Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Question For Political Junkies

OK, folks: who are you rooting for?  Obviously, we political junkies love a landslide, because it produces Members of Congress (and, presumably, state officials) who have no business being there, and will rapidly crash and burn in spectacular ways.  Any candidates?

Who else?  As for me, I think (as I hinted in a previous post) that the best potential is from Alaska, as long as the Democrat doesn't win (which would, to be fair, be a great story in itself, but would presumably be dull after the votes are counted).  If it's Murkowski, we have the continuing Murkowski/Palin feud to look forward to.  If it's Miller, then we have the future Miller/Palin feud to look forward to, and until then we get to speculate about what will get her to turn on him, and how long it will take.  Either way, good fun for political junkies!

But that's me -- who are you rooting for?

Sunday Question for Liberals

Very straightforward this week: who are you rooting for on Tuesday?  Holding the partisan balance of power even, which specific races do you care about winning?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Very straightforward this week: who are you rooting for on Tuesday?  Holding the partisan balance of power even, which specific races do you care about winning? 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

I have to disqualify myself from participating in the thread this week, because all I remember from the week was the Giants winning two World Series games.  And I'm pretty sure there must have been something else going on, but I can't think of it right now, with Game Three coming up in a few hours.  So I'll just throw it even more open than usual: what do you think mattered this week?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

As I think I've said before, I feel sort of stuck, right now, as far as these posts.  I really am not feeling very analytic about the Giants' march through the postseason.  But I doubt anyone wants to wallow in nostalgia with me; unlike my friend Steven Rubio, I don't mind doing that myself, and I don't mind doing it here occasionally, but I'm not going to overdo it.  (By the way, Giants fans -- if you're not reading Steven Rubio, you should be).  I will note, as I read his stuff, that I'm an oddly disconnected Giants fan...not only am I in Texas now, but I've never lived in San Francisco, and while I like it just fine and I do have family there now, and I love the Bay Area and absolutely love Oakland, the bottom line is that for me rooting for the Giants has very little to do with San Francisco.  That's OK; I had to suffer mostly alone (well, with my family, but that's about it) during the long years 1972-1985 when the Giants were a clown franchise, and I spend the last decade having people coming up to me and demanding to know how I could possibly root for the Greatest Baseball Player Since Ruth.  Including people I barely knew,  Including strangers (I wear a fair number of Giants tee-shirts).  So there's that.

At any rate, I need something concrete to hang this post on, and here it is: There's something on this year's TV broadcasts that is just incredibly stupid and which, despite myself, I just love.  For some reason, the folks at Fox have decided to compare various player accomplishments to the postseason history of the franchise (Giants only, since of course the Rangers don't really have that sort of history).  Now, as I said, this is profoundly stupid.  The McGraw Giants, and the Terry Giants, and the Durocher Giants didn't have a "postseason."  They had a World Series, over and out.  So Giants team "postseason" records are just foolish -- most postseason records are silly, and since I guess Bud Selig wants another round, it's all going to be meaningless in a bit, again.

But I'm really enjoying it, anyway.  They've put Carl Hubbell's name on the screen, and Mathewson, and even some pretty obscure ones, and I'm enjoying the whole thing a lot.  Who cares if it makes any sense? 

My only question about it is that I seem to recall that it was Fox Sports that, when they took over baseball broadcasts, were going to banish history. I'm pretty sure it was Fox that supposedly was never going to mention anyone who was dead, and that even applied to Babe Ruth.  At least as far as I can tell, their new strategy is 100% in the opposite direction; they wound up giving a trivia question, I think in Game Two, that drew us to someone from the 1934 Tigers that I didn't even know (or at least remember knowing), and I must be easily in the top 10% of the audience as far as knowledge of baseball history is concerned, and I wouldn't be surprised if I was in the top 1%. 

So the postseason history stuff is stupid, but I love it.  And I think I'll stop there.  I guess by next Friday the Series will be over, one way or another...I'll probably post once after the last game, but I'm trying to keep it to a minimum.  Anyway, you know who I'm rooting for.

Incredibly Foolish Speculative Post

Hey, it's Friday, so why not.  So, say that Lisa Murkowski winds up winning.  I have no idea what she'll do once she's back in Washington.  My best guess is that she stays GOP, and votes more or less the same way she's always voted, but we really don't have a lot to go on here, and she could do anything from a full Specter flip to returning to the Republicans with a chastened, much more conservative voting record.  Who knows?

Ah, but (and here comes the foolish speculation): What if Sarah Palin does run for president?  And what if Sarah Palin becomes President of the United States!  And, what if she gets into ethics troubles (OK, that part isn't hard to imagine).  And what if a Democratic House decides to impeach her -- revenge for Bill Clinton at last!  And then we get a partisan trial in the Senate, with most or all Democrats voting to convict, and most Republicans voting to acquit. 

Now, if that whole unlikely string of events comes true: what are the odds that Lisa Murkowski votes to convict?  90%?  95%?  99%? 

Thank you.  This has been an incredibly foolish speculative post.  I appreciate your indulgence.

Dreaming of a World Where He Could Do Just What He Wanted To

Jamelle Bouie is uncharacteristically way off base on this:
I seriously doubt that Tea Party Republicans will be in any way distinctive from "regular" Republicans...Every class of "insurgent" Republicans eventually falls in line with the leadership, and this group will do the same.
In fact, there's a long history of insurgent Republicans, especially in the House, deciding that the current leadership is too moderate and too quick to compromise, and booting them out.
  • You probably know that there were two Republican Houses during the New Deal era (Truman's punching bag in 1947-1948, and one for Ike in 1953-1954).  The Speaker, and then Minority Leader, was Joe Martin.  Republicans jettisoned him for Charles Halleck in 1958.
  • Halleck lasted until 1964, when younger Republicans booted him and installed Gerald Ford.
  • Ford, of course, was plucked out of the House for bigger and better things.  He was succeeded by Arizonan John Rhodes, who held the job until 1981. I don't know the story of the next transition, but Bob Michel took over then while Rhodes served one more term.  
  • Michel was able to retire as Minority Leader -- but it was pretty clear that it was not entirely voluntary.  Had he decided to stay in Congress, Newt Gingrich would certainly have challenged Michel, and almost certainly have defeated him.  Even before he was ready for a leadership challenge, Newt spent over a decade organizing conservative Members to fight what they saw as GOP accomodationist tactics.
  • Newt Gingrich was then promptly tagged as too willing to compromise with Bill Clinton, sparking a coup attempt in his first term as Speaker.  While there were other issues involved in his eventual demise, part of it was certainly that he wasn't quite trusted as a "real" conservative.
  • And Denny Hastert chose not to seek re-election as GOP leader after the 2006 elections...I don't remember the reporting on this, but at the very least I don't think there were a lot of calls for him to stick around.
That's the leadership challenges; there's also a long history of GOP revolts against the leadership on specific votes, most notably the budget deal reach by George H.W. Bush, majority Democrats, and the minority Republican leadership; and then TARP, under George W. Bush.

Now, I think that Bouie is correct to note that a lot of the supposed Tea Party candidates are actually experienced pols (and Boris Shor reports that there may be some genuine moderates elected to the Republican conference, too).  But there are going to be quite a few Republicans on the Hill, especially in the House, who will have no intention of going along to get along.  Should John Boehner be Speaker (and I don't expect a leadership challenge in November, but this will apply to any GOP Speaker in 2011), I expect him to face severe constraints from conservatives who want confrontation, not compromise, and who may be unwilling to deliver their votes for whatever the leadership says is necessary.  And while I think that Boehner's a pretty good pol, I wouldn't be surprised at all if he winds up tossed aside relatively quickly.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Question Day Answers 4: Beards

Matt Lewis tweets:
how about a post on presidential facial hair? Or political facial hair in general?
Wow, Matt, great question, and I really have almost nothing to say about it.  Let's see...we're losing Dave Obey, who has (had? Haven't seen him real recently) a beard.  Corzine is gone.  I suppose I'll say that I'm a little surprised how little there is in national office at this point, but that's about it.  Sorry.

I will take the opportunity, however, to link to a NYT article on Brian Wilson -- Fear the Beard!  Sure wish I was there.  As a long distance Giants fan I do have a question, however: when you buy the fake beards at the ballpark, do you have to haggle?  Beyond that, thanks to everyone for the questions today: it was a great distraction from thinking about all the many and creative ways the Giants have fallen short in the past,  Time for Game Two.

Question Day Answers 3:Budget Deficits

Noumenon writes:
Is Kevin Drum's story about the Greenspan deal to raise Social Security taxes plausible? Coyote Blog claims here that it's not, but I wasn't there and I don't know if Coyote's characterization of Tip O'Neill is accurate.
I think Drum's way of putting it is essentially reasonable, although I can imagine other equally reasonable ways to characterize it.  The big thing to remember about SS is that it's basically in fine shape, one way or another. 

There are two major long-term budget issues.  The first is that medical costs are rising much, much faster than income, and therefore government revenues.  That can't really be fixed by raising taxes or cutting other spending; it can only be fixed either by retreating from current commitments on health, or by finding a way to make health care costs stop rising so much.  I'm not a public policy person, but my understanding is that the ACA included a bunch of things that may or may not achieve some of that, and if it's fully implemented and all then we'll find out, over time, how much that's going to help.  Note, by the way, that it's not as much of a government budget problem as it is a health care problem -- shut down Medicare and Medicaid, and you'll solve the government budget part of it, but not the economic and personal effects.

The second long-term budget issue is that every time Republicans get the chance, they slash revenues while leaving spending the same, thus exploding the deficit.  That's been the GOP platform for thirty years now, and it's the GOP platform in the current election cycle.  Since over time the parties do rotate in office, if one of them pledges to explode the deficit every time they get a chance, the outcome is a long-term deficit problem. 

But Social Security? It's not really a significant part of the long-term budget problem.  For more on Social Security in general, see here (for future financing, see their Fact #10).

Question Day Answers 2a: The Live Filibuster

I deferred one part of the question from the last post.  Here's the question again:
[Voltaire's prof says] Reid's threats to let Republicans filibuster are empty since Reid has never forced a live filibuster. The "cost" of filibustering, in both the public eye and terms of Senate norms, has been reduced by Reid into a cheap option Republicans can afford to do all the time.

In other words, he wants Reid to pick an issue, and force the R's to read from the telephone book. He says this will raise the credibility of Reid's threats and reduce the overall number of filibusters by R's, though most will still be "virtual."
On the general issue, I'll just refer everyone again to my old post on the live filibuster.  Bottom line is that the majority has a lot more to lose then the minority.  Indeed, at the end of the 111th Congress (at least so far) the Democrats seemed to have the votes for several additional bills or nominations but no floor time to get to them; it's hard to see how sacrificing floor time to a demonstration of...what, exactly?...would help with that.  Against a determined group large enough to prevent cloture, there's really nothing that a live filibuster can do except advertising, and it's highly unlikely that it's effective advertising (no one would read from phone books) or a better use of floor time than the alternatives.  For a smaller group, cloture is available and probably more efficient.

There is, however, one circumstance in which forcing a live filibuster might work: when the opposition is small (clearly below the number needed to prevent cloture) and the majority suspects that the opposition is not, in fact, very intense.  In that case, the opposition might claim that it would, if necessary, hold the floor, but in fact be bluffing.  That wasn't the case on any of the big legislative items, or even the small ones that would excite conservatives -- in the latter, it would probably be worth it for a dozen Senators to keep going just to generate the kind of publicity they really crave, even if it was overall unpopular and they didn't actually care about the issue.  But on some of the small stuff, especially the noncontroversial nominations, it may be the case that opponents were really bluffing.  Remember, all that's at stake in those situations is trying to get through the bill (or nomination, which I think is really where it mattered) without having to chew up floor time on cloture.  But then again, even in that situation it's not really all that big a deal to move ahead with cloture and see what happens; it's likely that the minority just won't use post-cloture time, and so you haven't lost much by using cloture to get it done.

Question Day Answers 2: Senate Leaders

A bunch of questions.  Voltaire writes:
I'm currently in college, and in my class on congressional strategy, my professor is adamant that Harry Reid is one of the worst majority leaders of all-time. His argument is that Harry Reid backs down from his threats, thereby losing all ground in negotiations since the other side knows it doesn't actually have to give up anything during bargaining. More specifically, he says that Reid's threats to let Republicans filibuster are empty since Reid has never forced a live filibuster. The "cost" of filibustering, in both the public eye and terms of Senate norms, has been reduced by Reid into a cheap option Republicans can afford to do all the time.
Historically, how in your view does Reid rate -- especially against some of the ones deemed successful, like Johnson, Mansfield or perhaps Geo Mitchell.
As long as we're talking about Majority Leaders here, it looks like there will be a race between Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin if Reid falls on Tuesday...Given that 1) The Democrats will be fighting the Republicans tooth and nail over the next two years, so they should create clear differences with them and 2) The Democrats are going to be playing major defense in 2012, who should the Dems go with?
Lots of issues, but really the question comes down to: what is the job of the Senator Majority Leader?  I'll tackle that here, and save the specific question about the live filibuster for a second post.

The fundamental problem here is that the Leader's constituency isn't his party at large; it's the other 50+ Senators in his party's caucus.  And we know that what they want out of their leadership is some coordination, but very little of what the Speaker of the House does: they don't want a top-down Senate, adn so their elected leadership isn't going to produce it. 

Now, of course, many majority-party Senators do want to enact something that more or less resembles a party agenda, and to the extent that group is large enough, then the party leadership will be expected to help them get that done.  But that's not going to be the only thing going on.  In the 111th Senate, Democrats from conservative states (and Joe Lieberman) didn't want a public option; moreover, they mostly wanted to be protected from having to vote on it.  Dirty energy Senators didn't want an energy/climate bill to come to the floor.  Kent Conrad and some others cared about deficits.  And quite a few Democratic Senators wanted opportunities to show their independence from their party and from Barack Obama. 

Harry Reid had to protect all those Senators from the things they didn't want, and protect the rights of each Senator to influence outcomes in areas of intense interest, and keep the Senators who wanted to pass the mainstream Democratic agenda happy.  Plus, he had to run for reelection in a state that had fallen into a deep depression. And he had to deal with an almost completely unified GOP following an unprecedented rejectionist, 60 vote strategy.  As far as I can tell, he did somewhere between an excellent and an outstanding job of handling those contradictory imperatives.

I see two big errors, both of which are only marginally Reid's responsibility.  The first is that in my opinion he should have orchestrated a White House push to ask Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy to resign in fall 2008, so that they could be replaced at the peak of Obama's popularity.  I mostly blame Byrd and Kennedy for that, but Reid (along with Joe Biden) was probably in the best position to see that it was the correct move and to know how to appeal to them.  The second one is that I do think that Reid could have processed non-controversial nominations more quickly, but again I trace the failure there to the White House more than to the Senate. 

But the rest of it?  I think it's highly unlikely that the health care outcome is better (for liberals) with a different leader; at best, it's marginally better, but there's also a very good chance of total failure.  I can imagine a climate/energy bill passing, but that was always going to be a tough sell, and to the extent there was a failure to get enough buy-in from everyone I don't think it was really Reid's call.  Immigration?  Never had a chance.  The other stuff that didn't make it (so far) are all smaller, and while I'm sure some people would choose different priorities (DADT repeal over hate crimes?), again it's not at all clear to me that these were Reid's choices, or that he and the Dems had a lot of flexibility. 

All that, of course, basically my impression from afar, and subject to reevaluation when more information comes out.  For a theoretical article on how to evaluate Congressional leadership, see Daniel Palazzolo's piece here, and see elsewhere on that page for more on the Congressional leadership in the 110th Congress.

The rest of the question...I don't really know how to rank Majority Leaders across time; the contexts are so different, both in terms of the political context (size of majority, unified or divided government) and changes in the Senate over time.  Just as a guess, I'd say that George Mitchell was overrated, and Trent Lott underappreciated by Republicans including those in the White House.  I certainly don't think Reid ranks low among the post-LBJ group.  And I couldn't really guess about whether Durbin or Schumer would be a better choice.

Question Day Answers 1: Transformers

Anon asked:
Last night on the Daily Show Jon Stewart asked the President whether some of the frustration of his supporters could be traced to a seeming promise of the Obama campaign to transform the system, rather than working within the system, in order to bring substantive policies [...] My sense is that most Presidents have worked "within the system" in order to bring about change, and that the cooperation of industry (or at least some part of industry) is necessary for reform to succeed. Is this correct? Have there been any instances in American history where a President has "transformed the system" in order to bring about reform? 
I'd say that FDR's original New Deal, especially the NRA, was pretty system-transforming while it lasted.  I'd also say that mobilization was system-transforming, in both the Wilson and FDR cases.  All of those, though, happened by incorporating industry.

Outside of that...well, there's lots and lots of reform, over time, although often it takes place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The reforms of the House of Representatives from 1959-1975 into a creature of the majority party are terribly important, but don't really get associated with a particular president, although Kennedy and Johnson were involved.  The reforms in the way the presidency is organized, which mainly took place during the Truman and Eisenhower years, are also really important.

But of course those sorts of things aren't what the question is really about.  To that I'd say: the American system is set up so that large interests usually have an opportunity to weigh in on major policy shifts that affect them.  That doesn't mean they're always bought off; sometimes, they choose to fight and win, and sometimes they choose to fight and they lose.

I haven't seen the Stewart interview yet, but the obvious thought experiment is to imagine Hillary Clinton as president, without the transformative rhetoric.  Had she carried out the exact same policies and policy style (which, by the way, I think is fairly likely in most cases), would liberals have the same reaction?  Mostly, I think so -- and remember, a large part of that is that most liberals are overall mostly happy with Obama.  I do think that there's something to the idea that Obama primed liberals to look for transformational political reform that he then could not deliver. I think, though, that most liberal disappointment with Obama (to the extent it exists, which again I'd caution is pretty minimal according to polling)  stems from specific policy outcomes that liberals don't like (DADT so far, some economic policies, civil liberties issues, climate, public option).  We could argue about whether that disappointment is misplaced...I think in many cases it is, while in some it is not...but regardless, I don't think that those complaints go away if his campaign rhetoric had been different.

Voting Reform Idea: 24 Hour Voting

How to make voting easier?  I've heard proposals for weekend voting, for a National Voting Day holiday so that people aren't at work, and of course we have various places with early or no-fault absentee or mail-in voting.  I don't recall ever hearing this one, however: what about 24 hour voting?  Start Election "Day" the previous evening, and go 24 hours, with a break from, whatever, midnight to 6AM, something like that. 

The nice thing would be that you could stagger the hours so that everyone started and ended at the same time: the East Coast could go from 8PM Monday night until 8PM Tuesday night, while the West Coast could vote from 5PM to 5PM.  Even Alaska and Hawaii would be on the same time. I think the TV folks would like that; I know that the people who worry about left-coasters being disenfranchised by early poll closing on the other side of the nation would will it. 

The downside would be that you would have to deal with ballot security overnight, and that it would cost some money, although not all that much.  And, what do I know -- maybe the people who don't vote now because they don't get around to it just consider voting low priority, and would pass either way (are there studies on the effects of polling place hours on turnout?  Anyone know?).  And in real life, getting all the states to buy in is a tough one (although federal grants have been known to affect state behavior before!). 

Still, it's less disruptive than the holiday, and more traditional than weekend voting.  What do you think?

Question Day!

You know, I'm having difficulty focusing on the blog or anything else what with the World Series and I think I'll break things up a bit by having a question day.  You ask, I answer.  Anything is fair game: the midterms, the next Congress,  the historic 111th, old Senators, nepotism, Congressional reform, campaign finance, Obama, past presidents, political movies, whatever.  Leave questions as comments here, email me, or tweet to my attention.  Haven't done one of these in a while, so we'll see how it goes...I'll try to get to whatever you ask.

A Note on Fraud

I'm for it.  Well, OK, that's having a little fun with how I write things, but I do have a real point here.  Which is that if you want something -- if you want government to do something -- you're going to get some waste, fraud, and abuse.  (I assume this is true in the private sector as well, but that's not my bailiwick, so I'll refrain from trespassing).

I've never found the right pithy way to say this, but it's something like this: Fraud is strong evidence that something you want is actually happening.  The iconic example for me has always been the Pentagon scandals during Ronald Reagan's presidency.  Sure, Reagan should have exercised tighter control over the bureaucracy, and sure, it was a good thing that whatever abuses were uncovered were stopped and punished if possible.  But people elected Reagan, and Reagan wanted a bigger military, and, well, that's what you get.

Granted, not all fraud is a sign of something good happening.  The occupation of Iraq seemed to produce an unusually high ratio of fraud-to-success.  But usually, it's an excellent indicator.  And of course, whether the thing indicated is something "good" or not depends on one's perspective...1960s-1970s welfare fraud was a signal that government was really trying to help poor people, which was only a good thing if you wanted such policies, just as not everyone supported Reagan's defense buildup.

Of course, I raise this in the context of my earlier post today about voting, in which I said I'd be glad to have a lot more people vote even if it means that a few of them are voting from the graveyard.  My conclusion?  The lack of real evidence of actual voter fraud is probably a good sign that we're not doing enough to promote voting.  The big Obama-era example is the negative one from the stimulus.  I don't have the citation at hand -- I seem to remember it was Matt Yglesias, but my apologies to whoever made the point -- but the gist of it was that there hasn't been nearly enough waste, fraud, and abuse in the execution of the recovery act.  That's exactly correct: the lack of waste, fraud, and abuse is a good sign that there hasn't been enough focus on getting the economy back in gear and producing jobs.  (Of course, in the case of economic stimulus, it's also not always clear that "waste" is actually a bad thing, since the whole point is to get money out there). On the other hand, the myriad abuses and likely abundant fraud and waste in counterterrorism under George W. Bush was a good sign that the government really had made that a priority,

Hey, I'm not saying that we shouldn't prosecute fraud, or that we shouldn't try to have government programs run efficiently, legally, and properly.  I'm just saying that in the real world, fraud is going to happen, and waste is going to happen, and it's most likely to happen in the areas in which the government directs resources.

(If only I could find the correct pithy wording, and I got famous enough, this is the one I'd want to be Bernstein's Law.  Why famous?  Because of one of Polsby's Laws: Famous words migrate into famous mouths).

Do You Want People To Vote?

That's really the question that Kevin Drum is tackling in his posts on voter fraud (first one, second one).

Look, it's not as if there's no history to this.  There have always been Americans who believed that everyone should vote...and there have always been Americans who want a better electorate.  In my experience, those attitudes (as opposed to the way they're deployed politically) are not partisan.  Get in a discussion with a decent-sized group, liberals or conservatives, ask the right questions, and you'll soon reveal that several people don't really think that it's right that the ignorant have the same voice on Election Day as the well educated.

It's not a crazy position!  Reading through the comments on my "voting stories" posts, you'll find people who clearly have spent a good deal of time and energy figuring out how to vote for a bunch of obscure offices.  But we know that they're in the extreme minority; most of the people who vote on Tuesday will be taking wild guesses on many items, certainly on non-partisan offices and ballot questions.  I can understand those who believe it's somehow unfair or unjust.

But they are wrong.  In a democracy, the people rule.  All of them.  Not just the well-educated.  Not just the well-informed.  Not just the intelligent.  Everyone.  At various times within any democratic political system, all sorts of people have outsized influence, but on Election Day, in casting our ballots, we're all supposed to be equal.  One person, one vote.

So I support a system that makes voting a lot easier than it is.  That's why I think our long ballot should be shorter.  That's one of the reasons I don't like ballot measures, or non-partisan elections.  It's also why I think formal barriers to voting should be eliminated -- all citizens, including felons, should be on the rolls, as should at least teenagers, if not younger children.  Ex-felons?  It's a national disgrace that they're barred in many places.

When there are trade-offs, I would always choose easier participation, even if it risks hanky-panky.  I'd like to see registration eliminated as a barrier to voting.  Voter registration should be automatic, and it should follow people around so they don't have to re-register every time they move.  Would that, on balance, increase the chances of fraud?  Yup.  Do I care?  Nope.  To be as clear as I can...if automatic registration would mean, say, an extra million citizens voting, but ten of those are dead people who get voted by some devious corrupt pol...yes, that's a good deal for democracy.

When it comes to voting, I'm going to choose lower hurdles every time.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Long Ballot

The question of the long ballot is back in the news today, with good posts by Jamelle Bouie and Matt Yglesias.

Regular readers know that I'm asking for people's voting stories -- post them here if you've already voted, or I'll do another thread on Tuesday.  It occurs to me though that I haven't actually restated my position recently, which is that while I like American tradition of holding lots and lots of elections, I don't like the progressive innovations of ballot measures (especially at the statewide level) and nonpartisan elections, and I agree with Bouie and Yglesias that judicial elections are just an all-around bad idea.  I'd also prefer a more unified executive branch in state governments, with states following the federal example of appointed (and confirmed) attorneys general and other department heads.  That would still leave Americans with quite a few more elections than most other democracies, but it would give voters a fighting chance of knowing what they're doing.

Also, I strongly agree that beyond a minimal number (such as that that voters in Britain have) there's no relationship at all between the number of elections and "democracy."  I suspect I'm happier with a significantly longer ballot than what Matt Yglesias would prefer in his ideal world, but, really, who thinks that non-partisan judicial elections are a good thing?

Catch of the Day

Jonathan Chait is all over the GOP plan to replace Paygo with "Cutgo." 
Looking ahead to controlling Congress, Republicans again propose to eliminate Paygo, as they did under Bush. But this time they propose to replace it with a different rule, Cutgo, which would require that new spending be offset with spending cuts. That would indeed be an effective way to limit new spending programs. Of course, it would retain the ability to pass tax cuts with no offsets whatsoever. The decision once again reflects the core Republican belief that tax revenues do not need to bear any relationship to expenditures.
I'd only add two things.  One is that it is indeed a budget-neutral change to replace a rule that new spending has to be offset with either taxes or spending cuts with a rule that new spending must be offset with spending cuts.  (Not that I like the rule -- I think budget rules should be neutral about the overall size of the government).  The second is that we'll have to see what the details of prospective Speaker Boehner's actual proposal turn out to be.  Will there be exceptions for GOP-favored programs?  How easy or difficult will it be to waive the rule?  So we really don't know yet whether the that part of it will in fact be deficit-neutral.

On the overall rule, however, Chait is of course correct: Cutgo may be a way for Republicans to achieve some of their goals, but balanced budgets are not one of those goal.  Cutgo should properly be seen as a roadmap to higher deficits.

Understanding Fox News

Responding to a debate between Michael Tomasky and Ross Douthat over whether liberals should appear on Fox News, Andrew Sullivan makes an important point:
Just as important, it seems to me is if Fox could give, say, Ron Paul his own show, and actually allow an internal conservative debate about issues, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or foreign policy, or the social issues, such as abortion, or even have a supporter of gay equality who isn't an easily dismissed leftist stereotype on prime time - like a Jon Rauch or a Ted Olson? Why not give Frum a show to counter the party line with smart conservative policy proposals and discussions? What's needed on Fox - and what you'll never see - is solid conservative attacks on and critiques of other conservatives, on matters of principle or policy. That's the difference between an opinion channel and a propaganda channel.
The point is that it's a real mistake to call Fox a conservative channel.  It's not.  It's a partisan channel.

Now, precisely how to think about Fox News and the Republican Party is a bit trickier. 

To begin with, bluntly, Fox is part of the Republican Party.  American political parties are made up of both formal organizations (such as the RNC) and informal networks.  Fox News Channel, then, is properly understood as part of the expanded Republican Party, just like Hill staff of GOP Members of Congress, or pollsters who only work for Republicans, or activists who volunteer for Republican campaigns, or think tanks that generate legislation for Republicans to support.  Son in the first place, Fox is simply part of the communications arm of the party.

The tricky part is that FNC isn't only a component of the Republican Party.  It's also a business, so it may have profit motivations beyond its partisan goals (both on the organizational and individual level, of course).  It's also, in format, a cable news network, and there are a variety of norms that come with that -- norms that may be important to both individual correspondents and producers on the one hand, and consumers on the other.  Fox may be part of the communications arm of the Republican Party, but it's not the same part as the RNC's web page, or ads for GOP candidates.

(Note that these sort of competing pulls affect all party actors.  Campaign pollsters are partisans, but they're also running a small business, and they also have professional standards they may care about upholding.  Formal party organizations are obviously partisan, but they're also bureaucracies, and those who study parties have long noted that within these organizations bureaucratic incentives can trump party goals).

Thinking of Fox as Republican, rather than conservative, helps organize the Tomasky/Douthat debate over whether liberals should appear on Fox.  Fox, of course, is free to call itself whatever it wants, but liberals shouldn't fool themselves about what it really is.

That doesn't mean that the case for boycotting Fox is clear for liberals.  Liberals participate in AEI public panels, even though they realize that AEI too (in Tomasky's words) "wants liberalism to perish from the face of the earth."  They do so because (or at least to the extent to which) AEI also upholds norms of civility and scholarship.  I don't think I need to spell out how that applies to FNC.

Beyond that, I don't think the decision to go on is one of principle, but one of tactics.  Is this particular Fox program one with a history of upholding broadcasting norms of giving people a fair chance to make their case (in which case Douthat's argument for reaching out to Fox's audience makes sense), or are guests used to provide a thin cover of "balance" but otherwise given no reasonable chance?  Would a full boycott (if such a thing was possible) discredit FNC among casual viewers who currently don't understand what they're watching?  (In my opinion, that's easy: it wouldn't). 

By the way, to me the word "propaganda" has more of a pejorative connotation than I would want to use in these circumstances...there's nothing at all wrong with parties having means of communicating with supporters and interested others.  Indeed, there's a long history of partisan newspapers in the United States; that's the main way that people learned about current events in the 19th century.  As one who supports strong (although not necessarily hierarchical or ideologically consistent) political parties, I'm mostly happy about the reemergence of the partisan press, even if its quality isn't what it might be, and I like the 20th century "neutral" press, too.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Third Party Fantasies

Brendan Nyhan already knocked this down in up to 140 characters, but I'll take a shot too...

John Heilemann spins a convoluted scenario in which Sarah Palin wins the presidency in 2012 as a consequence of a third-party run from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Now, technically I suppose this doesn't violate the Iron Law of Politics that New York City Mayor is a dead-end job; NYC Mayors do occasionally run for other offices and lose.  Sometimes, they run for president.  Then they get crushed:
  • John Lindsay sort of tried for the Republican nomination in 1968, but it didn't go anywhere.
  • By 1972, Lindsay was a Democrat, and over the course of the primaries wound up getting about half the votes of Shirley Chisolm (sorry, Betty Draper.  It's not gonna happen).
  • And Rudy Giuliani, you know about.
To be fair, Heilemann doesn't have Bloomberg -- who, let's remmeber, has neither constituency nor, at this point, any issues to run on -- winning.  And it's hardly insane to imagine that if Barack Obama is unpopular in 2012 , the right crazy billionaire could wind up doing about as well as Ross Perot did in 1992.  On the other hand, Perot caught a few breaks (mainly, getting included in the presidential debates thanks to a blunder by George H.W. Bush's campaign), and while surely he was crazier than Bloomberg would be, he also was more culturally compatible with swing voters than the short Jewish guy New Yorker.   (Being crazy may have been an advantage, too, in that Bloomberg might not be nearly as willing to spend hundreds of millions on a pipe dream).

But the real point here is that the third party fantasy is irrelevant.  If there's a double-dip recession and unemployment is over 10%, then odds are good that any GOP nominee would win.

Yes, Palin is very unpopular right now, no question about it.  That hurts her chances of winning the nomination.  But if she does manage to do that, well, we're not talking about today's Palin any more.  Republicans would rally around her; newsmagazines and network news poobahs would do features on how she's grown since '08; I don't need to tell you how enthusiastic the folks at Fox News and conservative talk show hosts will be.  She will have won GOP presidential debates (doesn't matter how she performs; since we're assuming she's nominated, that means she won the primaries that followed the debates, which means she'll be declared the winner).

Now, in a world in which unemployment is dropping, and Barack Obama has approval ratings of 55% or higher, then Palin would enter the general election behind and stay behind, and reporters (other than the partisan press) would rapidly forget her alleged growth and focus on how extremist and gaffe-tastic her campaign continued to be.  In that world, Obama is re-elected in a landslide.

If, however, Obama is under 40% approval, then Palin enters the campaign leading, and her campaign is thrilling and exciting -- a phenomenon!  Swing voters who already gave up on the president would either find themselves reconsidering the Sage of Wasilla (who, remember, would be getting great press), or would reluctantly settle for her.

Would a third-party candidate change any of that?  In those cases, not at all.

Could it possibly make a difference?  Never say never...if a third party candidate runs to the left of a marginally popular Barack Obama, it's certainly possible to imagine such a candidate taking 10% of the vote, all from the Democratic nominee.  Unlikely -- a lot of things have to happen to maximize the vote of the splitter, and the two-party race has to be close -- but not impossible.  Of course, given the record we've seen in 2010, right now it seems more likely that we'll see that on the right, not the left, but the opposite isn't impossible.

However, a third party coming from the center, more or less, won't do that at all; to the extent it "succeeds" by reaching double digits, odds are that those voters will come more or less equally from both parties.  After all, that's sort of the point of such a candidacy, to appeal to those who find their party drifting too far to the extremes.  To the extent that one of the candidates is particularly weak, a center-based third party candidate might draw more from that side, but that's just a sign of a candidate's weakness -- which, without the third party candidate, the other side would have exploited.

Indeed, a candidate who is flexible enough to have choices about where to position his campaign ideologically is going to search for his oppponents' weaknesses.  So if Obama is weak, Bloomberg might well run center-left -- but that just implies that without the third party candidate, the Republican nominee would have the advantage.  If that GOP nominee is the weak one, Bloomberg would position center-right, and poach (to the extent he could) her voters.  All of which makes for a lot of fun for reporters, but doesn't change the outcome.

In short, it's very unlikely that a third party candidacy would throw an election to a candidate who would otherwise lose; it's even more unlikely that center-based third party candidate would do so; and as much as a big checkbook impresses reporters, there's no real reason to think that Michael Bloomberg is particularly well positioned to be a particularly effective center-based third party candidate.

We Need Better-Educated Bigots

I usually just ignore this crap, but for some reason it got to me...

1.  Back of the bus is about Jim Crow, and race.  Back of the car is where the kids sit while the grownups are up front.  It has no racial or ethnic overtones.

2.  This is just the bigot's version of Brian's mother, right?  (You know -- whatever Brian says, his mother replies: "Oh, you're always thinking about sex"). 

3.  There is another situation in which it matters who sits in the front and who sits in the back, which may have racial or ethnic overtones, but it doesn't fit either...but it does give me an excuse to quote: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Today's Feature Presentation: Driving Miss Daisy."

They Really Are Different

Kevin Drum flags an anecdote about Bill Clinton's superhuman ability to work a room, and concludes:
The man is truly a freak of nature. I hope his brain is preserved for science when he dies.
Fair enough -- but what it also reminds me of is Richard Ben Cramer's portrait of George H.W. Bush cranking out mountains of thank-you notes,  making friends with every human soul he encounters, and (with Barabara) keeping that (pre-computerized) Christmas card list and willing themselves to like Ron & Nancy.  It's hard to write about these sorts of things, or Richard Nixon's work ethic, or LBJ's...I don't even know what to call it...without using some fairly extreme adjectives.  Such as, oh: obsessive.  Or: maniacal.

One must always be careful about these things...we can't quite draw causal lines between those extreme behaviors and the White House.  There are many examples of pols who would fit comfortably into the above paragraph who never advanced beyond lower office, and not every president is, in Drum's words, a "freak of nature."  Still, I think more are than are not, and it's probably worth keeping that in mind when we try to think along with our presidents -- or as we think about how much independent authority we really want them to have.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Walter Mondale for SCOTUS?

Over the weekend, I asked what  would happen if the Supremes have an opening in the next couple of years.  A filibuster (or outright defeat, if there are 51 Republican Senators) seems inevitable to me and most of the people who responded, summed up by commenter JazzBumpa who supposed that the GOP would filibuster Robert Bork's clone if Barack Obama sent him up. 

Nor is it really plausible that Obama would nominate someone that conservatives like.  He'd be inviting a relatively serious primary challenge (I hear Russ Feingold might be looking for something to do, and he strikes me as the kind off pol who would do it). 

The obvious compromise, suggested by commenter Kylopod, would be to pick someone old.  Would Republicans be willing to vote for Hillary Clinton (b. 1947)?  Still on the youngish side, no?  She could easily last a couple of decades on the Court.  So, here's the likely short list:

Walter Mondale, b. 1928.  At last, a Protestant!

Abner Mikva, b. 1926.  He's been confirmed before!

George Mitchell, b. 1933.  Ethnic diversity. 

Mario Cuomo, b. 1932.  Bonus attraction for the GOP: might take three or four years to decide whether to accept appointment or not.

Jerry Brown, b. 1938.  OK, he's a bit young -- but he's goofy enough that he might not be a reliable liberal vote on everything, but most liberals would still be happy, and besides if he wins then California Republicans could get rid of him.

Hey, I'm not joking -- well, except for the Jerry Brown part; I'd rather see the other Jerry Browne on the Court.  Odds are that there won't be an opening in the next couple of years, but it's hard to see any other way out of a stalemate if there is one.  And even then, I'm not sure that 41 Republicans would let anyone go, no matter how old they were. 

The larger issue is what's going to happen to the other judicial nominations.  Will Republicans simply roadblock everyone, at least at the Circuit Court level?  If so, and if Democrats maintain a small majority, will Dems threaten a nuclear option?  Will they work out a deal?  If not, would the Democrats really just end the filibuster by a simple majority vote?  What if Republicans control the Senate?  Would they even allow any nominee out of committee?

It's hard to believe that we'll just go two years without filling any judicial vacancies.  Isn't it?  But I'm finding it hard to see any incentives for Republicans to compromise.  Sure, they wouldn't want their own nominees spiked in the future -- but that's not going to cost any Senator reelection, and furnishing the winning votes to put an Obama nominee on a Court of Appeals could just do that in a primary.

Influence Within Parties: Money, Technology, and Regulation

I want to steer you all to a couple pieces out today: Jamelle Bouie in defense of political parties, and Henry Farrell on money flows and influence within the Republican Party.  See also Henry's earlier post on the same subject. 

I wrote a longish, fairly technical piece on campaign financing late last week, which I really hope specialists on money in politics (and/or parties) will look at.  The gist of it is that it's more complicated than it seems to figure out whether money should properly be counted as coming from parties, interest groups, or unaffiliated individuals.  Out of that, however, I'll say that if the GOP has evolved a work-around because campaign finance laws prohibit them from using formal party organizations (such as the RNC) for certain types of coordination, and because the current RNC is too dysfunctional, then I don't think that the outcome will necessarily be weaker parties.  Instead, it might just be stronger parties that lean more on informal networks than on formal structures. 

I think the discussion should be focused, then, on two questions.  How influential are the parties are compared to their competitors, and who within the parties has the most influence.  Unfortunately, these questions get complicated very quickly when one accepts that a lot of players -- interest groups, candidates -- have an ambiguous relationship with the party, properly understood.  Interest groups can be both independent actors and party members.  So can candidates, or at least their candidacies.  That is, party networks can infiltrate both interest groups and candidacies so thoroughly that they act as if they are party components, not rivals.  So parties can weaken as politicians get stronger if those pols are able to operate as rivals to party, but parties can also gain strength from strong, party-aligned candidacies. 

Even in those circumstances, however, there's still the question of which party components have influence.  And here, I think Henry Farrell is right to look at how money flows, and the regulatory and technological (or organizational) changes that affect them.  My sense of it is that loosing regulation through Citizens United and other judicial and FEC decisions is probably relatively less important: in my view, these decisions may change how money is collected and spent (which might matter!), but it probably doesn't really change how much truly independent interest groups will spend.  They've always had loopholes large enough that they could spend what they wanted.  On the other hand, the kinds of mobilization of very large networks of small (and smallish) donors through cable network and activist web site agitation strikes me as really different from pre-2004 campaign cycles, and I do think it's meaningful that it has spread from presidential candidates to Senate and even House contests.  If I'm right and that money is basically partisan money, then it's likely to tie candidates even closer to their parties. 

One of the big questions -- and we don't know the answer -- is what percentage of all money spent in Congressional campaigns is truly party money; how much is from independent interest groups (that is, groups not aligned with either party); and how much is personal, generated by individual candidates from sources that are not particularly tied to party networks.  My guess is that in Congressional elections the third category peaked 30-50 years ago and has been declining ever since, but that's just a guess. 

I do think that Henry's questions about coordination are important, but I don't think that he has it quite right.  All types of parties are going to be interested in coordination, but different types of parties, with different regulation regimes, different components, different institutions, different....hmmm...strength, in the sense of how closely various components are tied to the party, are going to be able to coordinate more or less efficiently.  (Even if individual actors within the party network claim to have little interest in coordination, the logic of elections, beginning with the need to agree on nominees, push everyone in that direction, at least if they want to be influential players).  Stability matters too: rapid changes, whether or the rules of the road or in electioneering technology, probably make coordination a lot harder. 

That's not to say that all forms of coordination yield the same outcomes.  Using Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (or using Kos) as a means of coordination for large numbers of small and smallish donors can impose all sorts of constraints on the party, and it's well worth paying attention to what those might be. 

Voting Stories

Or: Great Moments in Democracy.

As promised, here's the thread for your voting stories, for those who are voting early.  I love voting stories, and I'd love to hear yours.  How many different positions/questions did you have on your ballot?  What was the goofiest or most obscure office?  How did you go about choosing candidates in obscure, non-partisan contests, if you had any of those?

In the previous thread, the longest reported ballot had 42 choices, in LA County; the shortest was 10, in Wisconsin.  Can we beat those?

I'll won't be voting until election day, so I'll tell whatever story I have then, but if you've voted early and didn't tell your story in the previous thread, here's your chance. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Same question as the question for conservatives: Suppose that Republicans have at least 51 and no more than 55 Senators next year, and that a Supreme Court justice gets hit by a bus.  I'm sure liberals would all expect an automatic filibuster on any even moderately liberal nominee. Can you picture any compromise that most liberals could live with that would allow Obama to put someone on the Court?  How do you see such a confrontation playing out?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Suppose that Republicans have at least 51 and no more than 55 Senators next year, and that a Supreme Court justice gets hit by a bus.  Would you expect every GOP Senator to vote against cloture on Barack Obama's nominee, with the penalty being a certain primary challenge?  If so, can you picture any compromise that most conservatives could live with that would allow Obama to put someone on the Court?  How do you see such a confrontation playing out?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

Hmmm...let me think...did NPR cutting loose a replacement-level pundit matter?  Uh, I suspect that regular readers know what I think about that.  So, what do we have?  I'm going to just go with an obvious one: elections are important, and an awful lot of people voted this week.  Face it: that's the thing about this item, that often what really mattered is going to be the obvious.  But I'm sure there were plenty of other things.  So, what do you think?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

It's the Rangers. question, and one note.

The question is: how many Washington Senators fans are there around who still root for the Rangers?  Can't be very many at all.  First of all, it's been almost forty years.  Second of all, the second Senators only lasted for eleven years; you don't get a whole lot of permanent attachments over eleven years, you wouldn't think.  Especially eleven years that were hardly distinguished.  And on top of that, you have the original Senators...all in all, I'm sure there aren't many.  But there must be a few, no? 

Second, the note: this makes six different teams in the World Series in six years for the American League.  That breaks a tie with 2002-2006, but it's still shorter than the run from 1981 through 1988, eight different pennant winners in eight years.  And that's it, in the long history of the AL, unless I've missed something.  I counted a few five year, five team runs (including one that overlaps the big '80s run), but this seems to be the second longest streak of that kind ever.  The National League has hit six more times, but it's worth noting the streak beginning in 1914: Braves, Phillies, Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Reds: six of the eight teams, or all but the Pirates and Cardinals.


Steve Benen argues:
I continue to believe in a simple litmus test -- if you claim to believe in fiscal responsibility and want to cut the deficit, you can't insist that the Pentagon budget is untouchable. It's an immediate credibility killer, reflecting a fundamental lack of seriousness about the subject.
I understand his point, and it's a good post, but I'm going to disagree with it.  Put Peter Orszag, Mitch Daniels, Stan Collender, Keith Hennessey, and Robert Greenstein in a room, tell them each to produce three honest proposals for a balanced budget over 2020-2030 without touching the Pentagon, and hand them a sufficient supply of envelope backs, and in a couple of hours at most you'll be looking at fifteen balanced budget proposals, ranging from conservative to liberal.  Yes, national security is a huge chunk of discretionary spending, but raise taxes, slash Medicare, eliminate federal involvement in education and the environment...there are lots of ways to get there.

No, I understand what Benen is saying, but I'd go in a different direction.  If you declare the Pentagon budget off limits but don't support either higher taxes or draconian cuts in major programs, then you are not serious about national security.  The United States is a fabulously wealthy nation; there are very few things that this country cannot afford.  But if you're not willing to pay for it, if you're saying -- as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney said for eight years, with the approval of almost every Republican in Congress and most conservative pundits -- that taxes should be lower and the other major functions of the government should be preserved -- then whatever you say, it's just lip service.

And of course that goes double for anyone trying to whip up the country into a frenzy about budget deficits without proposing a real budget that reduces the deficit without touching the Pentagon.

Wanting it, in any serious way, means wanting to pay for it.  For once, the household budget analogies do hold here.  Claiming to want some level of national defense but that you're not willing to pay for it is exactly the same as my "wanting" to fly to Philadelphia to attend NLCS Game Six -- if I'm not willing to open my wallet, it's a nice thought, but it has nothing to do with reality.  And on national security, there are a whole lot of people, including some of the most blustery neocons, who are living in Fantasyland.

Republican Nomination Process Notes

I've been whining for months now about reporters failing to let us know about whether Republicans were hurting their chances in House elections by nominating fringe, inexperienced, or extreme candidates.  Brendan Nyhan's not a reporter, but he took a different path than I did: instead of whining, he did the work and compiled the data. 

The result is a very important post that I'll urge you to read in full if you're interested in 2010 House elections.  Short version: by one standard measure of candidate quality (previous elective office), Republicans have in fact nominated a strong field of candidates in competitive House seats.  To some extent that's because amateur Tea Party candidates are generally running in safe Democratic seats that the GOP had no chance to win with any candidate, and to some extent it's because a fair number of candidates identified with Tea Partiers are actually experienced pols.  In other words, there are a fair number of Marco Rubios, and relatively few Christine O'Donnells in most competitive House seats. 

Again, I recommend the entire post. 

The only caveat I'd add is that Nyhan is only looking at experience, not ideological extremism.  For the most part, political scientists have found that the former is very important, while the latter matters more around the margins in most cases.  However, it is certainly possible for those with previous electoral experience to be weak candidates (see Sharron Angle, who may well win but only after overcoming an unusual number of gaffes), and it's possible that ideological extremism could be a problem for some of those experienced candidates.  Possible, but again, on that we don't have any evidence yet.

The other important thing to read about the 2010 cycle this week was Bradford Plumer's survey of what's happening with third party candidates who might affect election outcomes (or, in a few cases, actually win). 

What joins those two topics in many cases is a common theme about the Republican Party's ability to control its own nominations.  That turns out to be a tricky topic, and one that I've written about here in the past, but expect to hear more in the future.  Meanwhile, I'll refer you to a couple of things...Seth Masket has been talking about the fascinating Colorado gubernatorial race for some time.  And the key book about primary elections -- Hey, political scientists interested in parties and elections, it's a must-read -- is Alan Ware's The American Direct Primary.  As I said, it's a tricky topic, but terribly important.

Read Stuff, You Should

Once again, my tabs are not just full, but overflowing.  I'll get straight to it.

1. Starting with the 2010 election cycle: Seth Masket talks McCain and the Tea Parties; Steve Kornacki on the crazy; Jonathan Chait on party discipline; and, will there be Jews?

2. Fred Kaplan updates Afghanistan.

3. Matt Yglesias continues to make the economic and ethical case for allowing immigration.

4. Remember Elena Kagan?  Glenn Greenwald is still watching.

5. Nobody knows anything, economics edition.

6. ACA mythbusting from Jonathan Cohn.

7. Ross Douthat explains the GOP and climate; Chait takes on the GOP and spending.

8.  And a sports & media link for you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get the Politics Right

Gotta take issue with something that Ezra Klein said about the stealth tax cut:
It's a story that reflects both positively and negatively on the administration. The positive side is that they sacrificed politics and messaging for good policy. They were willing to forgo the headlines and the chance to force Republicans to own something if it meant improving the economy. The negative side, of course, is that it doesn't seem to have worked (emphasis added).
Now, if all he meant was either that Barack Obama is wise to ignore the daily news cycle and pay attention to long-term effects, that's fine -- or if he meant that in this case, Barack Obama was smart to realize that the best thing for him and his party politically was to get the economy moving, and that would (again, politically) be far more important than whatever short-term spin that they could achieve, again I would agree.  However:

Presidents should definitely not be treating politics as an ugly necessity, or even worse as something that craven politicians might indulge in but that really is beneath their own exalted selves.  That's Jimmy Carter talk.  Presidents are in the business of politics.  That's true in the democratic sense of keeping constituents happy, and it's also true in the sense that a president's influence is achieved by mastering politics, both in Washington and out. 

If pressed, I'd probably say: get the politics right, and you'll get the policy right.  But I'm sure of one thing: get the politics wrong, and it doesn't matter what policy you want, because it ain't gonna happen anyway.  Probably not now, and certainly not in the long run. 

Catch of the Day

Oh, it's going to Jonathan Chait, alright.  But which to choose?  His terrific takedown of doubletalk at the Weekly Standard?  His canny call of tribalism on Abe Foxman?  Both are good...but if pressed, I might have to say his pithy, perfectly titled quotation pull-out from a NYT story.

As a sometimes wannabe sabermatrician and proud alum (hey, non-baseball fans, don't go away -- this is for you, too), however, I do have to chide Chait on one thing.  Not his main point about Juan Williams, but about his failure to realize that replacement level is below average, not equivalent to it.  An average player (think maybe Aubrey Huff over his career; I'm not going to even speculate about who might be an average pundit) has considerable value.  A replacement level player or pundit has little value, because there are plenty more as good or better available.  The key concept behind this, from Bill James, was that the distribution of talent among major leaguers is not distributed along a normal curve; it's taken from the extreme right edge of the curve, so there are far more average than above-average players, and way far more replacement-level players than average players.  The same thing should apply to college football, and even more so to the NBA. 

Which brings me to Matt Yglesias, who got it exactly right: Juan Williams is a replacement level pundit.  I don't think he's actively awful, but there must be a good fifty to a hundred people who can step right in at NPR and do as well or better.  That's not nothing; there are plenty of times a major league team runs a sub-replacement level guy out there for 500 PAs, and that'll kill your team quickly.  But it's not average, either.  NPR can do better.

(Hey, I made it through almost a whole post about replacement level players with hardly any cheap shots at the expense of Brian Sabean.  Not quite ready to forgive him for everything, but, hey! Cody Ross!)

Palin Stories

There's a fascinating Jonathan Martin story about Sarah Palin over at Politco today.  Here's the gist of it:
The election is two weeks away, but the campaign trail reviews of Sarah Palin already are in, and they aren’t pretty.

According to multiple Republican campaign sources, the former Alaska governor wreaks havoc on campaign logistics and planning. She offers little notice about her availability, refuses to do certain events, is obsessive about press coverage and sometimes backs out with as little lead time as she gave in the first place. 

In short, her seat-of-the-pants operation can be a nightmare to deal with...
OK.  What are we (that is, we the political observers -- in particular, those of us interested in 2012, and who believe that Palin is a legit contender, neither a shoe-in nor an impossibility for the GOP nomination) to make of stories like this?  How should one read Politico?

The first order of business is to see if there's any meat to the story.  I think it passes the test.  There are quite a few anecdotes reported, and they do a good job of supporting the thesis that Palin's operation is still amateur hour.  What I thought was pretty good was that Martin avoids gender stereotypes -- he doesn't portray Palin as a diva, but just as someone who needs a few more seasoned operatives.  

There's also a believable (which doesn't mean it's true!) theory of why she runs things the way that she does: she's obsessed with loyalty, and would rather sacrifice efficiency in her camp than risk letting in someone who will sell her out.  Given her experience with McCain-supplied campaign professionals, that's not all that surprising; given her experiences over the last couple years, it's easy to imagine that from her perspective everything seems to be running exceptionally well, reinforcing her impulse to trust her own judgment rather than that of Washingtonians who dismissed her in 2008 and since.

So at face value, it's an interesting and plausible story, reinforcing the idea that there's quite some question as to whether the Sage of Wasilla will be willing and able to do the sort of things that candidates for major party nominations have always had to do.

Now, take a step back.  Why are Republican operatives feeding negative stories about Palin to Politico two weeks before the midterm elections?  I certainly don't know, but that's my first reaction when I read the story.  Are they trying to deflate her as a 2012 contender?  If so, is it because other candidates have friends around the country?  Could be.  Is it because many GOP insiders read the polls, and think she's poison for the party?  Could be.  Is it because Republicans are at heart hierarchical and traditional, and just really can't stomach this crazy person...ahem, this crazy woman, from nowheresville, who just doesn't look like what they think a President of the United States should look?  I don't know.  I thought it was certainly very interesting that Chuck Grassley's campaign was identified by name; Grassley has an easy reelection bid right now and doesn't have to face a primary for six years, so he's pretty safe from retribution, and he may be reminding not just Palin but all prospective candidates to pay proper fealty to him as the caucuses approach.  Don't forget the obvious possibility that perhaps it's just straightforward: she really does have an incompetent operation, which has repeatedly burned and angered so many people that it's produced a subset willing to talk to a good, aggressive, reporter.  Again, could be.

The point is that when reading these stories, always think about why people talk to reporters, and why these particular sources talked to this reporter about this particular topic.  

Another step back.  Why is Politico doing the story, in the first place?  Well, that's an easy one: Palin, we all know, sells.  I don't really know why, but I do know it's true.  So when reading Martin's story I want to ask myself again: is this really news?  If Romney or Pawlenty's operations had similar logistics troubles, would I be hearing about it?  Would I be hearing the same things about it? 

As with questions about sources, I don't really have answers to the questions about the reporter or Politico itself, other than just to remind myself as I read it that there's a serious, heavy, media bias in favor of seeking out and running stories about Sarah Palin.  Every gaffe, every mix-up, every good line, has a good chance of being reported.  As observers, we need to remember that, and be aware of what it does to our perceptions of her compared to our perceptions of the other candidates.

That Wave

I see that Seth Masket is talking election predictions again.  I'll update what I said before about a range for Senate this point, I'm not going to be surprised if Republicans end the cycle with anywhere from 42 to 53 seats.   As for the House; Nate Silver has it right now as a 75% chance of a GOP takeover, and that sounds reasonable to me.   The Democrats are certainly going to lose seats, but will it be 25?  65?  I'm not going to make a prediction.

OK, that makes me a wimp.  Two excuses.  One is that when I was a wee grad student, the late Nelson W. Polsby wouldn't join the office pools that we (OK, I) organized every Election Day, and generally wouldn't make pundit-like predictions, at least not when I was around.  So, I could blame it on Nelson, and say I'm following his example.

Really, though, I need to blame my actual dad, and not my academic dad.  I was brought up to play the ponies, as regular readers know, but also brought up to have nothing but contempt for the suckers who always bet the favorite.  Chalk-eaters?  Not for us; we were always looking for a price (that is, a longshot).  So my instincts are to look at (checking Silver's current chart) Pat Toomey (94%) or Barbara Boxer (82%) and think about predicting them to lose; picking them to win seems like a cheat to me.  This is not apt to win me a reputation as a brilliant analyst, or even convince anyone that I know what I'm talking about (even if I hit a couple, going two for twelve on longshots isn't going to seem as impressive as going ten for twelve picking favorites).  So I'll pass.

I will give some comfort to both sides.  For Democrats, I can think of a few reasons to have some hope that I haven't heard elsewhere.  Well, one main reason: Karl Rove.  Normal communications strategy has always been to lower expectations, the better to then beat them and spin that your side "won" the election.  Rove has always acted differently; he goes for bandwagon effects, talking up his side's prospects.  Put them together, and perhaps you'll wind up with both sides overselling GOP chances.  Note that Nate Silver incorporates neutral expert ratings into his ratings, so if they've been spun like that, then even Silver's ratings will overrate the GOP.  It's not just the Rove thing; it's also the 1994 example -- everyone who was around and didn't see that one coming is going to be tempted to overcompensate this time.

On the other hand...

For Republicans, I would just say: there sure are a lot of seats in play, seems like more every day, and as Charlie Cook will tell you there are lots of examples of a whole bunch of close ones going in the direction of the "wave" party.  Moreover, as a longtime Cook watcher, I can say that he is usually pretty cautious in his ratings, meaning that if he puts an incumbent into the Toss Up column, that incumbent is usually in big trouble.  In general, I think there's a reluctance to go out on a one wants to be in a position of predicting something highly unusual (such as a 75 seat pickup in the House) and then being wrong.

Anyone who does want to make some predictions is welcome to do so in comments below -- either specific ones about a particular contest, or big-picture selections.

(By the way: I'm not a fan of the song that I used to title this post, but it seemed to fit).

Friday Baseball Post (Late Wednesday Edition)

I needed to know this after the Tuesday and Wednesday games, and so perhaps you'll be interested too.

Bruce Bochy played for Bill Virdon for all three of his years in Houston; for George Bamberger in his year with the Mets; and for Dick Williams (3 years), Steve Boros, and Larry Bowa (one year each) with the Padres. 

Virdon played for: Eddie Stanky, Harry Walker, Fred Hutchinson, Bobby Bragan, Danny Murtaugh (8 years), and Walker again.

Bamberger had cups of coffee with the 1951 and 1952 Giants -- that's Leo Durocher, of course, and the 1959 Orioles, which is Paul Richards.  But wait, there's more!  In four years with the Oakland Oaks, he played for Met Ott, Augie Galan, Chuck Dressen, and Lefty O'Doul.  Wow. 

Dick Williams played for Chuck Dressen (3 years), Walter Alston (Alston's manager for that one game?  Frankie Frisch), Paul Richards (total 4 years), Harry Craft, Bob Elliott, Billy Hitchcock, and Johnny Pesky.

Steve Boros played for Bob Scheffing, Bob Kennedy, Fred Hutchinson, and Dick Sisler.

Larry Bowa played for Frank Lucchesi, Danny Ozark (for a long time), Dallas Green, Lee Elia, Jim Frey, and I'm not mentioning some of the brief ones but I have to mention a bit of Charlie Fox.

Next generation up, just some highlights...

Stanky is of course a Durocher guy.  Dressen mainly played for a guy named Jack Hendricks, but also briefly for Bill Terry.  Murtaugh played longest for a Billy Meyer, who played for Connie Mack.  He also played for Billy Southworth, who played for John McGraw (and others), and for Freddie Fitzsimmons, again McGraw and Terry.  Harry Walker played for Southworth for a few years, then lots of people briefly. 

And I think I'll stop there.  Make of it what you will; I was just really curious, and thought some of you might be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

More About Money In Politics

I see that Glenn Greenwald has documented some of the outside group spending that David Brooks apparently overlooked in his NYT column.  That's all well and good, but I think that this is a case where the standard treatment of the subject, including that in political science texts, obscures more than it enlightens. 

The problem is that people categorize campaign money based on the legal entities under which it is raised or spent.  So we talk about different organizations that can spend money: the candidates, party committees, and outside groups; and then we talk about candidates raising money from individuals, PACs, parties, and from their own self-financing.  All of which is true if the questions we want to answer are about legal categories.  However, more often we have questions about politics that using the legal categories prevent us from answering.

Sometimes, that's easy to see.  A lot of "independent" groups are obviously party groups that have simply organized a particular way in order to exploit the way the campaign finance laws were written and interpreted.  For example, Michael Crowley cites the Republican Governors' Association's plans to spend money as evidence that Brooks "lowballed" the proportion of campaign spending by outside groups, but c'mon: it's the Republican Governors' Association.  In terms of the political importance of that money, I don't care whether it counts as party spending or "independent" spending -- it's obviously party money. (Actually, I'm not sure whether in fact the RGA should count by legal standards as party spending or as an independent outside group; I'd look it up, but I don't care, since in practical terms it's clearly party money).

Now, take a slightly tougher case: the money that Karl Rove associated groups are spending.  Those are clearly "independent" by law.  But...he's Karl Rove!  Everyone knows that he's a Republican operative.  In order to avoid trouble with the FEC (sorry -- should have told you to put down your drink before reading that silly clause....heh, trouble with the FEC) he may have to work "independently," but again: he's Karl Rove!  Of course he can figure out how to spend his money in ways helpful to Republicans without coordinating with formal party organizations. 

In fact, what we often want to know about money in politics is whether it is from parties (including the entire party network, not just formal party organizations); unaffiliated interest groups; individuals who are independent of either of those types of organizations; or the candidates themselves.  Some of that is fairly easy to do (see RGA or Karl Rove, above).  Some is very difficult.  My buddy Casey Dominguez has done some work at sorting PACs and individuals by whether they behave as part of a party network over time, and she's found that much of the money in the system should properly be considered party money (she and I are currently beginning work on another paper on the same topic).  There's also OpenSecrets, which uses the information in campaign finance filings to properly attribute individual contributors to the correct interest group.

There are times when it really is important to know how much money is from outside groups.  For example, it's certainly interesting to know about money from undisclosed sources.  Even here, however, I'm not sure how important it is.  Disclosure is most helpful as a signal to voters about which candidates are supported by which interests.  When groups with bland, feel-good names but secret donors get involved in elections, then voters can't receive that signal (note that the way this actually works is opposing candidates and neutral reporters dig through disclosure info and find things to publicize).  And yet...what more would voters really learn if they knew the specific origin of money being spent by the Chamber of Commerce? 

The bottom line is that we do want to know who is giving to and spending on behalf of candidates, and we should have a campaign finance system that lets us know that. 

What I'd really like to see is simplification...a lot of why these outside groups exist is because the current laws restrict how party, interest group, and unaffiliated money can be raised and spent.  On the other hand, I'd also like to see partial public financing, so that all major-party candidates can run at least minimal campaigns.  Floors, not ceilings, plus full and fully enforce enforced disclosure -- that's a campaign finance system I could strong support.

Screed of the Day

I'm not going to even try to pull a quote, or attempt a subtle analysis -- just go over and see why Kevin Drum gets frustrated writing about public policy.

How Money Works in Congressional Elections

You'll want to read John Sides on the David Brooks column about money in politics.  As John says, Brooks is correct to say that people overrate the importance of money in elections -- but John corrects him on the current debate over spending effects: "the major debate is not over whether money matters, it's over the relative impact of incumbent and challenger spending."  The people who study this (and I'll repeat John's citation of Gary Jacobson) most definitely do believe that campaign spending matters -- but not as much as some think.

 Why does money have only limited importance?  It turns out that there are two major factors on individual vote in Congressional elections, and then various small factors.  For one of the major factors, partisanship, campaign spending doesn't matter at all: no one sees a bunch of ads and switches from being a Democrat to being a Republican.  Since House districts often have overwhelming partisan majorities, party voting alone explains the outcome of most House elections.  Spending also matters little to some of the small factors, such as presidential approval and the condition of the economy.

The reason campaign spending does matter is the other major factor.  It turns out that if you ask people what they think about the two candidates, and note the balance of things they say that they like and dislike about each, that the combination of that is a good indication of how they'll vote.   Not too surprising, right?  If I can think of three things I like about the incumbent, and nothing at all about the challenger, of course I'm more likely to vote for the incumbent.  In fact, that's how the incumbency advantage actually works -- over time, constituents tend to learn a couple of positive things about the local Member of Congress and (assuming no scandals) nothing negative, while they usually have barely heard of the challenger.  Again, party matters: many of us will still vote for a challenger from our party even in the face of that situation.  These are all tendencies, not absolutes.

Money, of course, helps candidates "teach" us to learn good things about them and lousy things about their opponents.  The most obvious point, as John Sides quoted Jacobson as saying, is that a challenger who doesn't spend much money and has no other means of getting the word out will have no chance to win.  It's a little different for incumbents, however.  Incumbents do all sorts of things in the course of fulfilling their official duties -- casework, district projects, meeting with constituents, local media hits.  A surprising number of voters will actually have had either a direct positive experience with a long-term Member of Congress, or know of someone who has had a positive experience.  By the time a multi-term incumbent gets to the 2010 election, it's not clear how much a bunch of TV ads will add to all of that.  More generally, campaigns and campaign spending are only one of the things that affect how we feel about the candidates, which (remember) is only one factor in determining how we vote. 

So money matters.  It just matters in limited ways.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dept. of Piling On (Mankiw Edition)

I see that everyone is still taking shots at Greg Mankiw's yellowing column* last week about his personal stake in low taxes, including (via Chait) Michael Kinsley, so I guess it's not to late to make my contribution, since I must have read a dozen reaction posts & columns and, so far, I haven't seen this elsewhere.  It's in the last paragraph:
Reasonable people can disagree about whether and how much the government should redistribute income. And, to be sure, the looming budget deficits require hard choices about spending and taxes. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that when the government taxes the rich, only the rich bear the burden. 
Did you catch it?

Redistribute income.  This is, to me, more slippery than the various phony accounting and questionable assertions about incentives that everyone has been attacking. 

The thing is, very little of government spending is really about redistributing income.  It does, I suppose, depend on how one counts Social Security and Medicare, which account for very large amounts of spending (but not spending from the taxes that Mankiw is worried about).  I wouldn't count those programs as redistribution, but I could, I suppose, see the argument for it.  At any rate, as I said, that doesn't have anything to do with income, capital gains, or inheritance taxes. 

What government does spend a lot of money on (outside of SS and Medicare) are things that we all benefit from, rich and poor.  The big ticket item, of course, is the military, but it also includes everything from NASA to highway construction to national parks to running the courts.  I'm not sure whether most people would consider things like student loans and farm support to be "redistribution."  Actual stuff which I would say is clearly redistributive in nature, such as Medicaid, CHIP, and safety net programs, are around one fifth of total federal spending.  Include Social Security and Medicare (which, again, are not exactly redistributive and which have their own revenue streams that Mankiw isn't talking about), and you get to about 50%, but no more.  Want a primer on this stuff?  You want the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The point, in case I'm not being clear, isn't that Mankiw should support more federal spending or higher taxes; that's his call.  The point is that when we pay taxes, especially income taxes, most of it is for the government to spend it on our behalf for things that, collectively, we want.   That doesn't mean it's well spend, or what Mankiw would individually want, or that he values the last dollar of national defense higher than he'd value whatever he would do with that dollar if he wasn't taxed...but it does mean that the government isn't taking his money and sending it to poor people.  And therefore referring to federal spending as "redistribution" is, in my view, pretty slimy.

*Yellowing, kids, because old newsprint turned yellow.  Not a reference to yellow journalism. 

Is Howard Kurtz Always This Awful?

No, really.  I hadn't read him in the WaPo for years, and on principle I don't watch the Sunday shows, so my impression was just that he was a worthless hack, but someone linked to what apparently is his first Daily Beast piece, and...well, I can't make head or tails out of this paragraph:

This is a year in which facts—the preferred currency of the reality-based media—often don’t seem to matter. Journalists report that Sharron Angle had favored privatizing Social Security, spoke of people considering “Second Amendment remedies” and counseled rape victims to turn “a lemon situation into lemonade” by giving birth—and she’s still competitive with Harry Reid. Media outlets report that Christine O’Donnell, the onetime witchcraft dabbler, opposes masturbation and considers evolution “a myth,” and she laughs it off (while trailing in the race). New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino calls gay pride parades “disgusting,” hurls baseless charges about Andrew Cuomo’s sex life (after fathering a child out of wedlock himself) and tells a New York Post columnist “I’ll take you out”—and still hasn’t been laughed out of the race.
Huh?  Angle may or may not win, but the consensus (which seems correct to me) is that Harry Reid would be twenty points behind a solid, generic GOP candidate.  O'Donnell is getting clobbered.  As for Paladino...does Kurtz believe that there is actually a clause in the New York State election laws that a candidate will be removed from the ballot if only the guffaws pass a specified decibels?  Because otherwise, I'm not sure what more anyone could do -- he is behind by 21 points, by Pollster's estimate, and Nate Silver gives Paladino a whopping 0% chance of winning.

And he continues:
Who, after all, has absorbed more abuse from the “lamestream media” than Sarah Palin, who can hit back with a Facebook post that bypasses the old gatekeepers?
Well, yes, Sarah Palin gets media coverage.  Does it mean she's bulletproof?  Checking back at Pollster, I see that her current favorable/unfavorable is a dismal 37/50%  She's massively unpopular!  And yet, somehow, she is still allowed to tweet and post to Facebook.  Scandal! 

Now, one could certainly make a case that the press has spent too much time on the Sage of Wasilla at the expense of other potential 2012 candidates, or that Palidino and O'Donnell are using up air time better devoted to the close and interesting Senate races in Illinois, California, Missouri, and Wisconsin (among others) and the close and interesting Gubernatorial races in Florida, California, and others.  One could -- but Kurtz doesn't.   I'm not sure, but I think he believes there hasn't been enough reporting on O'Donnell; he's upset that the press missed her.  Instead, he...well, there's something there about how reporting on 2010 differs from reporting on 2006 (without even a single example, much less serious evidence), and something about how Barack Obama received overly favorable coverage in 2007-2008 (two quick examples, but no context -- all winning presidential candidates get some favorable coverage at some point along the way, as do all major party nominees).  None of it adds up to much of anything.  But as I said, I really haven't read him for years.  Is he always this awful?