Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Health Care and Midterms

Why are Democrats in trouble as the 2010 midterm approaches?  The three leading culprits seem to be: the economy; campaign-centric explanations (such as that Obama "isn't connecting" or isn't campaigning enough or that Democrats are bad at framing issues); and various other issue-based explanations.  Of the latter, today's candidate appears to be health care reform, with an argument from Jay Cost that changes in the generic ballot test are correlated with the health care debate, and liberal health care opponent Jane Hamsher claiming vindication.

I'll say two things.  First, we don't know!  These kind of effects are extremely tricky to pick up, and usually the best thing to do (unless, of course action depends on it) is to wait until postelection studies clear it up.  If I recall correctly, political scientist Gary Jacobson found that Democratic incumbents were hurt by specific votes on three issues in 1994, but we couldn't have known it at this point in the election cycle.

Second, to the extent we can guess at these things, I think Jonathan Chait's takedown of Cost's argument is pretty strong:
It's obviously true that the Democrats lost a lot of support "during the health care debate." The health care debate took about a year. My argument is that, during a period in which unemployment was rising and the Democrats controlled the entire government, Democrats would have bled support regardless of what they were debating...Of course, I can't prove that counter-factual, either. None of these counter-factuals is something that you can prove. But the method of saying that Democrats lost support during (very long) event X, therefor (very long) event X caused them to lose support, is not a persuasive argument.
Of course, health care wasn't the only issue going on over the time that Democrats lost support: there was the oil spill, the debate over cap-and-trade, increased involvement in Afghanistan, a couple of failed but well-publicized terrorist attacks, and then both changes in the economy and Democratic policies intended to affect the economy.  What Cost doesn't show in his post is any reason at all to believe that it was health care, and not any of those other things, that pushed Obama's approval ratings and the generic ballot.  Indeed, while it's hard to get much out of Cost's chart by visual inspection, the Pollster version shows that the Democrats lost their lead in the generic ballot by the time the August 2009 recess began, with the next (apparent) significant movement not happening until this summer -- in other words, it's not clear at all that Democrats did lose much from August 2009 through March 2010.  Not that we can really prove anything one way or another from that sort of analysis; it's possible that health care hurt Democrats in the first half of 2009, when they first proposed it -- or in the last few months, after it was passed.  But that's not Cost's story, of course.

As far as Hamsher is concerned...she is correct that passing the health care plan has not made it popular, although it does seem to have become somewhat less unpopular since passage, stalling since about mid-May at the present level (estimated 42% approve, 48% disapprove).  That suggests that health care reform could be hurting Democrats.  However, it's also possible (in fact, I think likely) that approval for health care reform is being dragged down by overall dissatisfaction with Democrats.  Unfortunately, Pollster doesn't run averages for other issue areas, but his current approval rating on health care (43% in the recent Newsweek Poll) is currently about as high or higher than his rating on the economy, Afghanistan, bank reform, taxes, or the deficit -- it's lower then his ratings on terrorism, Iraq, and the oil spill (scan down the link; other polls tell the same story).  In other words, it's hard to make the case from the minimal evidence we have that health care reform is dragging down Obama or the Democrats.

Now, again, this certainly doesn't prove that health care hasn't hurt the Democrats.  It's just that, as Chait says, Cost doesn't have anything to connect the two things. He's just selecting one of the many things that have happened since January 2009 and claiming that it's the one that did the trick.  Again, I'm not saying that we can know yet it didn't -- but there's plenty of evidence that the economy is the heavy hitter here, and that narrow issues, to the extent that they matter at all, work at the margins.  And we won't know until after the fact whether health care wound up being a plus, a minus, or a wash on those margins.

If We Re-Invent the Wheel, Can We Use It This Time?

A while ago, I opined that one of the big takeaway policy lessons from the last couple of years was the need for automatic budget stablizers for the states, a mechanism to prevent states from engaging in pro-cyclical budget cuts and/or tax hikes during hard times when their revenues tank and their automatic countercyclical spending kicks in. I did not know that once upon a time that actually happened, sort of.  Stan Collender digs deep into history (1980, that is) and remembers that Congress actually did enact an automatic countercyclical general revenue sharing scheme, but then never funded it.  I did not know that. 

Collender is probably correct that Robert Schiller's call for temporary general revenue sharing right now is probably a non-starter in Congress, but in theory there's no reason that conservatives should oppose a plan like that in the future.  On the other hand, in a world that makes sense, all incumbents of both parties should be rushing to approve money to the states to save the jobs of teachers and cops, preferably with those oversized checks that they can hand over in front of the firehouse or whatever.  And Democrats would have realized that even without GOP support, it's better to bite the bullet on a budget vote so that they could pass state aid through reconciliation.  So I guess I won't try to guess whether an automatic stablizer bill of one sort or another will actually have any support in the future, but, you know, it should.

Getting Party Fighting Right

[C]hallenges to one authority in the party are coming from another power center in the party. Parties are not strongly hierarchical organizations to begin with, so the way in is just to start playing. Whatever else she is, Sarah Palin is the party’s most recent nominee for vice president. That’s not an outsider position. And so neither are the candidates she backs. And these candidates are contesting party primaries. But “outsiders” like outsider rhetoric, but they are in the tent. The Tea Party’s agenda — as well as the agenda of a diverse group can be defined — is indistinguishable from the Republican agenda of the last decade.
That's Hans Noel, recruited by John Sides over at the Monkey Cage to explain how Marc Ambinder (an excellent reporter who I like a lot) got it wrong in his Sunday NYT piece about how one should understand the various high-profile primaries over the last several months.  His whole piece is excellent, and I highly recommend it. 

I think it helps to start from scratch a bit on these questions.  What is a political party in contemporary American politics?  It turns out, if you read the work of party network scholars such as Hans, or Seth Masket, or me, that it's not really very easy to answer that question.  Parties contain formal organizations, such as the RNC, the Texas Republican Party, or the House Republican Conference.  They also contain informal party networks which include activists, campaign and governing professionals, partisan media outlets and personalities, formally organized factions (such as the Club for Growth), and party-aligned interest groups.  And they include the politicians themselves (who may well have previously been and may still think of themselves as associated with one or more of those components).  There's no automatic hierarchy within these parties -- the formal party organizations aren't necessarily in charge or in any way more important than various other parts of the network.  Instead, who has influence is contested, and it's partially negotiated, and partially fought out, in nominations for candidates for elective office. 

It's not impossible for a true non-party group or person to get involved in nomination fights.  Some candidates really are outsiders, who have no prior connections with or loyalty to the party network.  Such candidates usually fail, however, unless they essentially find ways to earn the use of party resources, which generally entails becoming more deeply entwined within the party.  For example: party donors are going to be far more likely to give to an "outsider" who knows how to talk about party issues in the right way, which may require the "outsider" candidate to hire policy experts and communications staff who can teach her to do so.  But at that point, the candidate is no longer really outside the party any more. 

So contests such as Crist vs. Rubio or Murkowski vs. Miller are best seen not as battles between the Republican Party against outsiders, but as internal battles within different factions or groups for influence within the Republican Party. 

Why does it matter what we call them?  The "party against outsiders" idea leads to where Ambinder winds up, with the notion that parties are getting weaker.  But if what's really happening is that parties are not getting weaker but that new or different groups are gaining influence within those parties, then the real stories are about which groups or party components are advancing, which are losing, and what policy implications such changes will deliver.  Note here that "insurgent" attacking "establishment" also misses that picture.  We need to know which of the various establishments are involved -- so that in the Murkowski/Miller fight, it may be that the Murkowski family faction was opposed by -- I don't know!  The Palin faction?  The local Tea Party faction?  National conservative activists?  Calling one side the "establishment" just doesn't help a lot -- not when the other side contains a former governor (in Alaska), or a former GOP Speaker of the state House (in Florida), or has the support of a former president (as in Colorado, on the Democratic side), or the support of blogs and activists (as in Arkansas, again on the Dem side). 

So: these primaries are, at least possibly, quite important, because they are (or at least they may be) important fights over who has influence within the parties.  And those fights might be over issues; they might be over groups; or they might be over components of the party.  That latter point may be fairly important, and hard to pick out at first -- there can be fights between formal party organizations at different levels (state vs. national, county vs. state, etc.).  There can also be fights between one part of the larger party network and another -- between, say, nationally-based ideological bloggers and locally-based donors.  And there can be fights between formal and informal party components: say, between the NRCC and the Club for Growth, or between a state Republican Party and activists within that state.  Some of these fights might have policy implications; others might not.  It takes a lot of reporting to figure it out, and then even more to looks across states and contests to assess whether something important is really happening on a national level, or it's just a hodgepodge of unrelated and very different circumstances.  The problem is that if reporters simply accept a party vs. outsider frame, they're going to miss what's going on.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Dem Palin? Not Needed

The Sunday NYT carried an unusually useless op-ed yesterday, asking for a "Palin of Our Own" for the Democrats.  Anna Holmes and Rebecca Traister note that Sarah Palin generates a lot of publicity, and conclude:
The left should be outraged and exasperated by all this — but at their own failings as much as Ms. Palin’s ascension. Since the 2008 election, progressive leaders have done little to address the obvious national appetite for female leadership. And despite (or because of) their continuing obsession with Ms. Palin, they have done nothing to stop an anti-choice, pro-abstinence, socialist-bashing Tea Party enthusiast from becoming the 21st century symbol of American women in politics. (emphasis theirs).
Let's start with the second point, that Democrats "have done nothing to stop" Palin from becoming the "symbol of American women in politics."  This is our old familiar bugaboo, the idea that one party lets the other "get away with" things.  Liberals have exactly zero ability to affect which Republicans are featured on Fox News or what those Republicans say, and have almost zero ability to affect how Republican pols are perceived by the people who watch Fox News and otherwise get their news from inside the conservative bubble.  Beyond that, it's hardly surprising that the GOP nominee for VP, who has since had a bestselling book, maintained a high public profile, and is considered a leading candidate for her party's presidential nomination, would be, well, very visible.  There is nothing that "progressive leaders" could do about that.

Now, as far as the other part: have Democrats somehow failed to support and promote women pols?  Well, here, one can make a case that Democrats could do better -- but absolutely not a case that Democrats are doing a worse job than Republicans of supporting and promoting women.  Holmes and Traister complain that Hillary Clinton has been mistreated by Democrats, that "Democratic leaders never really celebrated Mrs. Clinton’s nation-altering place in history as the first female candidate to get so close to a major party’s presidential nomination," and that "she is most appreciated when she plays well with others in the Senate or the State Department."  This is preposterous nonsense.  While I would agree that occasional portrayals of Clinton before, during, and after the campaign play to misguided stereotypes, I'm not sure what exactly Holmes and Traister want here.  Clinton was certainly celebrated at the Democratic Convention in 2008; that she was then selected by Barack Obama for Secretary of State, which is generally considered the most prestigious and visible job in the cabinet, is exactly the opposite of ignoring her.  (Plays well with others?  What's that supposed to mean?  Other than Clinton, like all pols, is a lot more likely to receive intraparty attacks during contested primaries, which is hardly news). 

Beyond Clinton, we're told of "the left’s failure to nurture and celebrate female politicians."  Assuming they're talking about liberal Democrats (and not the actual left, where Cynthia McKinney is probably as nurtured and celebrated as anyone, I suppose)...well, what about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi?  Doesn't she count?  Or Barbara Boxer?  Claire McCaskill?  Amy Klobuchar?  Patty Murray?  Barbara Mikulski?  Jeanne Shaheen?  Maria Cantwell?  Should I keep going?  I haven't finished listing the thirteen Democratic Senators who are women (compared to four Republicans -- one of whom just probably lost her primary for renomination, one of whom lost a gubernatorial primary earlier this year, and the other two of which (Collins and Snowe) are hardly "nurtured and celebrated" by conservatives).  I haven't listed the 56 Democratic Members of the House who are women (compared to 17 for the GOP).  It's true that there are as many (3) female Republican governors as Democrats, but below that there are far more statewide elected Democratic women.  And don't forget that 70% of state legislators who are women are Democrats.  So, I don't know about nurturing and celebrating, but as far as nominating and electing, the Democrats certainly shouldn't be looking to the GOP for examples.

Oh, and as far as Palin's supposed crop of new women, it's basically a handful of high-profile candidates and little else.  As the Boston Phoenix's David S. Bernstein has been documenting, it's possible that the GOP could actually wind up taking the House without electing any new female Members of Congress, which is really an astonishing situation (they'll probably elect a handful of new women to the House, but a GOP takeover would almost certainly decrease the number of women in Congress).  Looking at the Senate...Republicans have (probably) lost one Senator to a primary defeat.  They've nominated Fiorina, McMahon, Angle, for competitive seats, and may nominate Ayotte -- but the Democrats have Lincoln, Boxer, Carnahan, Marshall, and Murray in competitive seats, plus another two incumbents who will easily win reelection.  So a Democratic landslide will increase the number of women in the Senate; a GOP landslide will almost certainly reduce it. 

Holmes and Traister say that "Democrats often prefer their women fulfilling...diminutive models of behavior.  Well, I suppose that Barbara Mikulski is, in fact, short, and Barbara Boxer isn't very tell, either.  If that's what they mean...well, beyond that, does anyone think of Mikulski or Boxer, or Pelosi and Clinton, or Napolitano and Granholm, as, and I'm sorry to say it, shrinking violets?  I don't think so. 

Frankly, the New York Times should be ashamed of itself for running this piece, which is an insult not only to all the Democratic women in office, but actually to the few Republican women who do still hold elective office, none of which Holmes and Traister bother to mention (yes, there are some who haven't quit their jobs).  I suppose it's possible that Holmes and Traister just don't realize that there were hundred of first-rate and important women pols before Sarah Palin, and there are hundreds now, even though none of them are president or vice-president.  And, again, I'd like to see more women nominated, by both parties.  But what they're saying...it's really just nonsense, and the Times should have known better.

The Fed and 2010

Matt Yglesias hides an important point at the bottom of a post:
One can’t know for sure if current policy would be different if the Obama administration has acted more expeditiously to fill the still-extant Fed vacancies, but it seems plausible that it could be. I doubt that any political reporters in America are going to put “failure to prioritize Federal Reserve vacancies” high on their list of post-election “why the Democrats lost so many seats” articles, but the issue deserves very high placement in my view. 
I'm afraid I know virtually nothing about the internal governance of the Fed, so I'm not going to be able to add anything to that,  other than it certainly couldn't have hurt Obama to have filled the vacancies promptly.  But of course the more obvious point is that we know that the Fed Chair matters a lot to Fed policy, and as far as anyone can tell Obama re-appointed Ben Bernanke without assuring himself that Bernanke would carry out policies that Obama presumably supports on the merits, and would have had the benefit of helping the Democrats in the 2010 election cycle.  Just to be clear, I'm not really talking about a quid pro quo here, but there's nothing at all unethical for (1) Obama to favor pro-growth, low-unemployment policies; (2) Obama to seek to appoint a Fed Chair who supports such policies; and, (3) Obama to make sure in the appointment process that any candidate he would consider would lean towards those policies. In fact, it's the opposite.  Obama should use his appointments to seek to enact his policy preferences.

Now, it's possible that when Obama re-appointed Bernanke he thought he had such assurances, and it's possible that he believed that Fed policy to that point combined with fiscal stimulus would be sufficient to beat the recession, so that he underestimated the importance of the Fed in getting the economy back up to speed.  As it turns out, it appears that both of those would have been errors, but different errors than just not trying to get assurances in the first place.  It's also fair to say that a year ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, reassuring the markets and keeping in place the person who had experience dealing with those issues was probably a more legitimate concern than it is today.  And it's still not totally clear to me how much of the concern from people such as Yglesias is based on what the Fed has actually done to date, as opposed to worry about what they might do in the future. Moreover, it's possible that institutional biases at the Fed would have prevented any Chair nominee and any FMOC nominees from putting a priority on unemployment and not inflation.  So I do think some caution is wise in interpreting what's happened.  Still, the overall points are sound -- as far as we can see as outsiders, Obama has left some weapons unused on the economy, with the main one, it seems to me, the appointment of the Fed Chair.  And those unused weapons are a probably a lot more important to 2010 election results than reporters are likely to acknowledge.


I figure I should let you know that between some network problems today (I hope just today; ugh) and the political science meetings later in the week, posting will likely be somewhat irregular through labor day.  I'm not entirely gone though, just off my more-or-less regular schedule, so I do suggest that everyone obsessively keep checking for new posts.

I suppose I'll also say, for any political scientists who are going to Washington this week and inexplicably read this blog but not Seth Masket or the Monkey Cage, that John Sides and Henry Farrell have put together an absolutely terrific-looking panel with a great set of reporters, including friend of political science bloggers Ezra Klein, as seen on MSNBC.  Thursday, 2PM (full details here).  See you there!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Suppose that Barack Obama keeps to his current plans in Iraq.  So far, he's cut the number of American troops there to just under 50,000, and American casualties have dropped: there were 108 American military deaths in Iraq in the last six months of 2008, 94 in the first six months of Obama's presidency (February through July 2009), 45 in the next six months, and 29 so far in the most recent six months, with a couple days to go in August.  So, suppose that American casualties continue to fall without quite hitting zero over the next year, and that Obama continues to withdraw troops, leaving very few ("guarding the embassy") troops but still a significant American civilian presence in Iraq at the end of 2011.  If that's the case, how will you grade Obama's performance on Iraq?  And, does anything other than the pace of American withdrawal and the numbers of American casualties figure in to your grading (such as the stability of the Iraqi government, the level of violence within Iraq, the degree to which Iraq is allied with either the US or Iran, or any other such information)? 

Sunday Question for Conservatives

The topic is Iraq.  I'm not sure exactly how to frame this...what I'd like to know is how conservatives understand what's happened in Iraq.  Was it a foolish neo-con adventure that "real" conservatives would never have done?  A flat-out victory?  A defeat?  A very costly misstep that nevertheless delivered some real benefits for the US?  Do you think it would have been a victory, but for the meddling of liberal in 2007 who pushed George W. Bush to commit to leaving too soon, or but for something that Barack Obama has done wrong since then?  Do you think that Bush's actions in 2007-2008 were part of his plan all along?  Was it good for the Iraqi people?  Bad for the Iraqi people?  Was the invasion a correct decision, badly executed?  A poor choice regardless of how it was executed? 

I pretty much know the liberal understanding of Iraq.  I also know the "realist" conservative critique of Iraq, although I don't know how widespread it is among those who think of themselves as conservatives.  What I'm a lot murkier on is how mainstream conservatives think of Iraq at this point.  So, here's your chance: tell me what you think happened there.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Just a little bit late, obviously.  Every time I start, I wind up with something trite, so I think I'll do a bunch of bullet items, instead.

1. All I ask of my team's GM is that the Giants play meaningful games in September. 

2.  I really, really, wish that I had predicted an Albert Pujols Triple Crown back in May.  I said it to someone back then, but never wrote it up here.  I think he's going to make it, and barring it affecting the WC race, I'm rooting for him.

3.  Saw Ken Burns on Letterman the other night...he's done a sequel of sorts to his Baseball doc focused on the last thirty years, and for what it's worth he was talking mostly sensibly about steroids.  On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that highlighting steroids at all is the wrong way to talk about 1980-2010 baseball, but of course that's what we're going to get at this point.

4.  TNSTAAPP strikes me as the wrong reaction to Stephen Strasburg's injury.  Strasburg isn't a washout pitching "prospect" at this point; he's a front-line major league pitcher who got injured.  TNSTAAPP is supposed to be about the many things that can go wrong on the way to the majors (not only injuries), but those things didn't happen here.  The correct cliche to use is one about Pitcher Get Hurt, or You Can Never Have Enough Pitching. 

5.  My dad and I are in complete disagreement about Pablo Sandoval: I'm an optimist, and he isn't.  Any thoughts?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Real Media Bias

Neil Sinhababu is confused -- and we can learn something from it:
What's struck me about the primary defeats of Bob Bennett in Utah and (apparently) Lisa Murkowski in Alaska is how they seem to have just come out of nowhere...As far as I know Murkowski and Bennett basically thought they were doing fine up until they suddenly lost primaries (or in Bennett's case, nominating convention votes) that they completely expected to win.
While I wouldn't be surprised if the candidates themselves thought they were in the clear, I'm pretty confident that Sinhababu is dead wrong to say that these upsets came "out of nowhere."  Hm...on closer look, what he's saying is that they seem to have come out of nowhere.  That's closer to the truth, and that's the story.

My impression is that Bennett's demise was essentially expected by anyone who was carefully following reported news about the Utah Republican Party.  And while I'm not sure the same was true about Murkowski's election (which may not have been expected, but probably should have been given the known facts; see Nate Silver's discussion in his new NYT perch, and from on the scene see more from Mudflats).  But certainly one would have had to be an extremely diligent reader of political news to know much of anything about either of these contests.  The national press didn't care.

And yet, these contests are actually quite important.  If Miller's lead holds up, we're talking about bumping two of the least conservative Republicans from the Senate and replacing them (probably) with two hard-line conservatives -- or, perhaps, one hard-line conservative and (in Alaska, although  I doubt it) a Democrat.  Single votes in the Senate are often quite important -- one would think that after the last two years, the press would need no reminders about that.  And for all the talk about polarization in Congress, which is certainly true to a large extent, there are plenty of times when small numbers of Senators cross party lines and make a difference -- again, something we've seen plenty of in the last two years. 

But the press, as usual, doesn't care very much about Congress.  They pay little attention to Congressional elections, except occasionally when a national figure such as John McCain is in a close race.  The press doesn't pay much attention to things that happen in far-away and obscure states such as Utah and Alaska (far away from what?  From the newsrooms of the big national newspapers and TV networks).  And so they missed these stories.

The funny thing is, and I'll admit that as a political junkie I'm hardly the normal target audience, but as far as I can tell these are both terrific stories.  You would think that the press would be be able to sell the Palin/Murkowski feud to viewers; Bob Bennett wasn't the most thrilling pol ever, but he did have a somewhat interesting story, and his opponents (and Joe Miller in Alaska) fit right in with the Tea Party story the press is fascinated by. 

These elections were more important than a dozen Glenn Beck rallies, or a dozen Pew polls showing that the American people have goofy beliefs.  And they're good stories.  A good press would have been all over both of them.

Catch of the Day

Goes to Matt Yglesias.  Gonna quote his whole item:
A lot of crazy stuff is being said this week about monetary policy, perhaps none of it crazier than this WSJ op-ed:
But deflation and inflation predictions could both be right in a sense, if you aren’t too fussy about strict definitions. In the late 1970s, the last time Americans suffered from manic interventionism from Washington, we had “stagflation,” a combination of minimal economic growth and double-digit inflation. It wasn’t pretty.
By the same token, a round square is possible if you allow the definition of “square” to include circles. However in the 1970s the price level was increasing rapidly (i.e., inflation) whereas “deflation” means a decrease in the price level. If you don’t use words properly, you wind up talking nonsense. Being fussy about strict definitions is a good idea.
You only thought that inflation was around 12% during the Carter years -- actually, it was 50% inflation, accompanied by 40% deflation.  No wonder people were escaping by balloon over the border to Canada.

Where Are the Judges?

Last time I visited the question of judicial nominations, there were 50 district court and six court of appeals vacancies for which Barack Obama had not even nominated anyone.  That was two months ago.  Today?  District court vacancies without a nominee have reached 53; circuit court vacancies without a nominee are up to 9.

Why?  No idea.  Yes, Republicans are obstructing judicial (and exec branch) nominations in the Senate.  Why shouldn't they?  After all, Obama has signaled again and again that he doesn't really care about them.  Yes, Harry Reid could have pushed harder to move these nominations to a floor vote, but it seems to me that judicial nominations are much more of an issue for presidential constituencies, not Congressional constituencies.  In other words, the Senate isn't particularly likely to push hard on them unless the president makes it a priority.  Obama, no question about it, has not.  Every week that goes by in which he doesn't even bother to nominate anyone for all those openings is a week in which he signals to Senators that his administration just doesn't care very much about the courts.

Not that the Senate is doing a very good job.  By my count, five appeals court nominees and twelve district court nominees are ready for floor action; one (Jane Stranch, for the 6th circuit) is scheduled for action when the Senate returns, but the rest remain in limbo.   Which leaves 22 waiting for the Judiciary Committee to clear them.

One more culprit: liberal interest groups.  Where's the outcry from feminists?  From the civil rights community?  From gay rights activists?  From labor, for that matter -- labor put a lot of effort into NLRB picks, with good reason, but the truth is that a full slate of Obama-selected circuit court picks could easily be more important over time than the NLRB on labor issues.  The same goes for issues surrounding torture, detention, and privacy -- even if some advocates in those areas are skeptical of Elena Kagan, they still should be pushing for at least the nominees they like to be confirmed, and for more in that vein to be selected.  Instead of what Obama is presenting them with now, which is in far too many cases nothing at all.  As I said, judicial nominations are probably more of an issue for national constituencies than for local ones, and if those national constituencies don't squawk, well, that could explain some of the president's (and the Senate's) apparent lack of concern.

The important thing to remember here is that this is in one important respect unlike Democratic obstruction while George W. Bush was president: right now, and throughout this 111th Congress, every one of Barack Obama's nominees probably has the votes to be confirmed.  And I'm not talking about 50 votes plus Joe Biden; I'm talking about the Senate gold standard, 60 votes, enough to beat a filibuster and invoke cloture.  Of course, that hasn't been tested on the remaining nominees, but I'm confident that there's no one nominated who would lose the votes of Snowe and Collins...in fact, I think there's a solid bloc of somewhere between 62 and 65 votes for cloture for any scandal-free liberal nominee.  I believe that's true across the board; it's certainly true of most of the nominees.  That doesn't mean that GOP obstruction isn't a factor, but it's a factor that Harry Reid, Pat Leahy, and Barack Obama could easily overcome if they decided to make it a top priority.  There's still plenty of time to confirm every single one of the current nominees if Democrats really want to do that and are willing to be as aggressive in their use of Senate rules on offense as the Republicans have (quite legitimately, for the most part, in my view) in their attempts to obstruct.  They won't do it, however, unless Barack Obama sends clear signals that he wants it done.  And if they don't, well, who knows what's going to happen in the 112th Senate?  So, Mr. President, are you going to step up on this one?

Read Stuff, You Should

I'm going to recommend an essay by Heather Hurlburt and Ryan Keenen on Republicans, politics, and national security.  Ultimately, I don't really buy their argument at all, but it's worth thinking about.  And now, on to the good stuff:.

1.  I asked recently for more coverage of health care implementation; turns out that there's quite a bit recently, including two pieces from Jonathan Cohn, and one from Joanne Kenen.  Also, Kevin Drum goes reality-based against anti-ACA rhetoric, Ezra Klein on ACA and the budget, and Jacob Hatcher on the next liberal agenda on health care.

2.  Ann Friedman defends self-interest and identity politics.  Speaking of which, Eric Alterman points out that Obama's doing fine with the Jews.  And the latest in David S. Bernstein's dispatches about women in the GOP.

3.  Ron Replogle joins the conversation on ideology.

4.  Mark Schmidt takes apart John Judis: Obama isn't Carter.

5.  Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and John Sides explain that whole Obama/Muslim thing.

6.  Don't miss TNC on Andrew Jackson and, oh, just read it. 

7.  And I really need to get back to doing Monday Movie Posts, but meanwhile I'll read the excellent Oliver Wang.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Annals of Spin: Where's the GOP Tax Hike?

First, I think the clearest description of reality vs.spin about the current fight about taxes is provided today by Stan Collender, so I'll recommend that.

Second...I don't understand the Democratic spin on this.  Granted, it's important to always note that the spin doesn't matter very much, but still -- everyone puts a lot of effort into it, and as far as I can see, the Democrats are doing a spectacularly bad job of it. 

If I were advising the Dems, I'd ask: Why do you ever talk about "extending the Bush tax cuts" at all?  Joe Biden at least seems to have avoided the word "Bush" in his recent comments, but still talked about extending tax cuts.  But for example, neither Paul Krugman nor John Podesta and Robert Greenstein  had any hesitation.  It seems to me that this is fairly nuts, just in terms of spin.  Democrats and their supporters, I would think, shouldn't be talking about "expiring tax cuts."  They should be talking about Republican tax increases, passed by Republicans in 2001 and 2003, and scheduled to go into effect soon.  And then, instead of talking about "extending" GOP tax cuts, the Democrats should be talking about the Democratic tax cuts, or the Obama tax cuts, that they want to pass.  You know, to replace the Republican-passed tax increase.

Would that spin be accurate?  In my view: sure, accurate enough for spin.  Republicans are poised to call what will happen if no one acts a massive tax increase (which it will be, if you look at it that way), so they certainly can't complain about the Dems calling it a tax hike.  And surely what is in the books now is there because Republicans passed it, so that's not much of a stretch. 

Now, I would expect Republicans to do what they can to reinforce the notion that all tax cuts are Republican in origin.  I have no complaint about the spin they're putting on it.  But why are Democrats going along?

Again, I don't really think this kind of stuff matters very much; it's more that it's just annoying to see such sloppy work.  Obama tax cuts, to replace the Republican tax hike.  Not: extension of the Bush tax cuts, except for the rich.  Got it?

Sometimes, Go With "I Don't Know"

Seth Masket has an excellent post up responding to Kevin Drum's question about whether there actually something going on that would mean that "the anti-Washington meme deserves to live."  Seth and John Sides have both been writing about this, at different angles, with John emphasizing that almost all incumbents will win but Seth noting that incumbents may still have to work harder to get there.  I tried to synthesize their views a couple of weeks ago.  

I want to write a bit, however, about why we're not really answering Drum's question with a simple, usable answer, something like either "Voters are turning against Washington pols" or "Voters are not turning against Washington pols."  To begin with, it turns out to be really difficult to learn from primary election data.  In general elections, you can quickly add up how Democrats and incumbents did in previous elections, see how they did in one particular year, and then do a little math and you'll know if there was a general anti-Democrat or anti-incumbent vote (yes, it can still be tricky, for lots of reasons, but most of the trickiness is easy to handle statistically).  Note that it's even easier in House elections than it is in Senate elections, since every election cycle presents the same set of 435 House races.

Primaries are a lot more difficult to study.  What's the "normal" margin of victory for a nominee seeking re-election?  Well, you can calculate that, but unlike general elections you're going to have the competitive elections swamped by a whole lot of incumbents who are unopposed.  We can look at how incumbents do when they're challenged...but how many incumbents are challenged in the first place is an important part of the story we're interested in.  And we might want to distinguish between serious challenges and fringe candidates who file but aren't really a threat, but in practice that's going to be tricky to execute.  Indeed, it's doubly tricky if what we're interested in isn't just the incumbency advantage (or disadvantage), but "anti-Washington" or "anti-establishment" themes.  Does a victory by Member of the House Joe Sestack against Arlen Specter count as an "anti-Washington" result?  If we want to only count serious challengers, how can we tell that Joe Miller in Alaska is serious but Daniel Frielich, who took 11% of the vote against Pat Leahy this week, wasn't?  And yet if you count anyone who files as a serious candidate, then you're going to miss an important difference between Leahy's essentially unopposed renomination and the tough challenges faced by John McCain and Blanche Lincoln. 

So, to answer the question(s) that Drum wants answered, we really don't want just the number of incumbents defeated in primaries this year compared to other years.  What we would want, ideally, would be three numbers, each of which could be estimated independently, holding everything else constant: the effect of incumbency per se; the effect of being an experienced pol; and the effect of being the candidate of the "establishment."  (Even worse!  There could be interactive effects!  There might be different effects on the Democratic side than on the Republican side!).  Unfortunately, there's just no way to derive those effects from primary election data (or at least I believe there's no way -- I'll be happy to hear dissents on this from those who are far more methodologically able than I am).

Barring that, we really have to fall back on just not knowing.  Oh, there are things we can say; we can say (with John Sides and others) that most incumbents are gong to win, and we can say (with Seth Masket and others) that it sure seems that those incumbents have had to work harder than they do in some years.  And we can of course make factual statements (three incumbent Senators losing primaries is the highest since 1980, but four incumbent Members of the House losing primaries is nothing unusual at all).  But sometimes, the best thing that a reporter or a pundit (or, for that matter, a political scientist) can do is to realize which things we just don't know.

Old Senate Update

Regular readers are probably wondering: so how does the apparent upset in Alaska affect the aging of the Senate?  Good question!  Lisa Murkowski is 53.  Toast of the town Joe Miller is exactly 10 years younger, at 43.  And I suppose I should mention Democratic longshot Scott McAdams, but alas his age is not readily apparent from a quick look around. 

So, if Murkowski has in fact lost, it's another nice little contribution to a somewhat younger Senate.  Previous update here...since then, outside of the disappointment in Arizona, the news has been OK for the young folks.  In Kansas, Moran (56) defeated Tiahrt (59).  In Colorado, Bennet (45) did hold off Romanoff (43), but on the other side Norton (55) lost to Buck, who still isn't publicizing his age but is probably around 50.  Just as a reminder, the 111th Senate began as the oldest ever, continuing a streak in which pretty much every Senate for some time now has set a new record for oldest ever -- a streak that will, I'm pretty sure, come to an end in 2011.  Once the primaries are over, I'll probably do another full overview.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ideology, Groups, and Impulses

I have to warn you -- this might be a bit rambling.  And it's not exactly definitive, either (especially towards the bottom of this very long post; among other things, I'm not as up on some relevant literatures are I should be).  Take this, perhaps, as a different way of thinking about some ideas, ideology, and other such things, rather than something I'm going to assert is the correct way of looking at those things.  That said...

There's been a bunch of interesting comments recently around the blogs concerning the general topic of ideology.  Matt Yglesias did an item in which he noted that he's for deregulation of various things, but that it doesn't make him feel as if he's a conservative on those issues.  For a two paragraph post, he really started something, with Conor Friedersdorf using it to take a(nother, and completely justified) swipe at Mark Levin (with a follow-up), and then Adam Serwer got in on it, first making the Chait-esque point (but see Kevin Drum) that American liberals don't believe in big government the way that American movement conservatives believe in small government, and then making what I think is the better point that American movement conservatives don't really believe in small government in that way, either -- they believe in small government rhetoric, but in reality are happy to support government intervention in support of other important goals.  Yglesias also posted recently about what he sees as a possible decrease in ideological politics around the world (except, in his view, the US).

There's a lot in here.  For one thing, Yglesias says that his "impression is that politics wasn’t especially “ideologically” before the late 18-th century,"  and also talks about (in the post linked first above) how "The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege."  But those things are connected, and in my view, mostly irrelevant to 21st century politics, or at least 21st century American politics.  "Left" and "right" (as Yglesias I'm sure knows) come from a specific place and time: from the French Revolution.  Indeed, to vastly oversimplify something on which I'm not an expert anyway, it's not wrong to say that "left" and "right" began as simply attitudes towards the French Revolution, for or against.  This did, indeed, put the "left" on the side of the people -- against the Crown, against nobility, and at least in France, against the Church.  This translated reasonably well to the rest of Europe during the 19th century, when politics was really involved in whether "the people" would or would not rule.

However, and this gets back a bit to what I was talking about recently, once you have a democratic republic, it's not clear that "left" and "right" mean anything -- because as the constitution-makers of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Americans discovered after 1776 and through the 1780s, in a democratic republic there's only people.  One of the problems they had to deal with was that Montesquieu said that you're supposed to have different branches of government representing different estates within the nation -- but in America, there was only one estate, so what powers were there to balance?  Of course, Madison's brilliant solution (as he describes in Federalist 51) is to balance the people against each other, thus creating more, not less, power.

OK, but...we do in the US have people who call themselves liberals and conservatives, and we have "left" and "right" in other democracies even though it's not about support for or opposition to the French Revolution, so what is it about?  The answer is not at all easy, at least in my view.  One way to talk about ideology, the way that public opinion researchers tend to think about it, is just about knowing which issues are supposed to go together -- so that if you support, oh, gun control and abortion rights, you might know you're also supposed to support more government spending on education and oppose the war in Iraq.  By that measure, Americans tend not to be ideological in general, although people who know a lot and care a lot about politics, people like Yglesias and Friedersdorf and Serwer and me and you (since you're not reading on into such a long post on this blog unless you're way high on the scale of political awareness), do tend to be far more ideological by that measure.  Then there's what Friedersdorf refers to a couple of times in his discussion, first principles.  It could be the case that there are deep principles at stake between American liberals and movement conservatives, and that positions on specific issues of public policy flow logically from those principles.  Friedersdorf seems to think that's the case, and I'd guess that most people do.  I don't, for the most part.  Unfortunately, while it is I think an empirical question, it's also (in my view) an impossible one to get at.  At any rate, that might be going on.

Let me propose a third way to look at it, either in addition to or instead of either just grouping issue positions together because you know they sort that way in our politics, or issue positions deriving from first principles: groups, and impulses.

Groups: we belong to groups, and in those groups we form alliances with other groups, often through political parties -- which are, in addition, one of the types of groups to which we might join.  These groups, as groups, hold positions on issues of public policy, sometimes out of self-interest, sometimes out of custom or habit.  We tend to adopt the positions of the groups with which we identify, or with which our groups are allied, or which leaders of those groups profess publicly.  Then we go back and find justifications for why that basket of issue positions go together.  That's not a bad thing -- even those of us who think self-interest in politics is perfectly fine also believe that it's both natural and healthy for political actors to (at least sometimes) express their self-interest in the context of principles that everyone else can recognize as public spirited.  

So to some extent, looked at this way, ideologies are the residue of the connections we make between policies we already support, although then its also true that those connections might also influence us and others as we make other choices about who to ally ourselves with, and what new positions to adopt.

But I think that's only part of it; I do think that there's something authentically different between liberals and conservatives, at least some of the time, and at least in some cases.  If not first principles, though, perhaps we can call them impulses.  To me, the liberal impulse is basically: We Can Do Better.   And the conservative impulse?  Don't Make It Worse.  Liberals, or perhaps all of us when we're inspired by the liberal impulse, look around and see a variety of problems and available resources and want to alleviate pain and suffering; they want to solve problems.  Conservatives, or perhaps all us us when we're inspired by the conservative impulse, remember all the cases of noble intentions gone awry, the cases of unintended consequences, the cases in which problems seemed terribly severe but then they seemingly melted away without anyone, and certainly not everyone collectively, trying to address them.  Liberals appreciate the promise of the future; conservatives appreciate how rickety the accomplishments of the present are, and how easily what we think is safe can be destroyed. 

I don't know; reading back, that seems a bit on the trite side to me.  My real point is that to dress these things up as ideologies, and in that in most cases "first principles" have little to do with our approach to public policy preferences, even among the most politically sophisticated who are most likely to conform to our political parties' platforms and to therefore poll as ideological, is to miss something important.  So I'm not saying that either the "sorting issues" or the "first principles" way of looking at ideology is wrong; I'm just saying that the groups-plus-impulses approach may (also) help us understand what's going on.

Don't Read the Bill

Apparently "read the bill" rhetoric is back, with Max Baucus taking heat because he said "I don’t think you want me to waste my time to read every page of the healthcare bill.  You know why? It’s statutory language. ... We hire experts.  I certainly hope that Max Baucus didn't waste his time by literally reading the entire health care bill; any legislator who engages in such a foolish stunt deserves to be bounced from office.  Members of Congress have important responsibilities, but they are not -- nor should they be -- experts in legislative language; limiting Congress to those who can really read and understand such language would basically turn the US into an aristocracy of the lawyers, and lawyers specializing not in policy and good representation but technical junk that no one cares about (but which had better be correct, nonetheless). 

It's too bad that no one understands what the job of a Member of Congress entails.  More people should read Richard Fenno.  Or David Price.  Or John Berry.  Or John Jacobs.  Or David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf

The DeMint Conference

I don't want to make too much of this -- it's likely that at least a few incoming Republicans will be on the moderate side -- but take a look at what's happening to the GOP conference.  I'm working from Simon Jackman's ranking of Senators by ideology based on their voting records....going back to the beginning of the (current) 111th Senate, here's the score, working from the least conservative Republican.

1.  Collins
2.  Snowe
3.  Specter (ranked based on votes as a Republican): party-switched, started voting as a mainstream Dem, defeated in the primary.
4.  Voinovich: retiring
5.  Murkowski: probably defeated in her primary.
6.  Bond: retiring.
7.  Lugar
8.  Mel Martinez: resigned.
9.  Cochran
10. Alexander
11. Gregg: retiring
12. Bennett: defeated in primary.

By the way, LeMieux (retiring) is next after Bennett; on the other hand, Scott Brown, who isn't going anywhere for a while, fits in between Voinovich and Murkowski.  Still, that means that the next Republican down (Hatch) moves from 13th most conservative to 7th, pending the addition of any new moderates. 

Of course, if the GOP does win a landslide in November, then a few moderates will probably be elected as well: Fiorina in California would I assume be to the left of Hatch.  I'm not sure who else; perhaps Ayotte in New Hampshire?  And I have no idea how McMahon in Connecticut would vote in the unlikely event that she wins -- plus, it wouldn't be a shocker if one or more other newcomer turns out to be in the Alexander/Hatch wing, rather than the DeMint/Coburn wing.  Still, seven (with Murkowski) of the twelve least conservative Republicans from the beginning of the 111st Senate will be gone, and unless Vitter or Burr loses only two from the rest of the conference are on their way out -- Bunning and Brownback.


First, give the Sage of Wasilla credit.  Right now, I don't know whether or not Joe Miller will actually knock off Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska primary, but even if he ultimately falls just short (and he's leading now, so it's at least just as likely that he'll prevail), Sarah Palin's reputation will surely be enhanced by his endorsement of an unknown insurgent against a sitting Senator.  Did she carefully and correctly assess Miller's chances of winning before she took to her usual combo of Facebook and Twitter, or was she just carrying on her personal feud with Murkowski's family?  Did her endorsement actually make any difference in the contest?  I have no idea the answer to either question, but in terms of her national reputation, neither matters: all that anyone is going to know is that she endorsed a nobody who either took down a sitting Senator or came close.  Maybe her endorsement mattered, but if not, figuring out which way the parade is headed and jumping out in front is an important political skill, and she at the very least seemed to have that working this time around. 

Second...no matter what the final result, but especially if Miller wins: these primaries are sending a very strong message to GOP pols about the dangers of ever allowing any space to develop between themselves and movement conservatives.  And that's true whether or not that's a message that Alaska's primary voters are intending to send (it may be, as I said last night, that the explanation for this election has more to do with the reputation of the Murkowski name in Alaska along with general voter discontent with the economy than it has to do with her actual actions in the Senate): the interpretation everyone's going to hear and believe is that ideological deviation, even very mild deviation, is extremely dangerous to one's electoral health.  Whether it's the New START treaty, or a compromise deal on the budget if the GOP controls at least one House of Congress next year, or any other issue, you can be sure that Republican pols who have to cast tough votes are going to remember Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski (and Arlen Specter, for that matter). 

C'mon, Alaska, Count Faster!

I'm not likely to get off to a fast start blogging on Wednesday morning because I'm still up, watching the primary election returns coming in from the suddenly thrilling Alaska GOP Senate primary.  As I write this, Lisa Murkowski -- that's Senator Murkowski, of course -- is 2300 votes behind Tea Party/Sarah Palin candidate Joe Miller.  Who is tweeting the results.  I'm not going to make it to the bitter end, but with 51% of the votes counted, it's hard for me to give up and go to sleep.

Mind you, I have no candidate in this race, not even a real rooting interest one way or another.  I will agree with Dave Weigel (also up, and tweeting up a storm): "Thinking of the 100 profiles of Alvin Greene that were written while Joe Miller was ignored."  Not that Greene, at least in my opinion, should have been ignored; he's a great story, too!  On the other hand, Alvin Greene isn't going to be a United States Senator, and it appears as I write this that Joe Miller might (there's some speculation that the remaining ballots might tilt Murkowski's way; I suppose most of everyone who reads this will already know the answer to that).  

What else...if Murkowski loses, it's a significant hit to the tiny group of GOP women in Congress (she's 25% of all GOP women in the Senate), a group that doesn't stand to get much, if any, larger.  Trying to remember....there are viable female GOP candidates in CA and NV...is that it?  Checking...ah, CT, of course, and NH, so four viable women, none odds on to win.  If Miller wins, it will be seen as a tremendous victory for Tea Partiers and Palin, obviously.  I have no idea whether Palin's efforts mattered, but it's certainly plausible that she made a large difference (endorsements matter more in primaries, although presumably less in a two-person contest involving an incumbent.  My guess?  The Murkowski name turned out to be tainted, perhaps beyond repair.  Plus the recession.  I'm guessing Palin was not a major factor.  But it's no question about it just a guess, and as I said it's not implausible that her endorsement could actually matter a fair amount in this situation, even though I'm guessing it didn't).  At any rate, whether Palin did or not matter a lot the national press would give her credit, and that's useful, too.  That is, if Miller actually wins; if Murkowski survives, then mostly everyone will ignore the whole thing.

Meanwhile, what I really want to say (again) is just how much I love elections.  Every part of them.  I love watching the returns, whether on TV, or some secretary of state web site, or this time around mostly via Twitter. Everything about Election Day is just one big blast of patriotism for me, and late-night ballot counting is just patriotism overtime.  

Still, I should probably get at least a bit of sleep, so with one more check -- 66% of precincts in, Miller creeping ahead a bit more -- I think I'll call it a night.  As Andy Partridge said (albeit in full cynical mode), "ain't democracy wonderful?"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Still Not Convinced on "Ground Zero Mosque"

Jonathan Chait says that the Park 51 imbroglio matters (in part) because it "has become a proxy fight on this question among Republicans" leading into the presidential nomination contest.  That's plausible -- seemingly inconsequential things can in fact be quite important if they sort out intraparty struggles.  But as Greg Sargent points out, this isn't really much of a fight:
The project is opposed by many of the leading GOP officials in Congress, from John Boehner to Eric Cantor to Mitch McConnell. What's more, the battle over the Islamic center has actually become a litmus test for the 2012 GOP hopefuls, with Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty all trying to out-demagogue each other on the issue.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the Republicans who have stepped forward to support the project are largely former Bush officials who are no longer in positions of power or aren't running for office anytime soon. In other words, the Cheney-ite line has become the required position of thise with actual influence within the GOP -- or those who are currently in the process of seeking it.
I think that's right, and therefore while it may be true that this could have been an occasion for a GOP fight, in fact it's just a (further) ratification of something that had already happened.  Moreover, I tend to agree with Nick Beaudrot that Bush-era religious pluralism is somewhat overstated.

As far as Chait's other point -- that this fracas is "a marker about the place of Muslims in American society" -- well, it may be a better-than-usual opportunity to judge just how much bigotry there may be, and how openly it gets expressed, but that doesn't mean that anything is changing as a result of this latest flap. 

I do think that his point about internal GOP differences is perfectly plausible, but I just don't see it actually happening.

Election Day

Florida, Arizona, and Alaska all have contests that have received attention; Vermont and Oklahoma (runoffs) are also voting today.  Florida Republicans are choosing a candidate for governor, Florida Dems choose a Senate candidate, and Republican Senators from Arizona and Alaska will presumably survive primary scares -- in the former case with the assistance of the Sage of Wasilla, and in the latter case over her opposition.  The Vermont race gives everyone a chance to reefer refer to the GOP candidate for Governor, Brian Dubie (sorry, sorry...at least I didn't mention the GOP candidate for Senate from MO...no, really, I'm sorry, I'll stop now).  Here's an Ed Kilgore primer on the interesting contests. 

About Palin and endorsements: what we've seen so far matches what one would expect in primary elections.  An endorsement that receives a fair amount of publicity can, indeed, help a candidate in a multi-candidate, poorly defined field in a low-interest primary election.  That's where Palin's two big victories were, in the gubernatorial races in South Carolina and Georgia (although her candidate ultimately failed in the GA runoff).  In these types of contests, name recognition alone is probably significant.  Beyond that, low-information GOP voters are probably seeking any reliable indication of who the conservative candidate is (or at least they're trying to avoid inadvertently voting for a moderate), and so if they've heard that Palin endorsed a candidate, they can be relatively certain that voting for that candidate won't turn out to be an ideological mistake.   The more information voters have, the less any endorsement will mean for them.  In other words, the question isn't really whether GOP primary voters are fond of Sarah Palin; it's that voters in general are eager to find shortcuts so that they can avoid the difficult work of researching and evaluating candidates, and with little else available the most publicized endorsement will do.  Of course, that means that general election endorsements are not likely to make a difference at all, because voters already have an extremely efficient shortcut: the party label.

(I should say, by the way, that I don't actually know for a fact that Palin's endorsement mattered in the GA and SC races, but it would be consistent with what's been reported along with general ideas of how elections work). 

At any rate, if you're in one of these states, remember to vote early, vote often.  And I'll quote from a Political Wire tweet: "Polls close in FL and VT at 7 pm ET, in AZ at 9 pm, in OK at 8 pm, in AZ at 9 pm and in AK at 12 am"

Catch of the Day

I was thinking of doing a post on this, but I can't top Mori Dinauer:
Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where presidents facing a potentially tough re-election could simply turn to the op-ed pages of The Washington Post and find campaign advice two years in advance? Thankfully, Barack Obama lives in that world and can take David Ignatius' recommendation -- he calls it a "second-term masterstroke" -- to choose Hillary Clinton as his running mate. Although the column doesn't actually present any evidence that vice presidents make a difference, we can just assume that this is good advice because we can trust newspapers to describe political reality without resorting to baseless speculation.
Needless to say, there is no such evidence.  On the other hand, while we don't have much evidence concerning what happens when a president dumps his VP for no good reason, we do have two historical cases of presidents asking their entire cabinets to resign: Nixon after winning reelection, and Carter after the malaise speech.  Safe to say that neither one worked out well.  Also safe to say that there are somewhere on the order of zero Americans who are unhappy with Barack Obama but would change their minds if Hillary Clinton was demoted from Secretary of State to VP.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Don't You Let Them Make You

I believe that Kevin Drum has the history correct on how the TV networks adopted red and blue for their electoral college maps -- it was just dumb luck that those colors happened to fall that way in 2000, and then...well, he says that it was "the famous electoral map showing blue coasts and a vast swath of red everywhere else made its debut. This prompted everyone to start talking about red states and blue states, and ever since then it's stuck."  I'd put less emphasis on the distribution of where the electoral votes were, and more on the oddity that unlike normal years, the electoral college maps stayed on our screens for weeks in November 2000, thereby sealing those colors.  My memory is also that at least one network (CBS?) had the colors the other way around in 2000.  He's certainly correct that the fixed colors date to 2000, no earlier.

The other thing I'd say is that had it been the other way around, I'm fairly positive that Democrats would have objected to being the red party, and the networks might well have obliged them.  So it was far more likely that both parties would accept GOP Red, Dem Blue.

Scaring Seniors 2

Seth Masket has a nice post up today knocking Mark Halperin for promoting inane Beltway fantasies of bipartisanship.  Good catch!  The part I'm most interested in, however, is that Seth hits Halperin for accusing the Democrats of "using Social Security scare tactics," which is somehow dirty pool even though some GOP candidates are explicitly running against traditional Social Security (not to mention that the only time the GOP had unified control of government for more than two years since Hoover they attempted to end traditional Social Security, so it's not as if it's completely unprecedented for them to attempt to act on that rhetoric).  I've commented on this before: Republicans act as if it's some sort of ultimate slur to accuse them of wanting to cut Social Security, even thought they claim that they want to cut Social Security.  And, for whatever reason, a lot of reporters buy the spin.

To be a bit more evenhanded about it, I think there's another side to this: if Republicans come too close to actually saying that they are against Social Security, they are written off by the press as freaks and weirdos.  You're allowed (almost required!) to say that Social Security cannot be sustained in the long run (even though that's not really true), and that Something Must Be Done, and that All Parties Must Come Together to implement a solution, and that Everything Should Be On The Table, and even that Democrats Are Refusing to Consider Necessary Adjustments...but if you actually say that you are for cutting Social Security, and certainly if you don't say you support it, you're a kook.  So there's some sort of rough, if incredibly foolish, justice.  In a way.  Sort of.  Still, I'd love to hear a justification for why it's unfair for Democrats to accuse Republicans of wanting to cut Social Security. 

(I think there might be a similar dynamic the other way around with defense spending, although I'm not sure whether it's close enough to really count.  Anyone have thoughts on that?)

Let's Get Moving Into Action

I'm happy to see Monkey Cager John Sides guesting for Ezra Klein this week, and I recommend his first post over there, taking on Scott Rassmussen on the question of whether Americans really want to govern themselves.  John knows a lot more than I do about public opinion, so I have nothing really to add to what he says, but I'll use it as an excuse to talk about James Madison and the crisis of the 1780s, which is not exactly related but close enough, and something I'm interested in anyway, because it brings up an interesting question: why democracy?

One of the goofy things about the US is that we so much take it for granted that democracy is the best form of government -- and all other forms are in turn stigmatized -- that we really don't think about it very much or very carefully, which I think winds up producing a fair amount of sloppy thinking when we get around to doing institutional reform.  I'm not going to go through all of the ideas behind democracy in this post, but I'll just say that most of us have been mainly exposed to Lockean, liberal reasons for democracy, which I think for most people come down to questions about outcomes: democracy is best because it produces, or at least promises to produce, the best, or fairest, or most justifiable public policies.  Yet there are also participatory arguments in favor of democracy, which are related to republican arguments generally associated with a long line of thinkers often traced to Machiavelli.  Theorists in that tradition argue that public action is, at least for some people, self-fulfilling; that is, they believe that one of the things that set humans apart is that we have a capacity for collectively organizing the way we live, and those who get involved in politics for whatever motives often find that it is deeply satisfying.  Hannah Arendt talks about this capacity for "public happiness" extensively in On Revolution, noting that people caught up in revolutions often express surprise that getting involved was so personally fulfilling; see also Gordon Wood's discussion of the American revolutionaries, or, for that matter, what veterans of the civil rights movement have said about it. Arendt makes the point that Jefferson's odd formulation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" contains an ambiguity (one can see our discomfort with that phrasing by watching the excellent Schoolhouse Rock on the Declaration -- if you haven't watched it recently, check out how they deal with pursuit of happiness).  Read as private happiness, Jefferson's formula is a good liberal equivalent of the more common "life, liberty, and property."  By that reading, government's main function is to protect individuals from encroachments on their private affairs, and at the same time to support those private activities, even if it takes government action to do so.  But read as public happiness, Jefferson is asserting that the opportunity to participate in collective self-government -- something that can only happen in some form of democratic republic -- is a core human right. 

Which gets us to the 1780s.  As Gordon Wood writes (see generally Part Four, especially Chapter X section 5), what alarmed the revolutionaries was that their assumption that an American republic would deliver both types of happiness was undermined by a turn away from public involvement: on the one hand, representative republican legislatures appeared shockingly prone to tyranny, and on the other hand the people seemed content to ignore politics entirely as long as they were left alone to enrich themselves.  Self-interest, in other words, appeared to be everywhere, and most shockingly it appeared to be perhaps the natural result of the revolution, thus making its higher goals self-negating.  Remove tyranny and establish republican institutions, and people will -- now that the threat of tyranny is gone -- turn away from public affairs to self-interest, thus establishing the conditions for a new, democratic version of tyranny. 

In my reading of Madison -- which I should say from the start is contentious, and hardly the consensus view -- the Constitution is a brilliant attempt to escape from that trap.  Centuries of Whig and republican thought had assumed that their project could only succeed if the people were virtuous, and public spirited.  Madison says: what if we turn the tables on all of that?  What if we take self-interest as a virtue, or at any rate as inevitable in a democracy, but use it against itself?  The genius of Madison's Constitution is that it encourages political participation even if it is originally motivated by selfish gain or ambition, but then counts on the complexity of the system to force people to actively engage in politics if they hope to get anything done. Simply registering one's preference or making demands will never be enough.  Moreover, by separating institutions through checks and balances and federalism, not only is tyranny avoided in the sense that private citizens are protected, (good for private happiness!), but also in the sense that opportunities multiply for citizens to become meaningfully involved in public affairs (good for public happiness!). 

Of course, if you don't believe that participation in politics can be good for its own sake, then you aren't very likely to care very much about that latter virtue of Madisonian democracy.  Even if you are, you may still believe that the costs of Madisonian democracy, the difficulties in translating popular preferences into government policy, aren't worth the benefits (although as usual, I'd caution people about assuming that election results can be easily translated into preferences for specific public policy choices).  And even if neither of those things bother you, if it turns out that capacity for enjoying and thriving at politics is unevenly distributed (the way that capacity for self-fulfillment in, say, music or fine art appear to be unevenly distributed), then it's not clear how we can justify the unequal influence over government that would result from natural sorting.  In other words, I don't really have any answers at the end of this long post.  What I think I can say is that those who write about public happiness, either in their personal stories or as political theorists, tend to emphasize the notion of discovery: people who became involved in politics for other reasons, whether it was self-interest or to right what they saw as an injustice, were surprised at what they found -- you hear versions of the idea that they felt truly alive for the first time, or something to that effect.  One could even perhaps bring in Ronald Reagan's notion of finding "the rest of me" in politics, no?  All of which suggests to me that one should not necessarily count the apathy of the uninvolved to be conclusive.  I'll end with a quote from Arendt (On Revolution, Penguin ed., 131):
And Jefferson's true notion of happiness comes out very clearly...when he lets himself go in a mood of playful and sovereign irony and concludes one of his letters to Adams as follows: "May we meet there again, in Congress, with our antient Colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation 'Well done, good and faithful servents.'" Here, behind the irony, we have the candid admission that life in Congress, the joys of discourse of legislation, of transacting business, of persuading and being persuaded, were to Jefferson no less conclusively a foretaste of eternal bliss to come than the delights of contemplation had been for medieval piety. 

Looking Back at Ron Paul 2008

Patrick Appel, ably holding down the Dish with Andrew Sullivan away, notes my skepticism about a Gary Johnson presidential campaign and responds:
[I]n order to become a standard-bearer for a cause it can be wise to advocate for a position before it is politically popular. I'm not a Ron Paul supporter, but his 2008 boomlet required a long bout of virtual invisibility. Paul preached the same sermon for decades and it only struck a nerve in 2008. His base of support wasn't large enough for him to win the nomination, but he proved a more viable candidate than almost anyone projected. 
Is that true? First, Ron Paul in 2008 was less viable than he was visible.  I think the right way to assess the Ron Paul campaign would be to compare him to a Phil Gramm 1996, or a John Connally 1980 -- campaigns that had one very obvious resource but little else.  In their case it was money; in his case it was the extremely enthusiastic support of a small group, but either way it was enough to fool observers into thinking there was a lot more to the campaign than turned out to be the case. 

Second, is it really true that Paul's 2008 run "required a long bout of virtual invisibility"?  Perhaps, but I'm not convinced.  I think it did require a weak GOP field, one in which no leading candidate had impeccable conservative movement credentials.  It also helped to have an outgoing big-spending GOP president (and a recent big-spending GOP Congress, or at least a president and Congress who could be portrayed as big spenders).  Given those circumstances, I could imagine a Paul 2008 campaign having happened at any point over the last thirty years. 

Really, what's striking about the Paul campaign is how little apparent success it had in affecting the Republican Party.  I'm not aware of any Republican nominees in 2010, at least not at the statewide level, who have adopted Paul's unorthodox stances on foreign policy.  It's true that some strains of Tea Partyism seem libertarian, but mostly it's just standard-issue GOP rhetoric, pushing tax cuts and unspecified spending cuts while in practice asking government to keep its hands off their Medicare, their farm subsidies, and certainly their defense contracts.  And, of course, Gary Johnson is going nowhere, at least for now.

If what Appel is saying is that rogue presidential campaigns do have the capacity for changing a political party, even if they don't actually win the nomination, then I entirely agree -- and it's a very important and good point.  But in this particular instance, I see no evidence that the real-life Republican party (or anyone else beyond a small but visible group of enthusiasts) are going to become libertarians any time soon. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Mirror question of the one that I asked conservatives: OK, liberals, which Republican pols do you like?  That is, about which Republicans do you think:  I disagree with them on the issues, but I do believe they are well-intentioned, serious, excellent public servants.  Even if they are wrong about everything (or at least nearly everything).

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Which Democratic pols do you like?  That is, about which Democrats do you think:  I disagree with them on the issues, but I do believe they are well-intentioned, serious, excellent public servants.  Even if they are wrong about everything (or at least nearly everything).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Thinking about Bobby Thomson reminds me of how bitter I am at Bud Selig for taking pennant races away.  What happened in 1951 could not happen today.  Could not.  Since Selig killed pennant races by adding the Wild Card, it became impossible for two great teams to fight for a playoff spot; moreover, with three tiers of playoffs, even when two teams fight down to the final game it's 50/50 that the winner won't make it to the second round, and a longshot for that team to make it to the World Series. 

Baseball is a business (among other things), and I'm not going to ask them to leave money on the table.  They can sell three playoff rounds, so they're going to have three playoff rounds.  Moreover, I can't blame them for wanting more teams staying alive farther into the season.  The truth is that a lot of teams in the days of 16 teams, two leagues (not to mention 20 teams, two leagues) were playing in front of pretty much no one once their season was over in June.  They didn't solve a phony problem with the three divisions plus a WC setup; they just chose the wrong solution.

One more time: Each league gets two divisions.  The first place teams advance.  The second place teams advance.  The first round matches the division winners against the other division's second place teams, and gives the champs a large advantage...something like needing two games to advance while the other team needs three wins (I'd also give them the entire series at home, but the details aren't that important; the key is only that the advantage has to be sufficient that winning the division clearly matters...I'd probably want the first place team to win about 80% of the time).  Then the winners advance to the LCS as equals: if an underdog manages to knock off a division winner in the first round, they have no further disadvantages going forward. 

That's it.  Promote the hell out of the last week of the season (Pennant Week!).  Sell it to ESPN or TBS, putting at least one game on every day as long as the playoff slots are still up for grabs.  Yes, a team such as the 1993 Giants (second place with 103 wins) gets screwed to some extent, because they probably won't beat the Phillies to advance...but that's OK: they get to try, up to that point they would be (as the 1993 Giants actually were) desperate to beat the Braves for the division title, because it would mean something again.  Once more, Bobby Thomson -- and Bucky Dent -- are possible.  Meanwhile, competition for playoff spots is once more restricted to division rivals, meaning that serious rivalries will build up over time, and the chances are much higher that teams competing for a spot will play each other over the final two weeks of the season, as Detroit and Toronto memorably did in 1987. 

Now, it's true that in a year like 1993 in the NL West, the teams hanging around at the .500 mark in July and August will be in worse shape than they would in the current setup.  That's a real cost, although it won't happen every year, and in the long run I tend to think it's good for MLB to encourage sub-500 teams to plan for the future, instead of hoping to get lucky and sneak into the WC.  But the main thing is that baseball would return to taking advantage of its long season.  Pennant races were great because they generated great stories -- as a Giants fan, I think of (among others) 1908, 1951, 1962, 1982, and 1993.  I can't prove that these great stories are a big part of what made baseball fans love the game so much, but I do believe it's true, and I think it's a shame that it's gone.  Especially since a fix is available.  Sure wish they would do it.

Exec Branch Appointments

Barack Obama cleared the logjam on appointments a bit with four recess appointments yesterday.  Jamelle Bouie thinks that the positions involved show that we have too many posts that presidents must fill (and the Senate must confirm).  I don't know what the optimal number of such positions might be, and I'm open to the possibility that it should be somewhat different -- but overall, executive branch appointments are an important weapon for the president, and one which shouldn't be taken from him.

Bouie asks: "Put another way, why exactly is the president of the United States responsible for providing ...Agriculture with an undersecretary for food safety"  Good question!  The answer is that food safety is, in fact, a partisan issue, with (as Monica Potts writes) a liberal agenda that differs considerably from the way things are now.  Change in what Richard Neustadt called a system of separated institutions sharing powers is difficult, and as Matt Yglesias writes today the Madisonian system has a bias in favor of the status quo.  That makes it hard to effect change by passing laws.  Moreover, all bureaucracies tend to favor the status quo, resisting change from either a liberal or a conservative direction.  Presidential appointments are one of the key methods (along with control of the budget) that bureaucracies can actually be made to respond, even if imperfectly and indirectly, to the wishes of the electorate.

Of course, because these choices also have to clear the Senate (except in the cases of recess appointments, of course), Congress gets to weigh in as well.  This can be problematic; it can help create iron triangles in which interest groups, Congressional committees or subcommittees, and agencies work together to freeze out any outside influence, including presidential influence (although for Congress, the budget is usually a more direct weapon).  But it's also a good thing; after all, it's likely that some of the relevant committee chairs have constituency groups who really care a lot about the policy, while often presidents will have little interest.

At it's best, the system will achieve input from national level interests (through the presidency), relevant local and narrow interests (through Congress), and expertise (through the bureaucracy).  Moreover, at its best, the incentives within the system will push everyone to compete for control of policy, which should -- by forcing people to defend their positions, and choose which things are worth fighting for -- yield better policy in the long run.  Or at least, that's James Madison's bet in Federalist 51, a bet which I at least would argue has served the nation well.  Obviously, there are plenty of times that things go badly awry.  The particular local interest that dominates may be only one of many narrow interests, but for some reason random or nefarious has far more political resources than others; the president may respond not to national interests, but to parochial ones important to his party's presidential nomination incentives (so that no presidential nominee is going to oppose corn-based fuels if he or she wants to win in Iowa); and the bureaucracy may be less interested in true scientific expertise than simply following standard operating procedures that evolved in the misty past for no good reason.  To me, the answer to to retain and fortify Madison's competition between elites, rather than to assume that any of these people or groups in most likely to be right most of the time.

Another way to look at it is simply as a question of how much democracy we really want.  Keep the bureaucracy at a remove from Congress and the presidency, trust in their administrative expertise, and you may (perhaps) have better policy, but you certainly are going to have less democratic control of what the government does.  Fully endorsing democracy means accepting the risk of people who you think are wrong or even completely irrational getting to control policy should they happen to win elections.  Exactly; that risk is an inherent part of true self-government.  What isn't self-government, at least in my view, is a bureaucracy that can't really be affected by the political system.

So while I don't know, as I said, that we have the exact correct number of presidential appointments, in general I'm for a system in which the bureaucracy is relatively easily influenced by both Congress and the presidency, and one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that presidents get to put quite a few people in key executive branch posts, not just a few.  So the reforms I'd like to see -- less vetting of nominees by the president and the Senate, and simple majorities of the Senate to confirm nominations -- would make it easier to appoint hundreds of people.  In other words, I think the basic structure of presidential appointments is just fine, but the system of putting them in place needs some work.

(Cross-posted at Citizen Cohn)
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