looked at, no reporter followed up with the obvious questions: would Sessions consider voting yes for cloture and no on confirmation? Would any Republican do so if there were 41 (or more) votes against confirmation? 

Reporters are doing their readers and viewers a major disservice here; they're botching the story.  Of course it's a filibuster.

OK, a little background.  There have been only two cloture votes on judicial nominations during this Congress.  On the nomination of David Hamilton, 29 Republicans including Sessions opposed cloture; 39 (including one, Hutchison, who missed the first vote) opposed confirmation.  A second judicial nominee, Barbara Keenen, was confirmed by a unanimous vote after a unanimous cloture vote. But a bit more of a look reveals that the only judges getting confirmed are the ones that have no opposition.  This year, every judge that's made it through has either passed in a voice vote, a unanimous vote, or with one dissenting vote, except for one: twenty Republicans opposed Thomas Vanaskie.  Same thing last year: voice vote, unanimous vote, or tiny opposition (three no votes in one case), except for Hamilton and Andre Davis, who drew 16 no votes.

Now, one might conclude from this that judicial nominations are running smoothly because Republicans support Obama's nominees, but that would, of course, be wildly incorrect.  There are numerous judicial nominations that have not yet reached the floor because they're blocked by a hold, which is ultimately just a promise of a filibuster.  And with low-priority nominations (and bills), simply the threat to chew up floor time is sufficient to block a nomination, even if the Senators doing so don't have the votes to prevent cloture.  In other words, a hold is a form of filibuster, and quite a few judicial nominees are being, and have been, filibustered. 

Really, however, it's even more simple than that: as long as Republicans insist that it's a 60 vote Senate, then every nomination, and ever bill is being filibustered.   To claim that it's a 60 vote Senate is to claim that the filibuster has been institutionalized, that it's the way the Senate always does business. 

And that's historically brand new; it really never existed until 1993, and never existed in it's current, full, form  until last year.  It's the right of Republicans to act that way under Senate rules -- and I, for one, think it's not a terrible idea for judicial nominations to have to overcome serious hurdles, although I'm ambivalent about exactly what those hurdles should be.  But the idea that anyone would take them seriously when they claim they're not filibustering is preposterous, and it's terrible journalism when reporters treat the claim with a straight face. 

All About "The Economy, Stupid"

There's an interesting exchange between DiAnik e.g. and Andrew Sprung about how ideas work in politics.  Which I might comment about, but I was much too busy getting annoyed while reading this bit of it...first, from e.g.:
These, I think, are the methods by which public opinion may be moved:...
• A timely and effective message, repeated ad nauseam ("It's the economy, stupid;" "change")
And from Sprung:
As for "timely and effective messages," Bill Clinton's and Obama's worked because they were backed by policy prescriptions credibly purporting to address current problems. 
OK, political junkies: do you know what set me off?  "It's the economy, stupid" wasn't a message repeated ad nauseum, and it didn't "work" in the sense of persuading anyone, at least not voters.  "It's the economy, stupid" was not, in fact a Clinton campaign slogan in 1992.   Nor was it ubiquitous during that campaign.

Here's what I remember, supplemented by a quick NYT search.  At Bill Clinton's main headquarters, James Carville had posted a sign that read:

Change vs. more of the same
The economy, stupid
Don't forget health care

It was for the staff, to remind them what the campaign was about.  It was certainly not used in ads, and I don't believe the candidate ever used the phrase in public.

I searched the New York Times, and the first mention I found was a Michael Kelly story on September 1.  It's then the title of a Week in Review story on September 13, the lead in what I think is an editorial on October 11 (about campaign finance), the title of a A.M. Rosenthal column on October 30, mentioned in a news article on October 31, and then referred to in column by William Safire on November 2.  Only in the last two pieces is it referred to without describing it as a message on the sign. The tricky one is the October 31 news article, which refers to it as the theme of the campaign in the context of his stump speech.  Without doing further research, all I can say is that I'd be shocked if the phrase was part of the stump speech; given the context, it's fairly clear to me that the story (also by Kelly) is using the sign to frame the speech, rather than claiming that the speech quotes the sign.  And of course, that makes sense; within campaign HQ, the "stupid" clearly refers to campaign workers...on the stump, it would refer to voters (and why would the candidate tell voters not to forget health care?).   At any rate, that's a total of five sightings in the NYT prior to election day.

Also, in every version of it but one it's just "the economy, stupid."  The exception?  While Rosenthal gives the correct version in his column, the headline is "It's the economy, stupid."  Of course, the "it's might have originated elsewhere, but that's the only time the Times rendered it that way through election day.

For what it's worth...I was a very attentive follower of that particular election, including daily reading of the Hotline.  Maybe not cover-to-cover, maybe I missed a day or two, but that, plus TV coverage, plus whatever else was available then.  One can never trust one's memory about these things, but if you asked me about "the economy, stupid," I'd have said that it first received attention in a Ted Koppel behind-the-scenes show broadcast just after the election.  Obviously, that's not quite right; it was public from at least September 1.  But I'm fairly sure it wasn't really well known up to the last week of the election, and certainly wasn't a campaign slogan or anything like that. 

By the way, Kelly makes it clear that the Carville version was derived from an already popular expression; it didn't create one:
The language of the sign consciously echoes a sign seen above the desks of office wits everywhere: "Keep it simple, stupid."
And this concludes everything you ever wanted to know about "it's the economy, stupid."  Unless, of course, my memory and quick search are mistaken, in which case I'm sure someone will correct me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bandwith...Or Boredom?

OK, on this one color me not convinced.  Tim Fernholz:
TPM's Christina Bellantoni has made a list of public figures who are taking a breather from public scrutiny during Gen. Stanley McChrystal's 15 minutes of gaffe. The one group that she forgot to add, though, is telling: The banks and their lobbyists currently fighting strong financial reform during conference committee negotiations between the House and the Senate.
While the conference committee meetings, which promised unusual transparency, were much anticipated, the increasing focus on the BP disaster left both members of Congress and the media with limited bandwidth for the issue.
I don't know... now, I happen to be the sort of person who is bitter because Dish Network won't add C-SPAN 3, but the combination of banking regulation and congressional posturing...well, I'm just not buying that there was ever much of a market for that one.  Among the public, or within the press corps.  I don't know...I get that banking regulation is important, but interesting?  We're not talking about a policy area that really draws the crowds, or gets top billing on the stump.  And, yes, what happens in and around the conference committee is important, but for better or worse it's floor action that almost always gets the coverage, not mark-ups or, most of the time, conferences.  I'm sort of thinking that if it wasn't the BP disaster and McChrystal, it would have been something else in the real news, or perhaps shark attacks, that Aruba thing, or just more World Cup hype.  

Check in the Mail

Jonathan Chait has a great catch in the crosstabs of the latest Gallup poll on health care: old people hate the ACA, everyone else loves it.  Ezra Klein points out that a large part of this is probably driven by senior dislike of Barack Obama in the first place.  I'd like to see a statistical check on that, but it sounds right to me.

Greg Sargent adds that the White House has been aggressively courting seniors on this topic.  It seems to me that two actual events -- as well as the spin surrounding them -- should be important to the future direction of public opinion among this group.  On the one hand, what's actually going to happen with the Medicare Advantage plans cut by the ACA?  Will seniors experience real cuts, and if so will they blame it on Obama and the Democrats, or on their insurance companies?  On the other hand, checks are now starting to go out to Medicare recipients who fall into the donut hole, as the first step to closing that gap.  Surely, that will be a plus for those who get the checks; will they credit Obama, the Democrats, and the ACA, and if so will that be enough to convert former skeptics? 

I don't know the answer to those questions, but I suspect they're where the next steps of this go.  I should add that as far as the politics of 2010 are concerned, it's worth noting that old people vote a lot more regularly than young people -- even without any enthusiasm effects, the electorate is likely to be quite a bit more anti-reform than the general popular.


I sort of buried my first comments about this at the bottom of a post last week, but I think it's a topic worth revisiting and expanding on, because it leads to a fairly important question: given all that I've said about how the presidency has only limited powers (and see, too, Brendan Nyhan's comments), what's an activist to do?

What brings this up for me today is a post by Scott Payne taking issue with Andrew Sullivan's suggestion that liberal critics of the president show a bit of patience with him.  This gets me to the distinction I drew last week between analysts and advocates.  Whether it's the death (for now) of the public option, or moderation in the banking bill, or detention policies, the questions about "what happened" are very different from the questions about "what should we do."  In general, analysts are going to be interested in the former, activists in the latter.  And analysts -- especially academic analysts -- are sometimes going to be satisfied with not knowing.  Sometimes, it's good enough to say that we'll have to wait for more evidence to really get the full story, even if that means waiting for books to come out, or even for papers to be declassified.  For an honest analyst, "I don't know" is always the best answer if, in fact, you don't know.

Advocates, however, need to know what to do, and "I don't know" can't be the end of it.   So even if an honest advocate realizes that the reach of the White House is limited, it still may be the case that the best move is to urge the White House to take action.  For the liberal advocate, it may not matter whether Obama cut the best deal available or if he actively opposed liberal interests; either way, the best move may be to criticize the results.

Notice I said it "may" be the best move.  And that's where smart advocates will listen to smart analysts.  Smart advocates need to know that presidents cannot rule by either fiat or magic wand.  They need to assess the politics of various issues honestly, fully understanding how the political system works, before they choose which action to take.  Because the last thing that smart advocates want is for their efforts to be counterproductive.

Sometimes, that's going to create difficult choices.  Let's say, for example, that it's unclear whether a particular policy frustration is caused by (1) the president's actual opposition; (2) the president's calculation that the electoral costs of pursuing the policy are too high; (3) the actual opposition of marginal Senators; or (4) marginal Senators' calculations about the electoral costs of supporting the policy.  What should an advocate do?  I don't know!  Tell me a bit more.  Is the advocate interested in multiple issues, or just the single issue; if the former, she might be far more inclined to accept the political judgment of professional pols than if she only cares about one issue (because those pols may be in a better position to assess the complexity of how one issue affects another).  What kinds of leverage do advocates have about the Senators who may be in question?  Is the issue one around which it is relatively easy to rally visible support?  Does the issue poll well?   What do we know about the opposition?  Are there already deals in place over this issue, and if so what gains (if any) would be put at risk by upsetting those deals?  That's just a taste of what advocates need to think about before deciding on a course of action.

If that's too's a good example.  The White House is currently floating a compromise on climate/energy, a cap-and-trade element including only utilities.  Now, what should environmentalists do?   Should they embrace this as the best possible deal?  Reject it, because it's worse than nothing?  Reject it, because it's worse than what they'll get if they continue to push for a comprehensive bill?  I don't know.  It requires a lot of knowledge -- policy knowledge, about the substance of the available alternatives, and political knowledge, about the chances of the compromise winning, the chances of something better winning, the chances of no bill at all.  And some strategic calculation: perhaps advocates are better off pushing for a better bill even if they would actually be pleased with the compromise, because pushing hard for the best bill possible might help in the bargaining.  But perhaps not; perhaps rejecting the compromise leads to no bill at all (which, if advocates actually favor a limited bill, would be a disaster).

Consider another example: the fight over the public option.  Here, one of the key things that advocates needed to understand was that the version of the public option that had a realistic chance of getting to 60 votes was, in the view of policy analysts, of little more than symbolic importance.  The "robust" version was, again according to policy analysts, more significant, but still quite limited -- and the clear politics of the situation was that the "robust" public option was far less popular among marginal Democrats than the symbolic version (should it have been?  I don't know, but it was, and that meant it would have taken additional resources to do something about it, very likely more than were available to anyone involved).  Effective advocates needed to know the rules about reconciliation, and about Senate voting procedures, and House voting procedures...lots of stuff like that -- and the actual, real, rules, not wishful thinking about the rules.

The first point here is that these are actually pretty tricky questions.  The second point would be that any additional understanding of how the political system actually works is probably pretty helpful in answering these questions; that suggests that advocates should seek out what analysts can tell them (or, have their own analytic side).

I can suggest a couple of things.  If one believes that the only reason a policy is not enacted must be that the president did not favor it, then one is going to make a lot of poor choices in deciding how to advocate for policies.  Indeed, the hallmark of the American system of government is that it's easy to stop policy change.  That certainly does not mean that one should never criticize the president!  Sometimes, that's going to be the best way to place pressure.  All it means is that criticisms (or support) of the president should be based on knowledge, and good judgment.

I would also say that for those who care about multiple issues, and for whom most of those issues break along party lines (and that's the majority of political activists): it's worth keeping an eye on the big picture.   That means, more often than not, keeping an eye on the next election cycle(s).  Thinking back to health care...I think it's highly likely that had Harold Ford, Bruce Lunsford, and Ronnie Musgrove been in the Senate instead of Bob Corker, Mitch McConnell, and Roger Wicker (to pick three close races from the last two election cycles), I think a significantly more liberal bill would have been produced, even if all three joined the Ben Nelson caucus (if instead Democrats had won twice in Maine and in Florida in 2004, well, even better for them).  Now, it's also the case that politicians are notoriously scared of their own shadows, and mistakenly believe that a single vote will doom them for reelection; advocates need to know that electorates are not so easily spooked -- and that pols are.

So, to pick another example: I don't think we know the full story behind Barack Obama's policies on detention, civil liberties, and other similar issues.  If you ask me as an analyst whether he is the prime actor on those policies, or has compromised with (or been defeated by) various other key players, I wouldn't know the answer.  If you're not happy with "his" policies, however, I'd say that it absolutely is the right call to criticize him -- it's a lot more likely to be effective than criticizing faceless bureaucrats who will never need to go before an electorate, and waiting until we know the full story leads only to inaction.  And exert as much pressure as you can in party primaries, and fight for the party that better reflects the policies you favor in November.  Even if they only somewhat better reflect your policies.  Because frustration aside -- and if you're going to be an advocate in a Madisonian system, in a polity with over 300 million citizens, you're going to have a whole lot of frustration, and you're going to want to be ready for it and learn not to act based on frustration instead of reason -- American politics is incremental, and the worst thing you can do is throw up your hands and pretend that there's no difference between the parties, or that "punishing" pols you think betrayed you is more important than getting the most lopsided majorities you can muster.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

La-Da-Di-Da, Ladies and Gents

The best thing that you're going to read today is Ezra Klein's very smart post about The News:
It's trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what's going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you've not really been following is hard
And, even better than diagnosing a problem, he has a solution:
If I edited a major publication -- or even a medium-sized one -- I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyperlinked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be kept updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you'd have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. 
Sounds good! 

This is obviously a case where internet-based publications can have an enormous advantage over the old-fashioned kind.  I think we're heading in that direction -- for example, recently a linked to the NYT promising 2010 cycle election site -- but of course that's electoral politics, not policy.  Still, if one goes to the main "Politics" page of the NYT or to the "Caucus" blog, one finds links to quite a bit of information about House, Senate, statehouse, and other elections (here's the main page for the House).  Go to the latest "At War" blog post, and there's basically nothing -- no information about how many troops are over there, the timeline, the casualties, nothing.

The NYT, WaPo -- they should each have a reference page for the banking bill, for the ACA and the stimulus (because policy-making doesn't stop after a bill is signed into law), for Iraq and for Afghanistan, and for climate/energy.  At least.   I don't know anything about costs and journalism, but I can't imagine that it would be enormously expensive to set up and maintain such a resource. 

So, I'm with Ezra Klein: the news is good, but it's not enough, not any more.

Back to Presidential Power

Glenn Greenwald has responded to my earlier reply to his comments surrounding the Blanche Lincoln runoff, in some detail, and with plenty of strong language, twice.  Fair enough.  I'll leave the snark to Jonathan Chait -- as John Sides said recently, he has the comparative advantage on that.  And I'm afraid I'm boring everyone with this, since I've written a half a dozen times or so on the topic lately (for those new to it, I suppose I'll put the links below).  However, I suppose I should go through this one more time. I'm just going to discus the general point, not the specifics about Blanch Lincoln and the public option; I and others have covered that ground enough, I think.

First, of course, no one ever said that presidents were impotent.  I've said repeatedly that the president is the single most influential person within the government; in fact, I said yesterday that the president's chief-of-staff was likely to try to stick around because only a couple positions are more influential.   At a basic level, this isn't that complicated; the president cannot get whatever he wants, but does have plenty of influence.  And, yes, I suppose I have to say, I would have been (and was) saying the same things during the Bush presidency. 

Second, there's a big conceptual issue here, which is that the president, the presidency, and the executive branch of the government are three very different things.  The president is a single human being.  That's who I'm talking about when I talk about the president: Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton.  Then there's what I generally call, following John Hart, the presidential branch of government: the White House, or the Executive Office of the President.  It consists of the White House staff, and various agencies -- OMB, the Council of Economic Advisers -- housed within the EOP.  The president has direct control of the presidential branch on paper, and in fact has quite a bit of ability to influence , although in reality the president's ability to influence all of what happens in his name is limited by his own time and energy, as well as the bureaucratic skills of those who may have their own agendas.  I'm not going to be too upset about anyone who treats the White House as an extension of the president, although I'd caution them that it's not always quite that way.  And then, third, is the executive branch of the government -- the various departments and agencies that actually carry out policy.  The president can influence that branch, but he's constantly competing with Congress, with interest groups, with courts, potentially with his political party, with state and local governments, and perhaps most of all with the civil servants who work in those agencies.  And as Robert Farley says here:
Bureaucracies, especially large ones associated with the state, are deeply resistant to change, and manifest that resistance in any number of ways. This is not a phenomenon that is limited to the Obama administration, or to the United States government. In every state (and, indeed, in every corporation) the power of the executive is limited in ways that aren’t obvious from a surface legal analysis. Observing this hardly constitutes an apology for the executive. At risk of Godwin, Hitler and Stalin were unable to coerce their bureaucracies into doing precisely what they wanted, in spite of minimal legal obstacles to executive power. 
And the American president has all sort of major legal obstacles to executive power.  Does that mean he has no influence at all?  Of course not!  He has, as I've said, more weapons at his command than anyone else in the political system.  But he wants lots of things; those competing for him for influence often have a narrow agenda (and with bureaucrats, it's often to be left alone).  He often wants change, and the Madisonian system is biased in favor of the status quo.  The result?  Sometimes the president gets his way, sometimes he doesn't.  When he doesn't, it's always possible that it's because he "really" wanted the other result and was dissembling if he said otherwise -- but it's just as possible it's because he lost.  And it's even more complex than that; he may have lost because the item was something he wanted, but a fairly low priority.  Or it could be a fairly high priority, but one he was willing to trade for other things.  The truth is that it's often very hard for outsiders to know, partially because presidents don't like to get a reputation for losing so they often adopt the policy that resulted from their defeat, and partially because the reporting on lots of this stuff is very limited. 

A good example, and one I've used before, is Bill Clinton and the ban on gays in the military.  As best as I can tell, the story goes like this: he supported an end to the ban.  It was, however, not a high priority.  The policy was opposed by much of the military leadership; by the out party; and by crucial Democratic Senators, most of all Sam Nunn.  Clinton was defeated on this one, partially because it was a low priority for him, and partially because he played the game rather badly, allowing (by foolishly answering a question at an early press conference) the issue to become high-visibility, which worked against reform.  He then embraced the "compromise" DADT policy as if it had been his from the beginning, not wanting to fight on in a losing cause when he had other priorities. 

This, of course, is all over the newspapers today (to use a quaint, dated, phrase), because of the flap with General McChrystal, which reminds us again that even where his formal Constitutional powers are strongest, the president still isn't all-powerful.  The thing to remember here is that there are multiple battles going on, and the president needs to keep his eye on all of them: strategies within Afghanistan; troops levels and funding; the Iraq withdrawal; military and procurement reform; DADT; and who knows what other issues.  Not to mention that with the public criticisms, Obama's reputation is on the line, and as Neustadt told us everyone is watching, not just those concerned with Afghanistan.  All of which is only to say that whatever happens isn't always the president's first choice, or even second or third choice -- although it could be -- and that one can't simply assume that executive branch actions are the same thing as presidential actions. (In this case, his first choice would pretty much have been that his generals kept their mouths shut around reporters  Didn't happen).  Nor can one assume that because the executive branch (or "the government") becomes more powerful that the president is necessarily the beneficiary, as a quick tour through the career of J. Edgar Hoover will show.

I could go on, but that's enough for one post.  Two more to come: one is a real follow-up to this about analysts and advocates, and then a second one (really, in the works.  I promise!) about the imperial presidency.

Election Day

Runoffs in North and South Carolina, and the post-convention primary in Utah.  Three big races: SC-Gov (R), NC-Sen (D), and UT-Sen (R).  Also, we'll presumably lose a Member of the House tonight, with Bob Inglis presumably getting knocked off in a runoff.   The invaluable Taegan Goddard, as always, supplies poll closing times.

I'll send you to Ed Kilgore's nice analysis for a rundown of what's happening, and I'll just make a couple of comments going in.  I still don't understand why national Democrats are so sour on Elaine Marshall, who is locked in a tight battle with Cal Cunningham for the chance to take on Richard Burr; Burr isn't polling very well, and is probably the weakest GOP incumbent Senator on the ballot this November.  In South Carolina, Palin-backed Nikki Haley will probably win.  For what it's worth, I can give a bit of my own observations here: I watched a chunk of the runoff debate, and she comes off much more as a mainstream conservative candidate than as a Tea Party flake (of course, that's based on maybe half an hour of one debate, so I wouldn't rely on it over actual reporting). 

As always, I urge all to vote early, vote often, and celebrate democracy. 

Logjam Eased


And, just like that, the Senate has approved 60-some nominations today, mostly executive branch (via the invaluable Senatus).  That's on top of three district judges approved yesterday.  It's not quite half of the nominations that have cleared committee and are awaiting floor action.

Looking through the list, today's group is a mixed bag.  We have quite a few new members of obscure and presumably noncontroversial panels, such as five confirmations for the  National Museum and Library Services Board.  We have members of less obscure governing panels, such as the NLRB and NTSB.  There are a bunch of US Attorneys and US Marshals. There are also political appointees to the Departments of Labor, Education, HHS (two there), and Defense.

Today's batch also included some judicial nominations, filling three vacancies on the DC Circuit.  It's about time! (Oops!  Sloppy work by me -- see comment below).

This hardly solves the problem; there's still a large backlog.  However, from the beginning of the Obama Administration, there's been a double problem -- the Senate has not only stalled on controversial nominations, even those with strong majorities, but also on all the rest of the nominations.  There are still going to be fights over nominees that Republicans oppose, and I still think that the administration and Congress are vetting nominees too thoroughly, and allowing obstruction too easily -- and I think that Republicans are wrong to block executive branch nominees on partisan grounds, and I'd favor reforms to make that more difficult.

Still, a whole bunch of people confirmed.  It's a start.
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