Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

1888 (sort of)
1889 (sort of)
1904 (sort of)


Happy New Year, everyone.  I won't be forgetting the old year any time soon.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Oy, Bai

There's just so much to get to in Matt Bai's latest, in today's NYT, on the 2012 presidential contest.

First of all, Bai swallows whole the myth of "next in line" in GOP nominations contests.  Next, I don't really understand what he's trying to say in his glance at history.  Yes, Ford/Reagan in 1976 was the last contest that was a "thriller" in the sense of not being decided until the end (actually, the only one like that on the GOP side under the modern nomination system).  The nature of these things is that unless a contest is virtually tied, the winner will emerge and overwhelm the field relatively quickly, even if things were very close up to then.  I mean, there was, in fact, a lot of uncertainty about the GOP nomination in 2008 for quite some time.  It may not qualify as a "thriller," but that doesn't mean that John McCain was "preordained" to win. 

Third, Ronald Reagan was in 1976 in no way whatsoever the "Sarah Palin of the day."  Reagan, by 1976, was on his second run for the White House, and had completed not one, but two terms as governor of a state that could fit all of Alaska's citizens inside the population of its fourth of fifth largest city (yes, yes, I'm cheating a bit, since California wasn't quite a populous then, but never mind that nitpicking).  Not only that, but he had been one of a handful of conservative leaders -- very possibly the single most important one -- for a full decade.  Palin, well, isn't.

Mostly, though, Bai gets wrong the entire question of parties and control of nominations.  He says:
And even if Mr. Romney or some other candidate were to emerge as the consensus choice of the establishment, this year’s Congressional primaries pretty much showed that the days of anointing are probably over. This isn’t so much a Republican phenomenon as it is the function of an evolving, Web-based society, where your average voter of a certain age isn’t inclined to let his employer or even his church, much less his political party, make his choices for him. 
This gets things about as wrong as possible.   The way to think about political parties isn't to imagine some party establishment, perhaps in Washington, that in the past has dictated policy and candidates to a formerly accepting mass of voters.  Instead, parties are collections of groups and individuals, some in Washington and some not, who may or may not agree on all sorts of things.  There are activists and politicians, campaign professionals and interest group leaders, members of the partisan press and governing professionals, and even officials and staff of formal party organizations, local and national.  When it comes time to nominate a president, all of them coordinate and compete over the various candidates and over the policies those candidates commit to. 

Ordinary voters -- voters-as-voters -- aren't involved in that process.  Oh, some voters will get more involved, and act as activists; American political parties have always been highly permeable, and they remain so today.  In fact, I'd argue that permeable political parties are one of the most important things that makes a policy a democracy.

Voters won't get into the game, in fact, until the Iowa caucuses in early 2012.  Even then, hardly any voters show up -- turnout for presidential primaries and especially caucuses is tiny.  By then, "the party" -- that is, all of those people a couple of paragraphs up -- will have collectively narrowed the field.  More importantly, they will have narrowed the candidates.  That is, they will have imposed on them various positions on matters of public policy (just as the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2008 all wound up with more or less the same health care policy). 

Now, it's true that sometimes the party has serious internal disagreements about issues.  Sometimes those are hashed out and compromised; sometimes they aren't, and leave winners and losers.  Thinking of one faction as "establishment" and another as "insurgent" (or even worse, one as party and another as outside of the party) rarely helps understand these fights, however.  So, for example, in Kentucky last year the groups and people within the party who supported Rand Paul defeated the groups and people who opposed him, but that doesn't mean that "the party" or "the establishment" lost, since the winners had as solid a place within the party as the losers, and included many long-time Republican actors. 

(Is it possible for a true, outside-the-party takeover of a nomination?  Yes: see, for example, the cases in which Lyndon LaRouche  supporters won Democratic Party primaries.  But these things are quite rare).

Sometimes, for whatever reason, all of this doesn't leave the party with a single candidate by the time of the Iowa caucuses.  Usually, the next step is the coordination and competition continues.  Voters, then, have a say, although even at that point what they do is highly mediated by party actors.  The party (and, again, that means all those groups and individuals I mentioned above) also may use primary election results as cues about the popularity and electoral prospects of the remaining candidates. 

Of course, that still leaves lots of questions about how exactly the party coordinates, when it fights, and how those fights are resolved.  But that's what's happening, not Bai's fantasy that once upon a time "party leaders" picked candidates, while now the voters do. 

Catch of the Day

Jonathan Chait just completely destroys Jennifer Rubin's claim that, as he puts it, Palin-mania is a liberal plot. Great fun for your holiday reading.  The clincher, very well chosen, is the banner for CPAC 2009, complete with the Sage of Wasilla herself. 

Nice catch!

Just a quick housekeeping note...for anyone who missed it, the reason that there's light posting here this week is that I'm over at Greg Sargent's Plum Line.  I'll be back, regular schedule, on the weekend, but I will continue to toss the occasional post up here, if I can get to it.  In particular, I owe a response to a fascinating critique of your Plain Blogger from Andrew Sprung, which for now I'll just encourage everyone, or at least regular readers, to check out.  I also hear that Matt Bai has written something today...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Catch of the Day

So much to choose from for some reason today.  This oneThis one?  Both good, but...

I think I'll go (via Chait) with John Vecchione over at Frum Forum, who points out that "The Founders Were No Libertarians" (correcting Christopher Beam).  I'll just direct you over there, and note: good catch!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A DADT Question

Steve Benen has a fine item ridiculing the "shower issue" when it comes to DADT repeal implementation. He's right of course; the people pushing this stuff are dead-enders, and this fight is over (most likely explanation: there's still money to be made by doing one more round of scare stories/fundraising pitches; the fight is over, but that doesn't mean easily-duped donors know that, and the people who make a living parting them from their money aren't going to tell them).

Anyway, Benen refers to DADT as a 17 year policy, but of course DADT was a replacement for an absolute ban an gays and lesbians in the military.  Bill Clinton had pledged to repeal that ban when he was running for president in 1992, and DADT was adopted as part of his defeat on that issue. 

I think generally liberals believe, and believed at the time, that the fight in 1993 was a total defeat.  As it turned out, the implementation of DADT, if I recall correctly, resulted in a much more aggressive effort to drive gays and lesbians out of the armed forces; in other words, for actual gay and lesbian troops, things got worse.  But Bill Clinton presented the new policy as a compromise, and I'm not entirely sure he was wrong.

So here's my question: did the shift from the ban to DADT help the fight to achieve the original goal of ending the ban?  Putting aside the issue of implementation (for which I don't think those affected can forgive Bill Clinton, unless I have the facts of the situation wrong), and assuming that the votes just weren't there in 1993 for Clinton to win on the issue, was accepting DADT better than just continuing the status quo?  I think there's a case to be made, but I'm really not sure...I can see a case that it made no difference, or a case that it was worse than nothing.  Anyone have an argument one way or another?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Monday Movies Post

Well, I saw two Eddie Albert movies in the past week.  The better of the two was Escape From Witch's not as good as The Love Bug or The Parent Trap, but it sure is a lot better than most of that group.  But that's not what I'm going to write about.

No, today's movie has even less to do with politics than Witch Mountain.  It's Brother Rat and a Baby, from 1940, which is a sequel to 1938's Brother Rat, which is chiefly known for being the movie in which Ronald Reagan met Jane Wyman.   Brother Rat and a Baby?  Well, I doubt if it's known for anything at all, but TMC had it recently, and I'll watch any Reagan movie if I get a chance.

Alas, it's pretty much of a mess.  Reagan is the third-billed (male) actor, behind Wayne Morris and Albert.  And I have to say, he does virtually nothing with the role...pretty much disappears from the movie.  I'd follow Garry Wills on this: Reagan was really at his best when he was playing against type: as the wild friend to the mama's boy in King's Row, Reagan's congeniality makes it clear that the "bad" boy is just living life, not bad at all.  Here, Reagan plays the well-behaved one to Wayne Morris's schemer, and there's not much there but some mannered fussing and worrying.

The movie itself?  Well, there's a plot of sorts, but it's not what you're watching for -- the point of the movie is the madcap situations, and they're just not really madcap enough to hold anyone's attention.  Morris and Albert give it their best, and the actresses are okay but forgettable (and, really, they're not asked to do much).  Oh, and there's a baby, and he's supposed to be cute, adorable, and a big addition to the madcap, but it just doesn't work.

So, see it if you're a Reagan completist, but it's not one of those that really adds to your understanding of either Reagan the politician or Reagan the actor.  As I've said before, the essential ones after King's Row are probably Hellcats of the Navy, Knute Rockne, and Murder in the Air; or, if you want an obscure one, try Juke Girl.  And for all I know, Brother Rat is good; it certainly was good enough to earn a sequel.  Their mistake.  Stick to Witch Mountain.

Before Normalcy

I've been annoyed about today's Ross Douthat's column all day, so I suppose I should write something about it. 

Here's the paragraph that annoyed me:
The fantasy was the idea that Barack Obama, a one-term senator with an appealing biography and a silver tongue, would turn out to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled into one. This fantasy inspired a wave of 1960s-style enthusiasm, an unsettling personality cult (that “Yes We Can” video full of harmonizing celebrities only gets creepier in hindsight) and a lot of over-the-top promises from Obama himself. It persuaded Democrats that the laws of politics had been suspended, and that every legislative goal they’d ever dreamed about was now within reach.
I'm almost completely certain that this gets 2008 entirely wrong.

Yes, it's probably true that some Obama supporters, especially those who are young or otherwise new to politics, mistakenly believed that winning an election automatically means enacting every campaign promise.  More seasoned observers know that, for better or worse, that's not how the Madisonian system works.

Was that more the case in 2008 than in any other election year?  To the extent that there were more young and new voters, perhaps; otherwise, it's just a regular feature of American politics. 

As is the idea that the candidate is something special.  In this, Obama is no different than any other nominee I can remember.  This is all utterly normal, boring, and predictable.  Activists get enchanted by candidate?  C'mon, that's the oldest story in the book.  Happened with George W. Bush, happened with Bill Clinton, happened with Ronald Reagan, happened, sad to say, with Jimmy Carter...happened, too, with most of the losers, at least for a brief moment when they looked as if they might be winners.  (Did Democrats once think that Michael Dukakis was all that and a bag of chips?  They did.  Did Republicans think it of Bob Dole?  Yeah, in a way; they thought, at least briefly, that he was the grown-up in the room, the guy who could return America to sensible governing).  I'm not going to go back and find supporting quotations, but every party's nominee is popular within the party by convention time -- first of all, that's how they become the nominee, and besides that once they're de facto nominated the party machinery starts pitching their virtues to the rank and file, and every politician has sufficient virtues that the rank and file can be convinced. 

But some particular fetish for Obama?  Nah, that was just a GOP campaign talking point.  Douthat should know better than to believe it.

What actually dominated American politics wasn't a fantasy; it was the reality of successive landslides, yielding very large Democratic and liberal majorities in the House and Senate along with a liberal Democrat in the White House. 

Those landslides made long-time liberal goals (some popular, like DADT repeal; some less so) entirely realistic.  It was no fantasy that health care reform, the top agenda item of the Democratic Party for over a generation, was now a realistic possibility; it was reality.  It wasn't fantasy, either, that the things that didn't get done, whether it was card check or climate/energy or detention policy, were realistic possibilities.  Getting it all done was highly unlikely (and probably impossible after the economy went from recession to disaster in fall '08), but exactly which ones would pass and which would be left behind was anyone's guess, and depended, in part, on activism by various party factions. 

Douthat's tribute to the lame duck session is that:
In this brave new postelection world, lawmakers on both sides stopped behaving like players in some Beltway version of the battle at Armageddon and started behaving like, well, lawmakers. They cut deals, traded horses, preened (and sometimes whined) for the cameras, and cast their votes on a mix of principle, pique and political self-interest, rather than just falling into line for or against the Obama agenda. 
That's just nonsense.  Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the rest of them --Waxman, Dodd, Frank, Baucus, and more -- were of course acting as legislators throughout the 111th.  They hardly needed Barack Obama to tell them they were for a large stimulus, for health care, for banking reform, for DADT repeal.   

And, well, so were Republicans; they were mostly opposing things because, well, they (and the coalitions who voted them in) opposed those things.  Of course, there was also some political gamesmanship on both sides, although I'd say relatively little; most of the fighting was over real, substantive legislation.  Here's my bet: in the new Congress, with a whole lot less at stake, we'll have more, not less, simple partisan maneuvering.

Douthat is, indeed, right that with the midterm election we're returning to normalcy; in most years since the late 1930s, neither liberals nor conservatives have had the votes to enact their core agendas, or even very large portions of those agendas.  But the idea that the occasional extraordinary periods in which those majorities exist are about hero-worship (or, for that matter, villain-hating) gets things totally wrong. 

Told You So Moment 2 (Maybe)

I'm mostly elsewhere this week (come visit me over at Greg Sargent's Plum Line), but I couldn't let this one pass, and I think it's more appropriate here than elsewhere...

Way back when I had only been around here for about three weeks or so, I made a prediction:
[H]ere's what's going to happen. They're going to avoid taking votes on this thing while the crazy is going on. Then, later in the game, perhaps in conference, they'll stick it back in. They'll do it quietly, and they'll be prepared with a story about how the new language prevents the stuff that, of course, was never in the old language to begin with. Worst case: they leave the damn thing out of the bill, and then go back next year and either pass it as a stand-alone or stick it in some other bill.
Now, I've already claimed "told you so" on this once, when it was in the House bill, and that didn't work out, so I'm awfully hesitant to claim "told you so" again without heavy qualification: I have no way of knowing whether it's going to happen now or not.  And, to be fair, I didn't say anything originally about it being done by regulation, not legislation, which is (as the NYT reports) what may be about to happen.  Still...

The original item wasn't so much about the substance of end-of-life counseling, but about despair from liberals about American institutions at the prospect of a provision failing not because of serious, substantive opposition, but because of a Sarah Palin tweet.  At the time, my reaction was: don't worry; if this is really as uncontroversial as everyone seems to think, then it'll probably get enacted sooner rather than later.  Well, I was wrong about 2009, and wrong about 2010, but it's looking more likely for 2011.  I don't know if that's good enough to convince skeptics that the American political system isn't completely dysfunctional, but, well, it's something, right?  If it happens, that is.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Tell me about Afghanistan.  What are your hopes for Afghanistan for 2011?  What would it take for you to find what Barack Obama has done to be acceptable?  What would it take for you to be happy with his results there?  So far, given that Obama campaigned on increasing US efforts there, have you been disappointed with what he's done -- in other words, is it even worse than you expected?  Better?  I'm also interested in whether there's a set of liberals who agreed with Obama during the campaign, but have changed their minds now. 

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Just a simple one: who are the Republican politicians to look out for in 2011?  Who are you most excited about in the new year?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

Again, quite a lot of stuff happened.  I'll be interested in whether everyone thinks that the final formulation of the government in Iraq matters.  I'm inclined to think not, at least for the United States, but I'm really not sure.

As for the end of the lame duck session, the more I think about it the more it seems like an astonishing roll of the dice by Barack Obama and the Democrats: use the remaining time to get through the stuff that would have no chance at all in the next Congress, while punting on appropriations, taxes, and the debt ceiling in the hope that Democrats can either win or at least cut reasonable deals on those items next year.  I can see the logic in it, I guess.   The idea is that there's just no way that a GOP Congress was going to pass food safety or DADT repeal, but they have to pass appropriations bills (and a tax bill at some point during the 112th, and debt ceiling when needed), and that gives Democrats leverage they wouldn't have on, say, child nutrition.  But it sure leaves a whole lot of Democratic priorities vulnerable into the new year. 

Now, I may be wrong about this; it may be that the votes just weren't there in the Senate, at least the post-election Senate.  I suspect, however, that it was more a question of how to use the remaining limited time, and that the Democrats made a choice, basically, to go for legislating over appropriating. 

Anyway, what I really want to know is: what do you think mattered this week?


Merry Christmas, to all those celebrating the day. 

Also, a couple of housekeeping notes...

First, I'll be on a regular schedule here over the weekend (I sure hope Senators Kyl and DeMint don't mind if I post the usual What Mattered This Week? on Xmas).  After that, I'll be guesting over at Greg Sargent's Plum Line during the week between Christmas and New Year's.  Come visit!  Posting here will be irregular during the week...I'm sure I'll have a Friday baseball post, and I think I'll probably have a Monday Movies post for a change, but beyond that it's probably going to be fairly minimal.  We'll see.

Second, I've had a few complaints lately and noticed a few glitches in comments, with some people finding it difficult to post, and in some cases posted comments disappearing after a bit.  If anyone knows anything that would be helpful, please (try to?) leave a comment here or email me.  As always, thanks to all for the great comments; it's really become, I think, a significant value added, so I wish I could get it running smoother.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

It's definitely HOF time.    I covered the off-field stuff last week, so now it's time to look at the guys on the list...

Well, I'd certainly vote for Blyleven and Alomar, who are also the two likely to actually make it this year.  Of the returning group, McGwire, Larkin, Raines, and Trammell are all easy votes for me.  And of the first-timers, Bagwell is automatic, and I suppose I can't see a reason to oppose Palimiero --he was never a favorite of mine, but he was a very good player for a very long time, and there's really no precedent for a guy like him not going in.  That makes eight.

On the fence, I see the same group from last year: Edgar Martinez, McGriff, Parker, and Murphy.  I don't think there are any marginal additions from this year's ballot...maybe Kevin Brown?  I don't really think so.  Slightly better ERA+ than Blyleven, but Blyleven's career was half again as long.  I suppose you have to look at Juan Gonzalez, but again his career was just too short for the kind of player he was.  If you're going to have a short career, you better have a pretty good case to be the best in the game for a chunk of it, and Gonzalez was never really in that conversation (as opposed to, say, Mark McGwire).  Last year, I said yes on Martinez and McGriff, no on Parker, and a very close no on Murphy.  This year I only have two spots available, so I suppose I would say the same thing. 

Ah, wait: I forgot about Larry Walker.  I don't know...I've never really taken him seriously as a HOFer, but we're talking about a good defensive RF with a 140 OPS+ in almost 7000 ABs.  Baseball reference's WAR thinks he was 67 wins over replacement over his career; BP's version has him at 62 wins.  That's awful strong, but not automatic HOF territory.  It puts him in the same ballpark as Martinez and McGriff.  For this year, I'll just say that I'd rather have had the other two guys, and so I don't really have to decide whether Walker is deserving or not.  And, as I said last year, I still sort of think that if I could have my team come up with one these guys, I just have a sense it would be Dale Murphy.  But I can't support it, so Martinez and McGriff it is, along with Bagwell, Palimiero, Blyleven, Raines, Alomar, McGwire, Larkin,  and Trammell.

Very Very Temporary

Via Sargent, I see that the historian Julian Zelizer is arguing that the electoral comeback of Republicans was and should have been unexpected from the perspective of November 2008:
[O]ne of the major stories of Obama’s presidency has been the revitalization of conservatism. Within only two years, Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives through a dramatic midterm election. There are now an abundance of Republicans, some old (Newt Gingrich) and some new (Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin), who are jumping over each other to campaign for president in 2012. Republicans have been able to join hands, despite their differences, by using President Obama as their foil...

It is too easy to say that pundits simply exaggerated the crisis of conservatism. The problems facing the right toward the end of Bush’s presidency were very real and their ability to rebound was not inevitable. 
I'm really not convinced.  I don't think a GOP comeback is surprising at all -- yes, the extent of GOP gains in November 2010 were at the high end of the range, but some sort of bounce back was expected, certainly by standard political science models. 

As far as public opinion is concerned, John Sides had an excellent post up recently showing that opinion often moves against policy: that is, when Washington enacts conservative policies, people get more liberal, and vice versa. 

The same thing is basically true about election results.  Indeed, the most notable thing about unified liberal or conservative control of the presidency and Congress is how rare and brief it's been since the New Deal.  Yes, FDR did in fact keep large liberal majorities intact for about six years.  But since then, there really haven't been extended periods of either liberal or conservative working majorities in House, Senate, and White House at the same time.   Even under unified government (as in 1977-1980 or 2003-2006), majorities have typically been too small to allow either side to enact their core agenda, or at least much of it. 

If in fact people did believe that 2008 (and 2004, and 1994, and 1992, and 1980, among others) were going to be different, I'm afraid that a fair amount of the blame should go to the now-rejected theory of "critical elections" and "realignment."  Most (but not all) political scientists now, I think, have given up on thinking about party control in that way, but it has shown up and still sometimes appears in the textbooks that we use to teach our Intro to American Politics classes, which means there are a lot of people out there who have Officially Certified Learning that are expecting a critical election one of these years. 

Meanwhile, although it's obviously correct that Republicans did very will in 2010, I'm not at all sure that the diagnosis of conservatives that people were making two years ago was very far off.  The Republican Party is still unpopular, and at least to my reading conservatives are still far from having a viable policy agenda to meet the major issues of the day -- unlike, say, their agenda in 1980.  What pundits missed, perhaps, is that it's very possible for a party to win elections despite all those problems. 

At any rate, the point is that it was a mistake in 2008 to believe that there was anything permanent about the Democrats' success, just as it was a mistake in 2004 to believe that there was anything permanent about the Republicans' success.  That's just not how American politics works.  We have two parties: bad things are going to happen, the in-party is going to be blamed, and the out-party is going to benefit regardless of what it's been up to in the meantime.  That dynamic works whether the in-party is actually at fault or not.  It even works, as Democrats discovered this year, when the out-party was at least possibly just as guilty of causing the things that people are upset about as the in-party was. 

That doesn't mean that politicians can't affect events, which then will affect elections -- just as politicians can even affect election results directly by running good candidates and good campaigns (even if the latter only matters around the margins).  So while I'm all for analyzing just why Republicans wound up doing so well in November, and I'm open to the possibility that Congressional strategy or the other things Zelizer identifies were important factors, the real story is that any time someone offers to be that a defeated party will takes years to recover, you want to accept that bet.


How about that?  For one of the few times I can remember, the Barack Obama White House has actually thrown a symbolic bone to liberals, by leaking to the NYT that the president has banned the word "triangulation." 

It's worth noting two things.  First, the story here is that the WH gave this "news" to the NYT; there's no actual substance involved, since whatever they choose to do in the wake of the November election probably has
nothing to do with how they characterize it, and certainly has nothing at all to do with whether they adopt Dick Morris's (self-)advertising slogans. 

Second, I'm not sure if it's good news or bad for liberals if the WH, which has been notoriously unwilling to toss them rhetorical bones, is going to start doing so.  Would it mean that the administration has learned how to avoid pointlessly, and seemingly accidentally, annoying its allies?  (Perhaps learned is the wrong word; perhaps it's just a sign that Rahm Emanuel isn't around any more).  Or would it mean that the administration intends to deliver symbolically because they have no intention of working for substantive gains that liberals will like? 

Granted, I don't want to make too much of one paragraph in a fairly bland story, but I'll be interested to see if this is deliberate and the beginning of a trend.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Why didn't the neutral press buy the idea that the lame duck session was illegitimate?

It's an idea that has surface appeal, I would think.  Huge landslide: why should Democrats be allowed to exploit a Constitutional quirk to pass a large chunk of their now-discredited agenda?  Jonathan Chait, for example, basically buys the idea.  So why didn't the neutral press, the Broders of the world, get all up in arms about the fraudulent lame duck session?

My guess?  (And, yes, it's only a guess).  I suspect that the GOP cried wolf once too often.  Democrats were ignoring the will of the voters by moving ahead with health care reform after the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections in November 2009; they were most certainly ignoring the will of the voters after Scott Brown was elected in January 2010.  Then the Democrats, we were told, were abusing Congressional rules by using a perfectly ordinary procedure (reconciliation) to pass ACA.  And, of course, that's on top of the fringe stuff, the birthers and the ACORN theorists, who would have us believe that the 2008 election wasn't on the level. 

I just wonder whether Republican spin just went one step too far, and it backfired to the extent that their plausible spin in this case was treated as partisan nonsense.

Granted, there are other reasons that the GOP spin might have failed to catch on this time around (the establishment press may just have liked the bills that were passing, for example).   And it's not as if there isn't a case for lame duck legislating, beginning with the clear fact that it's been part of the Constitutional plan from the beginning, for better or worse.  Also, as always, I'm not at all that winning the spin war on this matters a whole lot.

Still, I'd be real interested in hearing some of the reporters from the neutral press talk about how and why they evaluated GOP process claims during the lame duck.  From my subjective point of view, it sure seemed different than how they reacted earlier this year.

Comeback Talk

I'll point out two pretty good pieces debunking "comeback" talk -- one from Brian Beutler, who emphasizes that getting some comparatively easy stuff done in the lame duck session doesn't really change the math in the 112 Congress, and one from Jay Cost, who is absolutely correct to characterize Barack Obama's approval ratings as flat, not surging.

Although I will note that since Cost wrote, Obama has slipped up to 49% per Gallup -- so there might be a bit of a bounce.  Or perhaps just some positive random variation. 

But mainly, I think both are correct.  Some success in the lame duck session isn't going to have a major effect on Obama's approval rating over time, and come the new year, we'll have a new Congress and a lot more Republicans, and that will have real consequences, regardless of how the December spin war goes.

What does strike me, however, is the big dog that didn't bark: the Democrats, from Obama to the Hill to (near as I can tell) most bloggers, talk show hosts, and activists...they didn't panic.  Despite a devastating loss in the midterms, Democrats did not for the most part convince themselves that they were destined to be a minor party, did not for the most part declare factional war, did not for the most part attack the president, the Speaker, or the Majority Leader.  Certainly, both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi easily survived any potential challenges. 

Moreover, as far as I can see, the neutral press mostly went along. 

In all, it was a sharp contrast with 1994, when the Democrats moved straight to fatalism and despair.  Indeed, it was a big of a contrast with winter 20092010, when Democrats seemed to expect themselves to panic and self-immolate after the Massachusetts Senate race. 

Granted, this is mostly impressions and speculation, but I suspect that those who remember 1994 and were paying attention then and now would agree. 

Why?  I suspect a large part of it is just the pattern.  If I had to describe what's happened (and again, this is all speculative, I admit), Democrats in 2008 began by thinking "This Is It!  This time is going to be different!"  By August 2009, and then through January 2010, that attitude was replaced with "It's Clinton all over again."  So the election disaster was already factored in by January 2010, but the legislative victories, beginning with health care reform, were basically pleasant surprises.  And now, Democrats believe they've seen this film before; a midterm landslide is supposed to be the prelude to comfortable reelection, even if it doesn't yield a newly favorable policy environment. 

Of course, even if I'm correct about all that, it doesn't necessarily mean it played a major role in getting things passed in the lame duck session; a lot of that was just about having the votes, and being willing to cut deals when they were available.  Still, the Democrats certainly could have tried to do less, so I think there may be at least a bit of something to explain, and I'll go with the favorable side of the Clinton pattern as, perhaps, a bit of what happened.

Read Stuff, You Should

Lots to get to, so no introduction. Well, except that.

1. The Civil War was about slavery, as Edward Ball reminds us.

2. Alan Abromowitz explains the lay of the land in the 112th Congress.

3. Ezra Klein is brilliant about Coke, Pepsi, and Chris Christie.  Although I'll admit that a good part of why I think it's brilliant is because I believe his version of the New Coke story, without actually knowing whether it's true.  Still, it's good.

4. Andrew Sullivan makes the case for Obama as a Tory.  Not sure if he's right, but well worth reading.

5.  I've been reading Austin Frankt and Aaron Carroll's "The Incidental Economist" more often recently, mostly to understand health care policy better.  Here, though, Carroll just has an excellent screed about Arizona.

6. Adama Serwer explains the Obama detention policy.

7. Kevin Drum nails "The Really Big Country Problem."

8. Annie Lowrey engages in Fed-watching.

9. Serwer on ACA and the Constitution.

10. Jack Goldsmith on Wikileaks.

11. And a gloomy Afghanistan update, from Fred Kaplan.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I'm very happy to see that the incoming majority Republicans are planning to read the Constitution in the House of Representatives on the second day of the 112th Congress.

This is extremely good news.  Along with the new requirement that every bill explicitly cite the Constitutional authority under which it is legitimate, reading the Constitution out loud will guarantee that no new legislation will violate our basic charter.  After all, it's well known that the Constitution is clear and unambiguous at all points, and that previous violations of it have been caused by a combination of ignorance and indifference.  Once it's read on the House floor, that problem will be solved.

Look, this stuff is proven to work.  Younger readers may not realize it, but in the Carter and Reagan years the House was just full of treasonous subversives -- a problem entirely solved by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to open all House sessions since fall 1988.

Unfortunately, reading the Constitution on the House floor is only one excellent first step towards true reform. 

The Constitution reading is part of the new rules package to be implemented by the incoming majority.  Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that simply printing the new rules and distributing them to House offices will be sufficient to ensuring that Members of the House fully understand those rules.  The proper way to do so is to read them aloud on the House floor.  To be safe, I'd recommend reading the rules of the 111th House; the new rules proposed by the incoming majority; and the final result, after it passes, of the official rules of the 112th House.  While they're at it, they might as well read Robert's Rules of Order. 

That's not all!  I know Republicans have been quite concerned about the nefarious Democratic practice of passing bills they have not read in full, based on the belief that only a full reading of the text of the bill will reveal its true meaning.  Therefore, I'd highly recommend that the House reject the corrupt Democratic practice of dispensing with the full reading of the bill, and commence full readings.  Before they're referred to committee.  Every bill.

Moreover, the Constitution, while obviously directly Divinely inspired, does have the sad drawback of not making that inspiration quite as explicit as we'd like it to be.  A true People's House would, therefore, not stop with reading the Constitution, but plunge right in to the Declaration of Independence, paying special attention to the parts about "nature's God" and "endowed by their Creator."   And the good bits in the last paragraph, too. 

To be on the safe side, I'd also say that it can't hurt to read the Federalist Papers out loud on the House floor.  And Tom Paine's Common Sense.  I was going to say they should add Longfellow's poem, but I heard a rumor that it was subversive, so forget that one.

And...yes, everyone but a few radicals in Berkeley, Madison, and Cambridge knows that true legitimate authority is directly based on God, so I'd very much expect House Republicans to insist on a full reading of the Christian Bible on the House floor. 

You got a problem with that?

Wrapping It Up 2

Since it looks as if Congress is just about to finish up for the year, for the session, and for the 111th Congress, I figured I should say something about my previous position that it was important for Harry Reid to keep the Senate in as long as possible, in order to finish up its business and prevent Republicans from running out the clock.

You might think that I'm about to condemn Reid for quitting now -- but I'm not sure that I should.  The problem is that once Reid (quite properly) threatened to hold the Senate in for a post-Christmas session, he then began to get results.  A bunch of judges, for example, were confirmed this week and last.  What we don't know, at least from the reporting I've seen so far, is to what extent Republicans dropped stalling tactics that they could have employed in exchange for finishing up now.  In other words, it could be that Reid successfully bargained for whatever he could get from the lame duck session, and that part of the deal was that once everyone agreed on what would pass if they stayed in to the bitter end, then they all agreed to expedite that business. 

That said...the Democrats are, and quite properly, congratulating themselves on a very successful Congress, but there really are a couple of major setbacks for the Democrats here at the end of the session.  One is their failure to pass appropriations bills for the current fiscal year.  Ezra Klein has done some terrific blogging about that...see for example here.  The one thing I'd add to what he's been saying is that this was only an omnibus spending bill because the Democrats failed to pass individual appropriations bills, and that even in the lame duck session -- even now, in fact, if they wanted to and had the votes -- the Democrats could still pass one or two regular appropriations bills.  Perhaps this is just a case in which they never did have the votes, but I'm really not convinced that they tried very hard.

The second one, familiar to regular readers, is nominations.  Peter Diamond is still waiting to be confirmed to his seat on the Fed.  Lots of judges are still waiting to be confirmed, including, as far as I can tell, quite a few who do not appear to be controversial -- and as I've said in the past, it's very possible that even the controversial appointees have 60 votes (not to mention the simple majority needed to confirm, but that's another story, of course).  And then there are the executive branch appointments, many have been cleared, but there are still plenty of them in the Senate's Executive Calendar.  Now, again, I can't say whether more could have been done had the Senate stayed in longer, because I don't know what deals were made.  But overall, it's pretty clear that confirming nominations has never been a priority for the Obama Administration or the Senate. 

I'm sure I'll have something more to say later about the historic 111th, but it's hard to believe that they couldn't have made more progress in those two areas.

Wrapping It Up 1

Yesterday, I was saying that a large portion of the opposition to New START could be explained by understanding that a portion of the GOP has generally been suspicious of all arms control agreements.  Daniel Larison argues that the Bolton-Perle wing of the GOP hasn't, previously, had much sway in the Senate.  He may be correct that this indicates a shift in the center of the GOP on security issues; or, it may be that skepticism turns to opposition when there's a Democrat in the White House. 

I've also seen arguments that Republicans erred in opposing the treaty without having the votes to win on it; as Fred Kaplan put it:
And so the Republican leadership made this a purely political battle and—fresh off what had seemed a triumphant election season—suffered an astonishingly egregious defeat.
Perhaps.   On the other hand, the "defeat" aspects of this are likely to be minimal and ephemeral; a few weeks from now, no one is going to remember or care about New START (on the political side; the substance, of course, matters, but there's no difference there between fighting and losing and just plain letting the thing pass). 

However, Republicans did accomplish something by fighting on New START.  They chewed up quite a few hours of Senate floor time, a very valuable commodity in the lame duck session, and really throughout the 111th Congress.  Now, there's really no way of knowing what exactly they gained by doing that.  However, had they agreed to a quick vote on the treaty, there would have been more time for the Democrats to confirm judges and executive branch appointments; more time for appropriations bills, and perhaps to give a more sustained effort on the omnibus appropriations bill; and more time for any of the other unfinished business on the Democratic agenda. 

So I wouldn't be quick to conclude that it was a mistake for Republicans to fight this one out, even if they took a (very minor) PR hit in losing.  Indeed, in understanding what the GOP was up to, I think one has to consider the possibility that treaty opposition was in part a deliberate -- and, I would say, perfectly legitimate -- part of trying to run out the clock.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Big House

With reapportionment in the news today, there's been some tweeting about a recurring Big Think kind of reform: increasing, perhaps radically increasing, the size of the House of Representatives.  David Dayen:
Why is increasing the size of the House of Representatives, so 1 lawmaker doesn't represent 700,000 people, just completely off the table?
And Reihan Salam:
Montana has 989,415 people and one member of Congress. We need to increase the number of House members to at least 650. This is absurd.
I think this is one of those reforms that has a lot of surface appeal -- in fact, I can say for sure that it has a lot of surface appeal to me.  However, it turns out that the case for expanding the House doesn't really hold up too well when one thinks about how it would actually play out.

There are really two major parts to this: how a Big House (I'd say Salam's 650 or more; Nick Beaudrot has floated the idea of tripling the size of the House) would affect elections, and how it would affect internal House operations.

For elections, the problem with a Big House is that, given residential patterns and assuming no change in single-member districts, we would wind up with even more lopsided partisan districts than we have now.  Indeed, all the incentives of reapportionment would work the same as they do now, which combined with good modern technology would mean that we would probably wind up with about the same number of swing districts, but far more solid partisan districts.  Meanwhile, more districts mean even less media coverage for each contested election -- and I would strongly argue that more media coverage is almost always a good thing.  Small districts with little or no media coverage are a recipe for a strong incumbency advantage, which few people see as a really good thing.

How would the operations of the House change if it had more Members?  What it would mainly produce is more backbenchers, people who have no particular responsibilities but a good forum for making noise.  At the same time, with more people to coordinate, the need for coordination grows, which would tend to make the party leadership even more important than it already is.  I'm not sure I see any real advantages in that. 

Against that I can see two advantages.  One, a real one, is that any shakeup of the House (well, I suppose any shakeup except a GOP landslide) is apt to be good for demographic change in that body, especially in accelerating the growth of women in the House.  In my view, that's a good thing.  The other I think is mostly a mirage -- with a larger House, constituents might feel closer to their Member of Congress.  The problem here is that even with an extreme reform -- tripling the size of the House -- we're still not going to get fewer than 250K people per representative.  In practical terms, there just isn't really much of a difference between sharing a Member with that many people and sharing her with several millions; in any district larger than, say, one hundred thousand, it's hard to believe that anyone is going to feel he has the undivided attention of his Member of Congress. 

I've blogged on this I said then, I do find this reform idea intriguing, and I very much understand the vague sense that House districts are just too large.  But I'd send everyone back to James Madison, and Federalist 10, in which he has the conceptual breakthrough that large politics are actually an advantage to democracy, even though up to that point in history everyone had always assumed that democracy was only possible in very small polities.  Madison's insight had to do with plurality, and the idea that as a nation gets very large, no single interest will have a natural majority, and so the danger of majority tyranny that had always undermined that form of government would be at least partially solved.  Now, that doesn't mean that individual representatives should have millions of constituents, but I think it also suggests that such a situation isn't as much of a problem as we might intuitively believe.  After all, what (rightly!) bothers people about the Senate is the malapportionment, not the idea that there are only 100 Senators.  And note that most of us feel a lot closer to our Senators than to our Member of the House -- because our Senators get so much more publicity than do Members of the House.  Increasing the size of the House would, alas, only make that problem worse.

Conservatives and START

I think I'm going to defend conservative Republicans against the charge that their opposition to New Start is nothing but raw partisan politics.  See for example Adam Serwer's claim that treaty opponents are "manufacturing controversy over Democrats adopting policies Republicans once embraced," which Patrick Appell over at the Dish summarizes as "Anything Obama Supports = Bad."  This is generally followed by citing the GOP Secretaries of State who support the treaty, as Max Bergmann does here.

There may indeed be some of that disingenuous opposition going on, but really: do these people ever listen to conservatives?  It seems to me that what we're mainly hearing here is the wing of the party that considered Henry Kissinger (and Richard Nixon) near-traitors, that considered Ronald Reagan a sell-out when he shifted from giving speeches about the Evil Empire, and that spent eight years of the George W. Bush administration trashing every treaty from ABM to Geneva, of all things.  Is it really a surprise that they aren't convinced by Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and George Shultz?  Nor is it news that this wing of the GOP has considerable support in the Senate; hasn't that always been the case? 

(That's the real lesson of Jonathan Chait's gotcha on Richard Perle: that wing of the GOP didn't roll over for Reagan, either).

Now, it's of course possible that a Republican president would find it somewhat easier going in finding Republican votes, although as I write this it looks as if Barack Obama is going to have the votes, after all..  And it's surely interesting to see the current support level of the Perle-Bolton wing in the Senate.  Moreover, I do think it's likely that some Senate Republicans did deliberately draw out the debate in hopes that it would crowd other items off the Senate agenda -- which is, as far as I'm concerned, a perfectly legitimate tactic. 

But that's about it.  I see no reason to attribute conservative opposition to New START to anything other than conservative opposition to all treaties.

The Name Game

Oddly enough, the discussion of what to call the health care law has produced some quite good blogging.  James Joyner argues that "Obamacare" is politically neutral, and argues against "propagandistic bill naming," citing "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" as a prime example of that style.  I think that's generally a good point (and I forget: does the bill give the exchanges a fancy propogandistic name, or are they just "health care exchanges")? 

On the other hand, Aaron Carroll makes the excellent point that Barack Obama didn't do this by himself:
The more specific reason I don’t use “Obamacare” is that it implies that the law is the work of one man.  It wasn’t passed by fiat.  It was created by three committees in the House, two more in the Senate, was voted on by a majority of Representatives and a heck of a lot of Senators before being altered in reconciliation.  Then it was signed by the President.  President Obama neither gets all the blame nor all the credit.  It’s not his and his alone.  
Ezra Klein has more, and singles out Max Baucus.  Again, fair enough, but radically incomplete; if we're going to name this one for people, it's gonna have to be (in no particular order, and non-inclusive) KennedyObamaWaxmanDoddBaucusPelosiReidHarkinMillerRahmSchileroDeParlethousandsofactivistsdozensofinterestgroupsCare.  Barring that, I've adopted ACA, because whatever the origin of the letters, calling it by the supremely bland "ACA" sounds about as neutral as one can get. 

Catch of the Day

Ah, I swear I was going to get to this, but Mori Dinauer beat me to it:
The Los Angeles Times gets fooled into thinking that the business enterprise built to promote Newt Gingrich means he's "serious" about running for president in 2012.
Newt Gingrich as a presidential candidate?  Hey, I suppose it's possible that he'll go ahead and run.  All sorts of people run for president.

Newt Gingrich as someone with a chance to win the nomination?  As a presidential candidate, he's basically Sarah Palin without the enthusiastic supporters -- he's never had a lot of trouble getting people to dislike him (although I suppose it's worth mentioning that his negatives have abated a bit over the last couple of years). Well, a Sarah Palin without enthusiastic supporters but with a marital record worse than John Edwards.  I mean, Newt and the Sage of Wasilla both have histories of making wild claims, of proving themselves utterly overwhelmed by the challenges of actually governing, and of getting into trouble with the ethics cops. 

He's probably, as Dinauer says, just scamming as usual.  It's also possible he's deluded himself into believing he's a serious candidate for the nomination.  Either way, there's no reason the rest of us should share the pretense.  Nice catch!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Of Course, Sometimes Congress Deserves It

Dave Weigel reports on continuing efforts by House Republicans to implement their big campaign pledge: they're going to force all bills to cite specific Constitutional authority for whatever it is they're going to do.  Weigel has the key memo.  Best part?  The explanation the leadership provides, in Q&A form:
Q. What impact will the Constitutional Authority Statement have on litigation regarding the constitutionality of Acts of Congress?
A. To the extent that a court looks at the legislative history of an Act, the Constitutional Authority Statement would be part of that history. However, the courts have made clear that they will not uphold an unconstitutional law simply on the basis that Congress thinks that the law is constitutional.

Q. What if the citation of constitutional authority is inadequate or wrong?
A. As stated earlier, the adequacy and accuracy of the citation of constitutional authority is a matter for debate in the committees and in the House. Ultimately, the House will express its opinion on a proposed bill, including its constitutionality, by either approving or disapproving the bill.

Q. So why have this Rule at all?
A. Just as a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office informs the debate on a proposed bill, a statement outlining the power under the Constitution that Congress has to enact a proposed bill will inform and provide the basis for debate.  It also demonstrates to the American people that we in Congress understand that we have an obligation under our founding document to stay within the role established therein for the legislative branch. 
In other words..this has no effect, and is just a gimmick designed to please Tea Party types.  

What I do wonder is whether they're going to get themselves in a bit of trouble with this.  I mean -- basically, this is just silly nonsense; of course they think the things they're doing are Constitutional, or else they wouldn't do them. It's just like saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the Congressional session; it's perhaps a good attack line to note that they don't do it, but once they do...then you're stuck wasting time with it forever.

However, it is also the case that quite a few Tea Partiers and other conservatives believe, or at least say they believe, that the general arrangement allowing the New Deal to happen isn't really Constitutional.  Normally, that isn't a problem.  But we know that, whatever they might want, the House isn't going to be able to shut down half the federal government next year.  That means they're going to have to fund all those unconstitutional departments and agencies.  And, thanks to this foolish pledge, they're going to have to certify that what they're doing is Constitutional.  I mean, it's already difficult to get conservatives to vote affirmatively for some of this stuff (and they'll presumably need GOP votes for most of everything) -- now GOP Members are going to have to say that what HHS, Education, and the rest of it are doing is specifically authorized by the Constitution?  

I don't know that it will really cost any votes (and I agree that the courts are unlikely to use an "even the House GOP says..." approach, although it'll be cute if they do!).  Still, it sure seems like a stupid idea with no positive consequences.  

Yes, We Hate Congress

I recommend an excellent essay from political scientist Josh Huder about why Congress is so unpopular, both in general and right now.  As he notes, it has to do with the nature of the institution itself, not the (mis)behavior of its Members: "disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA."  Best cite: to a study that shows passage of major legislation actually tends to hurt Congressional approval, although note that the finding there is not uncontested.  If, however, both passage of major legislation and gridlock can both hurt Congress's approval, then perhaps (and this is only wild speculation) the 111th has been hurt by both its historic productivity and the much-remarked incorrect perception of gridlock.  I don't know.

Now, on the other hand, Huder doesn't emphasize the cultural reasons for why Americans hate Congress -- but he does, fortunately, provide an excellent example.  In a post about how Congress is unfairly maligned, Huder writes about the history of internal improvements, and his examples of people who pushed projects are...George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.  Not that he's wrong, but just to point out the overwhelming cultural bias in favor of crediting the big things that happen to presidents, not Congress.  We do this reflexively...Barack Obama got DADT repeal through, after Bill Clinton failed.  Barack Obama failed to pass energy/climate legislation.  Yes, we'll occasionally get articles about how Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are doing, and every once in a while we'll have some attention to the individual legislative entrepreneurs who did the bulk of the work, but most of the time it's going to be the president that we thing of. 

And that's even more true as we go back through time: quick, when's the last time you even saw Tom Foley's name, let alone saw him blamed for some of the failures during Bill Clinton's first two years in office?  Or Hubert Humphrey and the reformers of the (House) Democratic Study Group given the credit for civil rights legislation?  Certainly, JFK and LBJ deserve their share of the credit, but as you'll recall from the 2008 Democratic primary debate about civil rights, we think in terms of LBJ vs. MLK, and HHH is mainly he remembered at all today?  I suspect if so, it's by aging boomers who still resent him from the 1968 campaign, or by Tom Lehrer aficionados who remember him for being forgotten. 

For a corrective, read David Mayhew's America's Congress, which emphasizes the individual contributions Members of Congress have made to specific legislation.  Or, see Nelson W. Polsby's classic essay, "Congress-Bashing For Beginners."   Still, I don't pretend that it can be changed.  I'll quote myself: "People always hate Congress.  Mark Twain hated Congress.  Will Rogers hated Congress.  Johnny Carson hated Congress.  Jay Leno hates Congress, and I suppose the disembodied head of Jay Leno will be hating Congress decades into the future." 

Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to figure out why this particular Congress, at this particular time, has such comparatively low approval ratings.  Just remember, when you're thinking about it, to place it in the great American tradition of Congress-bashing. 

Defending Tip O'Neill

Andrew Gelman takes aim:
I'd go one step further and say that, sure, all politics are local--if you're Tip O'Neill and represent a ironclad Democratic seat in Congress. It's easy to be smug about your political skills if you're in a safe seat and have enough pull in state politics to avoid your district getting gerrymandered. Then you can sit there and sagely attribute your success to your continuing mastery of local politics rather than to whatever it took to get the seat in the first place.
Yes, but: don't most Members of the House have ironclad partisan districts?  And isn't the most important single thing they can do to protect themselves involve having pull in state politics to avoid being gerrymandered?  That is "all politics is local," no? 

There's also a fair amount they can do to stay on the good side of their local party, thus avoiding a primary fight.  And, even in an era of nationalized elections, there's still plenty a Member of Congress can do to to influence elections on the margins, and that's often what matters. 

Sure, "all" politics isn't that stuff, but it's quite a bit.  If I were a Member of Congress and had the choice between (A) controlling national tides, and (B) controlling my state's redistricting, then I'm going to choose B every time -- and that's in O'Neill's column. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Think back to what you were thinking in November 2008, and in January 2009.  As the 111th Congress winds down, what's your biggest disappointment of the things you expected to happen?  Not your wish list, but the things you really expected to happen.  What's your biggest happy surprise? 

Sunday Question for Conservatives

I'm going to be asking liberals, later today, to look back at the 111th Congress, but I think I'll ask conservatives to look ahead: what do you expect out of the 112th Congress?  Not what you want, but out of those things you want, what you expect to get done.  Is there any particular item, or items, that you would be really disappointed if it didn't happen? 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

No shortage, right?

Final action on the tax deal was obviously pretty important, certainly substantively, and probably politically as well.  And, today, we had cloture (and, soon, final passage) of DADT repeal. 

Both of these, by the way, fit nicely into "what mattered this week."  These were not inevitable events that finally happened to take place over the last seven days; one week ago, neither of these was at all certain.  Two weeks ago, they were totally up in the air. 

Both, of course, add to the record of the historic 111th Congress.  A couple of other things about DADT.  One is that I'd want to emphasize that this wasn't a done deal until very late in the game.  Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Joe Lieberman, and others deserve quite a bit of credit for this one; I do think that the way this was done, with as much of a public buy-in by the military as possible, really did make a potentially tough vote a much easier one for a large chunk of the Senate.  Of course, that's on the politician end; lots of activists, of course, worked hard for years to put this high on the Democrats' agenda.

The second is a fairly obvious point, I guess, but it's worth saying: this issue will now promptly go away, entirely.  Oh, we'll have a bit of reporting on implementation, but seriously: does anyone think that Republicans are going to run in 2012 on re-instating DADT?  Or, even less plausibly, on re-instating the ban that DADT replaced?  Forget it.  It's possible to believe that a DADT vote could be used in a GOP primary down the road, but it's utterly implausible to believe that the policy would ever be revived, no matter what happens in the 2012 (or any future cycle) elections. 

So, that's some of what mattered this week.  What do you have?

Catch of the Day

Ezra Klein had an excellent post yesterday on the subject of Robert Reich's claim that Democratic presidents always compromise, while Republican presidents don't.  As Klein shows, that's just not true; there are, of course, lots of examples of Republican presidents cutting deals with Congress, or even totally caving to Congress.  Klein has some good examples; add to those George H.W. Bush's budget deal, and most memorably Ronald Reagan's acceptance of a major tax increase in 1982.  Reagan also signed into law restrictions on US support for the Contras in Nicaragua at one point, even though such aid was one of his main priorities. 

Good catch!

By the way, I figure I'm obliged to note that the Robert Reich quote is from a Matt Bai piece on triangulation that didn't feature major historical factual errors, conceptual confusion, or misunderstanding of the political process.  Reich is wrong, but it's good reporting to let us know what he (and, as Klein notes, plenty of liberals) believe.  As I've said before, I think Bai is a good reporter, but miscast as an analyst; I'm obviously not going to change my mind based on one piece, but if every one of his articles was like this one, I'd retire my occasional item on him.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Well, there are two things going on, baseball-wise, right now: Hot Stove League, with lots of signings, and HOF voting.  I'll stick with the latter, for a while.  I'll go over my thoughts on the full ballot next week or the following week, but this week I'll get that other issue out of the way.  I've said it before, but it's worth saying each year: eventually, the steroids guys are going to go in.  All of them, more or less; I suppose there might be a fringe guy or two where that'll tip the balance the other way, but I wouldn't bet on it.

There are two reasons why I'm very confident about that.  The second reason is that I'm fairly certain that people down the road will care a lot less about it than people do now.  Part of that has to do with the way things always are when something disappointing is revealed about baseball players; it takes a while to put it into context, so that when you hear about Mark McGwire or Rafael Palmiero you think about the whole player and the whole career, not just PEDs.  Part of it is that sooner or later I think the odds are that people will realize that there's no reason to treat the steroids crowd any differently than we've treated Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and the rest of the players who drank the funny coffee all those years.  And part of it has to do with the future, and the odds that sooner or later we'll have pills that can help you get stronger without side-effects, and those will be legal and accepted.  We already, after all, have surgery to improve players, and no one seems to think of that as massive cheating.

But the main reason (and this certainly comes from what Bill James has said about the Hall of Fame) is that the Hall, as an institution, needs to have inductees.  They aren't going to be able to skip a generation of players.  Moreover, if they just induct the best supposedly "clean" ones, they'll risk turning the Hall into a joke.   And remember; the only thing that makes the Hall of Fame into the "real" Hall of Fame is that everyone believes in it.  If the Hall in Cooperstown is a joke, someone is going to start their own HOF-like thing, induct the actual greats, and if people start believing in that one, the current Hall could find itself a relic.

And that's not to mention the increasing chances that someone already inducted will be found out as a steroids user, making it even sillier to keep the rest out. 

So, I'm  not sure how quickly it'll happen, but my guess is that McGwire will get in via the writer's vote before his time runs out, and eventually, as I said, they're all going in. 

Catch of the Day

How about one for Jamelle Bouie, calling out Andrew Breitbart (OK, it's easy pickings, but still):
This is a nearly pure expression of conservative anti-anti-racism, or the idea that accusations of racism (against white people) are far more harmful than actual incidents of bigotry against minorities (with the collorary that minorities are guilty of tremendous racism against white people). Smearing Shirley Sherrod is perfectly okay, but calling out Breitbart's race-baiting is beyond the pale, and harmful to free speech.
Nice catch!

The Mittbot

Great stuff today about Mitt Romney, with the highlight being David Frum's defense of Romney as the Olive Garden candidate:
I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?
What should people look for in a presidential candidate?  Frum trumpets "consumer service" as a virtue, not a flaw.  Matt Yglesias isn't so sure:
To a large extent our political system is already biased toward promoting power-crazed sociopaths into positions of authority. The public’s aversion to people who appear to have this quality to a greater extent than other high-profile politicians seems very understandable to me. Meanwhile, at the end of the day Ross Douthat is right to say that this still leaves you necessarily puzzled by the question of what a Romney Administration would actually do. Is it so crazy for political activists and pundits to be curious about this? 
Let me separate those two things.   First, "power-crazed sociopaths."  What I'd say to that is that ambition is a virtue, not a flaw, in politicians.  Democrats very much want Barack Obama to deeply care about re-election, because they want a Democrat in the White House in 2013-2016.  Moreover, they want him to care about wielding his influence as much as possible, because otherwise events will be dictated by Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner, or General Petraeus, or some anonymous bureaucrat in the Commerce Department, or just by the random rush of events and reactions. 

The limiting problem with that is that ambitious people may well be "power-crazed sociopaths."  But I don't think, at all, that those two things are identical, and I'm not sure it's impossible to separate the Richard Nixons and Lyndon Johnsons (who mostly were) from the Ronald Reagans and Bill Clintons (who were highly ambitious, but not power-crazed sociopaths).  We have, for most of these people, careers to look at.  Did they follow the rules?  Did they try, as Newt Gingrich did, to destroy institutions in order to achieve their goals?  Did they operate through bargaining, or bullying?  Sure, there are fine lines to be drawn here (when does "toughness" -- good -- become "bullying" -- bad?).  But that's why it's good to have peer review components in a healthy nominations process, especially at the presidential level.

So, with the caveat that it isn't an unambiguous virtue, for the most part I'd advise people to choose for, not against, ambition.

Now, the second part of what Yglesias said -- how can anyone know what Romney will actually do it elected?  I think the answer is, basically, the same way you can know that about anyone.  He'll follow party incentives, and institutional incentives, and other such things that have little or nothing to do with what he "really" thinks.  And that's mostly a good thing!  As I've said many times, our presidents are experts on practically none of the issues about which they must make decisions.  If they fool themselves into thinking that they know more than anyone else about arms control, or the effects of economic stimulus, or farming, or 5th amendment jurisprudence, or what North Korea is up to, then there's a good chance they'll fail.  Even worse, if they convince themselves (as Woodrow Wilson, and probably George W. Bush, did) that as a result of being elected they share some mystical bond with the American people that allows them, and only them, to understand what the American people "really" want...well, that's a recipe for disaster. 

Now, might still oppose Romney for all sorts of other reasons.  But to me, flexibility of beliefs in pursuit of office is generally a good thing in a presidential candidate.

(See also Ross Douthat, who Frum was responding to, and Daniel Larison, who makes what I think boils down to an aesthetic argument against Romney's style).

The Partisan Press

Liberals are having plenty of fun at the Maryland study out now showing that Fox News viewers are especially misinformed about current events (here's the study summary, pdf).  Fair enough, and this adds to what we konw about how information is transmitted and, to some extent, how Fox can affect information flows.  That's good to know.

What I think we know a lot less about, however, is how the partisan press functions -- not just Fox News, but MSNBC talk shows, and radio talk, and partisan blogs.  Specifically, how much autonomy do these partisan outlets have?  What sort of constraints, on topics or opinions, do they have?  How do those constraints operate?  I know we've had a couple of flaps recently about leaked internal Fox News memos about how to word certain things, and that those dictates corresponded with GOP talking common is that?  How top-down is it?

My guess is that most constraints are real, but not especially heavy-handed or, in most cases, top-down.  They work the way a lot of things work in our party system: through networks, and through informal pressure and influence.  In other words, Rachel Maddow starts talking about filibuster reform because the liberal guests she has on are all interested right now in filibuster reform, and activists in her audience are interested in filibuster reform -- not because the White House or the DNC or the Majority Leader's office told MSNBC to tell her to push filibuster reform.  Although I should add: we do know that both parties do send out talking points, and presumably talk show hosts and their producers are reading them.  More likely, Maddow has other very real, if informal, constraints; if she suddenly revealed she was secretly pro-life and began dedicating a segment every night to how Democrats should have more diversity of opinion on abortion, her credibility with her audience would disappear rapidly, and MSNBC would soon replace her with someone liberals could love and trust.

That also raises the point that there must be some sort of interaction between profit and partisan motivations for partisan media outlets.  And then there are career incentives for individual writers, talk show hosts, and editors and producers. 

But that's all speculation.  I'm not even sure how someone would go about studying this, but if we're to have a partisan press -- and that seems pretty certain -- then we're gonna have to learn exactly what that means, and how it works. 

(If anyone knows of good studies already done, please drop a comment!  I'm aware that there have been studies like the Maryland one showing the effects of the partisan press, and also that there have been people who have documented the differences between what Fox and, say, CNN show, and that's all good too -- but I'm interested in something that's slightly different).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keep 'Em In, Harry Redux

Harry Reid gets it:
We are in session, if necessary, up to January 5th. That is the clock our Republican colleagues need to run out. It's a long clock.
He can only pass things (barring a successful bluff to go nuclear, which is highly unlikely at this point) if he has 60 votes (and more for START), and he can only pass as many things as he can pack in to the space available.  But if his statement today is for real, then he's not going to leave anything on the table.

I should note that this is a strong contrast with the way Reid and the Democrats dealt with the Scott Brown election at the beginning of the year.  That time, the Dems showed no urgency at all.  Yes, it probably would have been tough to get back and finish health care reform before Brown was sworn in.  But they certainly could have used what time they had remaining with 60 votes to push through one or two of the more controversial nominations (or, perhaps, a whole bunch of less controversial nominations).  Or, they could have taken care of one or two relatively minor pieces of legislation. 

Instead, Democrats seemingly were intimidated by GOP efforts to call such things unfair. 

Or, perhaps, they just didn't get why action was urgent if they wanted to pass as much of their agenda as possible.

This time, it's completely different.  Recall that Republicans did raise a ruckus back in October about the lame duck session being somehow illegitimate.  It isn't -- but Republicans have a much better case now than they did in January, when they had all of exactly one Congressional election to point to (and, at that point, the Democrats had been winning special elections fairly frequently).  And then there were this week's complaints about Christmas and something or another.  And how did Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama react to these complaints this time around?  They've simply ignored them, and got on with their business. 

By the way, I do wonder whether GOP over-the-top obstruction this week (that is, the threats to force full readings of bills) along with the completely ridiculous Christmas whining might have combined to help Reid convince the Democrats to stick around. 

Now, we still don't know what exactly can get through the Senate at the end of the day.  But Democrats should breath a sign of relief that Harry Reid isn't going to give up in the early afternoon; he's saying, as he should be, that he and the Democrats are going to sprint to the wire.  The truth is that Senate Majority Leaders are a lot less influential than most people seem to think; Senate rules and practices emphasize the rights of individual Senators, and so the leaders often can do little more than co-ordinate, as opposed to the way that the Speaker of the House really leads.  Even here, it's hard to say how much this is Reid's accomplishment, and how much it's just what his caucus wants.  Either way, however, he's making the correct play, this time.

In Praise of "Senatus"

I actually had the TV tuned to C-SPAN when the Dems pulled the rule on the tax bill today, but wasn't really sure what was going on.  Which in turn made me think about how wonderful "Senatus" is, both website and especially twitter feed.  I guess he's now "Josh" of Senatus...I don't know about others, but I definitely still think of him (I guess it is a him, after all) as someone named Senatus. 

Anyway, that in turn got me to wishing that there was a House of Representatives version of Senatus.  Which then got me, since I still don't really know what's going on in the House (although Greg Sargent is very helpful -- sounds like just a temporary, short hiccup, not a real problem for the tax deal), to wonder what the House version of Senatus should be like.  Hmmm....

Well, first of all, it wouldn't have a fancy Latin name; at best, it would be something informal, something like "House Guy", and it might be even ordinary-folks like, although I can't quite think of the right name.  Second, the web site wouldn't have the classy, restrained look that Senatus adopted; it would be cramped and ugly, perhaps with some exposed pipes or something like that.  What's the web equivalent of having to walk out of the office, down the hall, take the stairs one flight, and then down another hall to get to the other part of the office?

What else?  Senatus, in my memory, never mentions the Other Body; House Guy would, I think, take cheap shots at the Senate two or three times a week.

Any other ideas? 

Compositions for the Young and Old

Ah, nostalgia.  David Kurtz, perhaps in tribute to baseball great Bob Feller (and you just know that wherever Feller is, he's rehearsing arguments about how those young punks just don't know how to die like they did in The Old Days), argues that Bipartisan Commissions have gone downhill:
Maybe some of our older readers can help give me a reality check here, but were the blue ribbon commissions of the 1950s through 1980s as deeply compromised and flawed as the ones today?

Even as late as the 9/11 commission earlier this decade, you could put together a group of distinguished citizens and expect they would yield a consensus that bore some relation to reality and wasn't shamelessly partisan's not a commission, but I'd say it doesn't get much worse than the Congressional Joint Committee on the Iran-Contra affair, so that gets us back to 1987-1988.

More broadly, I think it's a real mistake to think of the recent deficit commission as a failure.  As I (and many others) saw it from the beginning, it's goal was first of all to kick the deficit can down the road past the election, and second of all to provide one or more markers (not road maps, but markers) of what an actual budget-balancing plan might look like, in order to provide a demonstration against GOP claims that the budget can be balanced by cutting taxes and eliminating earmarks.

Now, perhaps that wasn't Barack Obama's goal, but that's sure what it looked like to me, and it fits with the realistic idea of what commissions can do: to provide cover for things that pols want to do (or not do) but don't want to take credit for.  

Generally, while Congress is certainly more polarized than it used to be, and parties are in my view much stronger than they were thirty or forty years ago, I'm not at all sure that individual party politicians are all that much more partisan than they were thirty or forty years ago.  Tip O'Neill was a very partisan guy; I don't know that Nancy Pelosi is any more partisan.  It's just that the context of legislating is more party driven than it was in the 1970s.

Pure Evil

Beth: Why not start with a joke?
Lisa: A joke!  Such a great idea.  You know what?  I just happen to have a joke book for junior executives right here.
Beth: Of course you do.
Lisa: [Reading] Co-eds...Hippies...Levittown...Teatotalers...Sputnik...Swinging Singles...Polish Jokes...
Beth: How old is that book, anyway?
Lisa: Um...It was published in 1967.  [Proudly] It was my dad's.
Beth: Oh, that's cool, that's cool.  My dad was a bigot, too.

(NewsRadio episode 4.6 -- which just happens to be titled "Pure Evil")
I really feel as if I should make some note of the latest Nixon tapes release.  I've seen two different stories: there's Nixon's ethnic bashing, reported in the NYT story (and featuring a worthwhile Henry Kissinger sidebar noted by Jeffrey Goldberg ), and via Chait, Nixon's edict that Jews, including Kissinger, were not to be involved in Israel policy. 

I'll leave Kissinger to others.  As for Richard Nixon...well, to some extent that kind of casual bigotry (towards blacks, Jews, the Irish, Italians, and on and on) is more shocking to us than it would have been to his contemporaries -- it really was, by all accounts, far more comment to both hold and express such attitudes then,. as Mad Men often reminds us.  Although it was also more common, I suspect, in 1960 than it was in 1973.  This hardly excuses it, of course.

It also reminds me that one of the troubles that Nixon ran into during Watergate was the revelation that the President of the United States used off-color language, represented by the classic phrase "expletive deleted" in the best-selling transcription of the very first Nixon tapes.   As it happens, most (all? I'd have to look it up) of the off-color language turned out to be "goddamns" and "sons-of-bitches" and "bastards."  Nixon was pretty fond, if I recall correctly, of "goddamn."  Again, times and standards change, but it really was a big deal in he early 1970s when people first heard about this. 

It also, really, is unfortunate. 

Watergate -- the shorthand name for a serious and important conspiracy against democracy and constitutional government by the President of the United States, his Chief of Staff, and others in and around the Executive Office of the President -- was in fact a terrible abuse of power, one that I suspect is underappreciated these days (see here for my shorthand version of What Watergate was, and here for my longer exploration of the dangers of the imperial presidency).

Whether or not Nixon was a loathsome human being on a personal level is pretty much irrelevant to why he was a loathsome president.  It's also unfortunate that people mistakenly believe that a lesson of Watergate is that the cover-up is worse than the crime.  That may be true in some cases, and certainly Nixon and others committed multiple crimes in the cover-up, but the cover-up was only thought necessary because the crimes of Watergate were so, well, illegal -- no cover-up, and pretty much the entire upper level of the administration, probably including the president, wind up in jail.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Very Wonky Post About Senate Rules

Tom Udall continues to press for what he calls the "constitutional option" -- that is, to change Senate Rules on the first day of a new Congress by majority vote.  He is certainly correct that this is possible.  It's still wrong, however, to contend -- as Rachel Maddow does, in her interview with Udall -- that "It can only be done on the first day at the new Congress."

In fact, as I've said before, academic experts on the Senate are as far as I know unanimous that a majority who really want to change the rules could do so at any time.  The only real constraints are political, not legal.

But don't take my word for it.  After I posted about this recently, I exchanged email with Greg Koger, author of Filibustering, and one of the handful of real academic experts on Senate rules.  What follows is Greg's description of how the Senate could, at any time, change its rules with respect to the filibuster (I edited out email-specific references, e.g. "as you know"; otherwise, it's all him).  I'll come back at the end with couple of quick comments.  Take it away, Greg:


First the "how":
Long story short, all the majoritarian strategies I know of take the form of raising a point of order, obtaining a ruling from the presiding officer, and then either affirming or rejecting that ruling to achieve the desired effect. Sarah Binder and Steve Smith stress that it may be "difficult" for a majority to get a direct vote.  My reply is that the rules of the Senate provide that if there is a pending point of order and a 2nd point of order arises, that 2nd point will come to a vote immediately.  This is the majority's ace in the hole:  if the minority is filibustering their effort to get a vote on a ruling, then a member of the pro-reform majority can raise a 2nd point of order that debate on the 1st question has gone on too long, or is not allowed.  The members of the House did this in 1811.

Now the "what":

First, I should stress that there are lots of possible strategies.  In Riker's terminology, this is a "heresthetic" task so the only limit is the creativity of pro-reform senators.  When I list options, then, they are suggestions that have been made previously, or strategies I have come up with, but no list is exhaustive.  That having been said, here are some options:

1) The Previous Question.  Step 1:  a senator moves the previous question.  Of course, this will lead to a point of order that the Senate does not have a PQ motion. Then a direct vote on whether the Senate has a PQ motion or not!  It's like changing the rules, but without the 2/3 cloture threshold.

2) The Yeas & Nays.  I have made the case that filibustering is neither expressly mandated by the Constitution, nor is majority rule a Constitutional imperative.  On reflection, though, I think there is a valid Constitutional argument to be made.  Article 1, Section 5 states that "...the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal."  The current practice of the Senate nullifies this provision, as senators often request and receive roll call votes that never occur because some senator objects to a unanimous consent agreement to hold the votes.

When there is a measure on the Senate floor (say, a START treaty) the yeas & nays have been ordered, and a reasonable amount of time (I won't call it "debate") has elapsed, any senator can raise a point of order that the constitutional right to a vote is being abrogated by the practice of the Senate.  
The strength of this approach is its clear foundation in the Constitution; its weakness is figuring out how to allow a reasonable amount of debate between calling for the yeas & nays and actually holding the vote.  The U.S. House had a similar problem in the 19th century with the previous question motion, since the PQ had to be moved by the MC who brought up a measure before he yield the floor, so there was a monologue and then a vote (or obstruction by other means).

3) Convert the motion to suspend the rules.  Senate rule 5 allows motions to suspend the rules, and these motions can include all the detail of a special rule in the House--calling up a bill, laying out the terms of debate and amendment, and then a time certain for a final passage vote.  Unlike the comparable House rule, Senate rule 5 does NOT specify a threshold for suspending the rules, so the default interpretation would normally be that a simple majority is required.  BUT, in 1915 and 1916 the Senate enacted precedents that a 2/3 majority is required to suspend the rules; this is my favorite example of how much discretion legislators have to "reinterpret" rules when they want to.

So, if senators want to eliminate obstruction, this would be my recommended option, since the reform is perfectly defensible within the context of Senate rules.  That is, the reformers would be making changes so that the rules are MORE logical, more consistent.  There are two steps:

a) set a precedent that the motion to suspend the rules is nondebatable (that is, it cannot be filibustered)
b) reverse the 1915 precedent so that a simple majority is required to suspend the rules.  Voila!  The majority can cut off a filibuster whenever it wants.

Note that the majority can stop at step a).  That would at least decrease the importance of holds by setting up a swift process for challenging a filibuster by a 2/3 majority.

4) Convert Rule 22.  This option is...unpretentious.  A senator files a cloture petition on a bill, nomination, or treaty.  Wait 2 days.  Vote at noon.  So far, so normal.  But if the number of votes for cloture is over 50 and under 60, then when the presiding officer states that the cloture attempt has failed, a reformer raises a point of order that a simple majority is required to invoke cloture.  This is a bold-faced coup, since Rule 22 clearly says "three-fifths of the whole Senate."  BUT, the advantage of this approach is that there is an easy 2nd-degree point of order to raise if debate on the 1st point of order drags on...once cloture is invoked, there is no debate on appeals to points of order, so if there is debate on the 1st point of order, a reformer can point out that, since cloture has been invoked (right?!) there is no debate on the 1st point of order.  This brings the effort to a swift, critical vote.

There are other options, but these are ones that first come to mind.  In particular, I should note that there are some incremental reforms that can be adopted by precedent, e.g. bundling nominations.  And, it is worth noting that senators who are reluctant to use confrontational methods would still be wise to retain them as an option, if only to motivate the minority to agree to reasonable, modest reforms for fear that the majority will unilaterally impose more drastic changes.


Two quick comments.  First, I disagree with Greg's position on the proper Constitutional status of filibusters.  As I read it, I think that the "entered in the Journal" clause only means that if a vote is taken that the Yeas and Nays must be, when requested by enough Senators, recorded. As to whether a vote is taken at all, "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings" is what matters.  Under Greg's interpretation, couldn't twenty Senators (or one fifth of the House) force a vote on something that was stuck in committee?  However, whether I'm right or Greg's right about this is irrelevant to what the Senate could rule.  I certainly don't think the courts would step in to prevent such a ruling, regardless of the strength of its Constitutional claim.

Second, if you skipped the rest, read the last paragraph, which points out that the majority can use the threat of unilaterally changing the rules to negotiate something more reasonable.  This suggests to me that it may be a mistake for Udall and other reformers to put all their eggs in the Opening Day basket: it'll be rough enough to change rules in mid-session without having a whole bunch of reformer Senator quotes about how it's the only chance.  Especially since it isn't true. 

Also, note that Harry Reid could, if he wanted to and had 60 votes, bundle up all the remaining nominations and push them through together, which would dramatically reduce the floor time needed if Republicans delayed as much as possible. 
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