Monday, January 31, 2011

Monday Movie Post

Sometimes I talk about famous movies or shows; sometimes it's the obscure ones. Today, the latter: Washington Story, from 1952. Deservedly obscure, although I'll tell you down in the last paragraph why it's worth watching anyway.

Let's a movie, it's really not much. Patricia Neal is fine as a cynical reporter who sets out to do a hatchet job on a Member of Congress only to...well, you know, don't you. She's fine, although not really sufficiently tough in the first half hour to make the inevitable reversal as entertaining as it should be. But the real problem with the movie is the Kennedy-esque Massachusetts Democrat she winds up with, as played by Van Johnson. Johnson just isn't up for it. We're supposed to care about what happens to him, and, well, in my view anyway, there's just nothing going on there. Old pro Louis Calhern puts a little zip in things -- you know him; he was among other things Ambassador Trentino in Duck Soup, and Uncle Willy in High Society. And Philip Ober helps.  But with a blank in the middle it's hard to get too involved.

By the way, I'm not at all familiar with writer-directer Robert Pirosh (nor are many; he has no bio info at imdb), but for what it's worth he contributed writing to Night at the Opera, Day at the Races, The Wizard of Oz...and, among other things, three episodes of the 1970s Ellery Queen TV series. Not bad!

You would think that I'd like the politics of it, too, given that not only the politicians but even the lobbyists turn out to be good guys, but it's more of a Cold War gee-whiz whitewashing of politics than an honest examination of the conflicts and hard choices that go into real politics (Want a second opinion? Here's the original NYT review). Indeed, what's frustrating on that score is that even though special interests in this movie are improbable white hats, what's left of dramatic tension remains the question of whether Van Johnson will Do The Right Thing, even at a cost to his career (although even that is drained of power, since it turns out that his long-term career will be enhanced by following the path of virtue). This is, of course, Mr. Smithism; there's always a Right Thing and a Wrong Thing for pols to do. In real politics, of course, things just aren't like that, at least most of the time.

So why is Washington Story worth talking about? Because it has one thing well worth seeing. It was in large part filmed on location, in the Capitol. Just terrific shots of pretty much the whole Capitol complex, as it was in winter 1951-1952. Very, very fun. Good enough to overcome a dud of a movie? Sure, especially at a crisp 81 minutes. I wouldn't go very far out of my way to see it, but if you're a fan of the Capitol and notice it coming around on TCM, I'd recommend it.

Company Book (Or: All This I've Done For You)

I think I'll step into a great dispute over at TAP between Jamelle Bouie and Monica Potts over the importance of big, outside money in politics. Bouie:
Undoubtedly, the Koch brothers put a considerable amount of money in advancing conservative causes and aiding conservative politicians. But for actual elections, I'm not sure that it has a hugely measurable impact. Any given candidate's fate has more to do with fundamentals...They can't shift the tides of public opinion, and they can't reverse an election result; all they can do promote their ideas to elites, and -- in some cases -- make an electoral environment a little more favorable. 
Potts responds:
I do think that on the macro issues the Koch brothers hold a lot of sway. We know from Jane Mayer's terrific reporting in the New Yorker that they've helped fuel campaigns against items on Obama's agenda from climate change to health-care reform. Much of that work amounts to a giant misinformation campaign that works to some degree, and if it hasn't diminished support for the bills entirely, it's certainly slowed down the speed at which we address those problems. It's also helped give power to the politicians who support trying to unravel those efforts.
They're both right! In part. On the one hand, Bouie is correct that outside money, even a lot of it, is unlikely to swing very many votes, or to change support for policies. Health care reform was relatively unpopular in 2010 because Obama was unpopular, and Obama was unpopular mainly because the economy stunk.  Money may push things around a bit, but almost always on the margins.

On the other hand, money can make a significant difference in what the opposition talks about, what positions their candidates hold, and who contests and wins primary elections. It was highly likely (perhaps I'd go so far as to say inevitable) that Republicans would oppose Barack Obama's proposals on climate, and highly likely that Republicans would side with GOP-aligned interest groups on climate/energy issues. What was not certain at all is how Republicans would do so. It seems to me that one plausible outcome would have been for Republicans to agree with Democrats (and the scientific consensus) on climate change, but to demand policies which were much better for GOP-aligned energy interests than whatever Democrats chose to offer. 

Last caveat: it's often difficult to separate money as a key variable in these things. Politicians respond -- in my view, should respond -- to major interests within their coalition. The energy industry is a large interest in the US; it hires lots and lots of people, makes major contributes (or not) to economic growth, and will have a lot to do with the future of the economy. It is inevitable that it will be represented, at least to some extent, by at least one of major political parties. Whether spending gazillions of other money to fund think tanks, publicity campaigns, and the rest of it win more representation is an empirical question, but one that does not have an obvious or easy-to-access answer.

First of the Last Calls

Does Mike Pence count as the first presidential candidate of the 2012 cycle to drop out of the race?

Before 1972, it's hard to identify the universe of presidential nomination candidates, because there was no required public action for candidates up to the convention. Yes, after the Progressive era, there were some presidential primaries, but even then, it was possible for an absolutely bona fide candidate to never actually have his name entered into nomination; he might have been holding back, waiting for the convention to deadlock, only to see someone else selected on an early ballot.

In the modern era, it was a lot easier to spot real candidates: campaign finance rules, along with the necessity of entering primaries including especially the New Hampshire primary, made it essentially impossible to run for president in the election year without taking formal action.

However, as party elites learned how to determine nominees in the 1980s and 1990s, it became trickier again. Nowadays, much of the action in presidential nominations takes place more-or-less behind the scenes, and well before the year of the nomination. Endorsements by politicians and party-aligned groups, staff and activist recruitment, and other such activities begin, realistically, about the same time that a party's previous nominee concedes defeat (or, in the case of a term-limited president, even earlier; Republicans probably started running for 2008 before the 2004 election, and Al Gore, at least, began the 2000 race before November 1996).

As a result, it's become common for politicians to begin doing the things that candidates for the nomination will do, and then drop out well before the voters get involved in the Iowa caucuses. Sometimes, those candidates formally announce that they're in: Pete Wilson in 1996, Dan Quayle and Liddy Dole in 2000. Sometimes, they won't. Campaign announcements are a tactic (it gets a flurry of publicity, and may convince some potential supporters to take the plunge), not a requirement, at least not until campaign finance laws and the need to file for primaries kick in.

Notice that losing is never that simple. Sure, Joe Biden, for example, dropped out after losing in Iowa in 2008. But that's not "losing" the nomination in any kind of formal sense -- that doesn't really happen until the convention, no matter how certain it is long before that. And so dropping out after losing in Iowa doesn't seem at all different in principle to me from dropping out after losing the Ames straw poll (on the GOP side), or dropping out after realizing you will lose the Ames straw poll, or dropping out after realizing that you're just not attracting any support as you campaign three years before the election.

So, did Mike Pence run for president? Did Mark Warner and Evan Bayh run in 2008? Did Mario Cuomo run in 1992? Are Sarah Palin and other unannounced politicians running for president right now? Granted, this is a question which is, in large sense, academic. But it does raise questions that are presumably of great interest to practitioners and citizens: At what point in the four-year electoral cycle to nominations "really" get made? What sort of candidates win nominations? Who should the press cover?

My own sense of these things is that most, and perhaps all, of those mentioned above did in fact run for president. But I have no idea how to construct a proper set of criteria to distinguish "running" from "considering." Perhaps, in the current era, the dichotomy between candidates and noncandidates just breaks down, but I think it's worth attempting to salvage.

Dreaming I Am

I ran into this one this morning via the Dish, and, well:
But while Islamists may eventually hijack the popular outrage against authoritarianism, both secular and Islamic, for now one thing is at least clear. There will probably be no such popular violent unrest in Iraq where an elected and popular government is legitimate and where violence comes from small numbers of anti-democratic forces seeking to impose an intolerant dictatorship of some sort.
That's Victor Davis Hanson at NRO.  Where to start? Oh, forget it; I don't really like to pull up and ridicule crazed ideological statements, but really, does one even have to make an argument? Oh well -- I suppose I'd at least point out that if you define all violent unrest as "popular" if and only if it conforms to your views of what should be popular, it makes analysis easier. Albeit somewhat less useful, perhaps.

If you think that's totally divorced from reality, it's only the first paragraph. He continues:
Given that those in and about the Obama administration have long dropped their old narratives about Iraq (“lost,” etc.), given that there are presently no popular complaints at home against our many-thousands still in the country (e.g., mysteriously no more movies like In the Valley of Elah,Redacted, Stop Loss, no more Camp Caseys in Texas, no more courtship of Michael Moore), and given that it has become one of Obama’s “greatest achievements...
Let's see; why could it be that people have stopped complaining about Iraq? Sure is a mystery. Oh, wait: it couldn't be that George W. Bush negotiated a surrender there a few years ago, and that first Bush and then Obama have followed through. Could it? It also might have something to do with the 21 American troop deaths in Iraq over the last six months, as opposed to the five years beginning in spring 2003 in which 21 American troop deaths was a great month.  (And scroll down the linked page to notice the 200 Iraqi fatalities this month. Just saying). 

On the other hand, I suppose that I thought that the best thing that Bush could have done at the time was to declare victory and leave, so I suppose I can't really complain that there are people out there who believe, or at least pretend to believe, that Iraq was a great American victory. 

Indecision Time

Adam Serwer notes that Republican politicians are hesitating to criticize Barack Obama on Egypt, and generally being very cautious about picking a side there -- Steve Benen points out  that all John McCain could come up with is that the US should be on the "right side of history," but could offer nothing about which side that might be. Meanwhile, as Serwer notes, many conservative pundits have no such hesitations -- in particular, he cites an Eliot Abrams column arguing that George W. Bush is responsible for everything good happening in the world.

This is not surprising. Politicians believe that they could suffer real, damaging consequences if they're caught saying something stupid -- in the next election, whatever they said could easily be thrown up on TV by an opponent. For pundits, on the other hand, it's a lot closer to show biz, where all publicity is good publicity.

But wait a minute, Plain Blogger, you say: Eliot Abrams isn't just a pundit; he was a government official in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, right?

Ah, but this gets to another point: why wouldn't Abrams think he's bulletproof right now? Abrams doesn't have to go before voters; he only has to gain the approval of GOP elites. And, well, if they haven't turned against him by now, what's going to change that?

More broadly, I agree with just about everything Conor Friedersdorf has been saying in a series of terrific posts about the downside for conservatives of the conservative partisan press -- here's the latest.

If I Can't Change Your Mind

Great post this morning from Brendan Nyhan debunking the idea that Ronald Reagan caused a public opinion shift towards conservative ideas. Never happened. One can make the case that Jimmy Carter caused a shift to the right in public opinion, but the Reagan years were associated with a shift in the other direction.

On top of that, note Andrew Sprung's reminder that Ronald Reagan, in his real-life presidency, wasn't all that conservative after his first year. Sprung concentrates on domestic policy, but Reagan's foreign policy was at least as offensive to true conservatives Reagan's second term was a succession of summits and arms control. Yes, he's often quoted about the need for verification on arms control treaties, but the true conservative position (then and now) don't really believe that verification is possible; arms control invariably is about American limits that the other side will find a way to evade. That wasn't Reagan's position, at least not after he met Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nyhan concludes with what he sees as Reagan's true lessons to Barack Obama: "(1) beat a weak incumbent in what is perceived to be a "mandate" election and (2) hope economic growth rebounds in the two years before your re-election." Well, I can't argue a lot with that. But I can't leave Reagan without adding one more important lesson from Reagan: stay engaged, and make sure your White House is in good working order. Reagan's careless and disastrous acquiescence in the decision to make Donald Regan his chief of staff in 1985 is certainly not something that Obama would want to emulate. Indeed, one of the lessons from Reagan's presidency is that when it comes to the key position of White House chief of staff, it's a lot more important to get someone who knows what he or she is doing than to please an ideological base -- neither James Baker (1981-1985) nor Howard Baker (1987-1988) had many fans among conservatives back then, but all that was forgotten once the administration ran fairly smoothly.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Question for Everyone

Fall 2012: what's the biggest foreign policy/national security issue in the presidential election? To the extent that it matters, does it cut for or against Barack Obama?

Sunday Question for Liberals

Speaking, as I was earlier today, of organized efforts to nominate very conservative Senators -- what's your explanation, if any, for why there's no equivalent effort on the left? Or, do you think that MoveOn/Kos/etc. are more-or-less parallel to Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party groups, but just don't get as much coverage from the explicitly neutral press?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Organized groups are now preparing to push GOP nominees hard right in 2012. Putting aside the question of whether that's a good strategy (that is, whether the risks of losing seats to Democrats is worth the upside of more conservative Republicans winning some seats, and pushing other incumbent Republicans to the right as they fear tough primaries), I have a different question today.

It's pretty clear that Olympia Snowe is a lot less conservative than most Congressional Republicans. It's a lot harder to tell whether Orrin Hatch and Dick Lugar are in fact less conservative than, say, Ron Johnson and Mike Lee. Different rhetoric, and different emphasis, perhaps, but it's not entirely clear to me that Hatch and Lugar are in fact less conservative. Here's my question: to what extent do you trust organized groups to correctly identify "real" conservative candidates?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Catch of the Day

Matt Yglesias nails Howard Fineman for claiming that Barack Obama has "gone Washington" in his recent round of White House staff hirings.  Yglesias:
What’s striking about the change between Rahm Emannuel and Bill Daley at the top is that the two guys share the exact same biographical qualities of being DC insiders who are also people Obama knows from Chicago. Beyond Emannuel, the key departed members of the Obama White House Mark One were Axelrod, Larry Summers, and Peter Orszag. Axelrod’s being swapped out for David Plouffe and Summers & Orzag were never “Georgians.” The entire argument that a change is happening really needs to rest on the Gibbs for Carney swap.
But wait, there's more! Robert Gibbs was in fact an early sign-on to the Obama presidential campaign, but he's a Washingtonian, not an Obama person. Gibbs, as anyone who has heard him talk knows, is certainly not from Chicago. Anyway, he didn't arrive in Washington with Obama. He started out interning and then campaigning for Rep. Glenn Browder of his native Alabama, then worked for Rep. Bob Etheridge, for the re-election campaign of Senator Fritz Hollings, and for the election campaign of Senator Debbie Stabenow. He was DSCC press secretary for the 2002 cycle, then went briefly to John Kerry's presidential campaign, and only after leaving that effort did he wind up with Barack Obama's senate campaign. In other words, he's an absolutely typical example of elite party networks. Sure, at this point he's probably personally dedicated to Obama, but guess what? Jay Carney will be, too. If Gibbs shows any long-term loyalty, it's not to Obama, but to the Democratic Party.

This kind of loyalty to the party network is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of the partisan presidency, which has been in place for about the last thirty years and shows no signs of waning. In the postwar presidency, White House staff tended to be people who had been brought into politics by the president and had few party connections or, in many cases, loyalty; these days, such people are rare in the White House.

Anyway, Fineman is totally wrong here. Nice catch!

What Mattered This Week?

Egypt, obviously. What else? I didn't hear anything in the SOTU that really qualified, and the speech itself, as I said before, I thought was basically a dud. SOTU speeches matter, as Ezra Klein noted in an excellent item earlier in the week, because of the process that produces them. But no one is going to be quoting this one down the road. Then there was the filibuster compromise in the Senate, which as I've said I think is much less of a big deal than some others believe.

So -- what do you think mattered this week?

Friday Baseball Post

Sorry for the slow baseball posting -- I missed last week entirely (I was under the weather most of last week), and didn't get anything up last night. Truth is, I'm finding the lull after the HOF voting and the heaviest Hot Stove action an even deader period than usual this year. I don't know whether that's because there really is very little going on, or if it's related in some way to rooting for the reigning champs.

Meanwhile, I'll take note of an interesting post from Brendan I. Koerner, guesting over at TNC's place, about sports betting. Koerner's relative is, apparently, a successful professional gambler, and he recommends baseball and horses as the two best investment opportunities.

I'll get back to baseball...the first question I have is about this odd claim (my emphasis):
Horse racing, meanwhile, is a great way to make money if you're willing to put in time at the track. As my relative notes, 98 percent of the people who bet on horses have no idea what they're doing; they plunk down money based on gut feelings, past performance, or cuteness of a competitor's name. You can run rings around those folks if you're willing to attend morning workouts with stopwatch in hand, as well as understand when it's appropriate to take a risk on a parlay. (My relative's share in a successful Pick Six gambit is what put home ownership within his reach.) 
Well, first of all, yes, I suppose that accounts for 98% of action -- but one of those things isn't like the others. I'm confident that my past performance based wagers have an enormous advantage over bets based on hunches, names, lucky numbers, and the like. What I'm a lot less convinced of is that personally collecting workout info beyond what the Form has is going to be a major source of advantage. And, alas, there isn't really enough money wasted on hunch betting to overcome the large track take-out. That doesn't mean that you can't beat the horses, but I don't think there's any huge advantage available to anyone. My main feeling about racing over the time I've played the horses is that over time, the percentage of all possible useful information that is easily available to casual players (which certainly includes me, even when I've been to the track a lot more often than I go these days) has increased dramatically.

Betting on baseball? I don't know. Koerner says "if you have a contrarian notion that a certain ace is about to have an off game, you can really clean up." Well, sure, but that's not exactly a formula for success, is it? Well, unless you can actually predict ups and downs of front-line pitchers, but my sense is that we're talking random variation, not anything that's systematic (and therefore usable for betting). 

On the other hand, as a long-time roto player, I've always believed that, over time, my sense of which pitchers were overrated in the league and which were underrated was pretty good. Now, granted, I've never been in an ultra-competitive league, and presumably sports betting is dominated by relatively smart money. Here's what I would do if I were thinking of starting to bet baseball: I'd make season-length, not day-to-day, decisions on teams and pitchers, and then play those decisions throughout the season. In other words, if I thought that Matt Cain was overrated and Jonathan Sanchez was underrated, I'd make a standard bet for the Giants on all Sanchez starts and against them on all Cain starts. 

Not that I'd actually do that; I'm not going to bet against or root against the Giants, regardless. I've only played in AL-only roto leagues for that reason; it's bad enough that interleague play has left me with divided loyalties from time to time. 

Anyway, I'm not at all convinced. I guess I'd be interested to hear from those who do bet on baseball (outside of fantasy types of betting): do you think it's theoretically beatable? 

Friday, January 28, 2011


Remember the Joe Biden gaffe way back when he said that Barack Obama would be tested early in his presidency by a foreign policy crisis? Well, guess that it's finally happened, although not really on the VP's timetable.

Since I have no Egypt expertise, I can only remind you that the Monkey Cage is a good place to go for links to people who knew something about that part of the world before last week (and they have some excellent links for keeping up on the news), and to steer you elsewhere for what's happening inside Egypt. I do, however, have some cautions about what we're likely to hear in the US press and commentary. Consider this a general news-followers guide to any kind of fast-breaking story, especially those taking place in foreign nations.

1. American press and political reaction to things like this invariably overstate the American role in whatever is going on. The US of course does have a lot to do with Egypt, and it may or may not be true that American policy can influence events there, but US coverage in these situations almost always overestimates that potential influence. That's even more true about statements, as opposed to actions, by US government officials.

2. I have no position on the best choices for President Obama and Secretary Clinton, but media-watchers should remember that there's usually a media bias here in favor of action. Action may or may not be appropriate; it's worth remembering that during the most successful mass outbreak of democracy ever, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush was criticized for being overly cautious in his public statements. Again, I don't have any suggestion of what's best to do, but remember that sometimes doing as little as possible (especially publicly) can be an effective strategy.

3. There's also a media bias, and also a pundit bias, in my opinion in favor of believing that there's a good solution to all problems -- and that democracy elsewhere is always a good thing for the US. Again, that may be so, and I do think it makes sense for US policy to have a principled preference for democracy in other nations, but it may be that in some nations a healthy democracy would also produce anti-American policies, and that's a real dilemma for American policy.

4. Add-on to point #1: you're going to hear a lot of people claiming that this or that American policy is responsible for anything good (or bad) that happens, but odds are that such claims are massively overstated.

5. Many, although not all, of the people who are going to give opinions early on are basically going to be just plugging whatever they usually say into this situation without having any idea whether or not it applies. The sorts of people who are inclined to say "we'll just have to wait and see" are not usually the sorts who want to be on CNN giving their opinions, and at any rate CNN doesn't usually ask them back a second time. The sorts of people who are inclined to immediately attribute things to social media/American imperialism/American fecklessness/that we haven't started drilling in ANWR/that we haven't passed an energy tax/that it's all Barack Obama's fault/that it's all Sarah Palin's fault (pause, breath...) do get asked back.

6. And, finally, whenever there's lots of fast-breaking news, the odds are very good that some of what you hear is going to be factually wrong. That goes for live-bloggers, it goes for tweets, and it goes for CNN and other established, credentialed reporters. Major media outlets made basic factual errors about what was happening during the Tucson massacre a few weeks ago, around the Christmas and Times Square terrorist attempts, and, of course, during the September 11 attacks.

Catch of the Day

I'm a day late on this, but I loved Conor Friedersdorf's takedown of this Barbara Ehrenreich op-ed. And not just because of this astonishingly good line:
The subset of Glenn Beck Web commenters who issue threats is perhaps the shoddiest data set in the history of bullshit extrapolation.
Yup. Overall, I'm inclined to agree with Friedersdorf about street protests in general. Meanwhile, in addition to Friedersdorf's (correct, I think) comments about Glenn Beck and political action, it's also worth noting that plenty of liberals marched in Washington last year, whether at Jon Stewart's (pointless, in my view) rally or at other explicitly liberal actions, including a large labor union rally in October. What's changed isn't that American have stopped marching; it's that marching has become such a routine political activity that few pay much attention to it (outside of cable news networks that dwell on their own self-sponsored actions).

Of course, this doesn't take away at all from the idea that threats of violence against Frances Fox Piven (or others who speak publicly about politics) are terrible, and that Glenn Beck is an irresponsible demagogue. But that's Ehrenreich's hook, not her argument.

At any rate, it's a terrific piece; read, as they say, the whole thing. And great catch!

Actual Press Bias

One of these White House positions is not like the others:

Deputy Chief of Staff
Deputy Chief of Staff
Director of Legislative Affairs
Press Secretary

Well, I'll admit that I'm probably pushing it here. I'd like to say that the press secretary is easily the least important of those four positions, but that's probably a judgement call, and it depends on how a particular White House runs things.

The real point here is that I'm confident that press secretary isn't the most important of those four, and certainly isn't most important by an order of magnitude. Yet that's how the press is playing the announcement of new press secretary Jay Carney, along with the elevation of Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco to be deputy chiefs-of-staff, and Rob Nabors to run the legislative shop.

This is pure press bias: the press either believes that the person they spend time with is the most important, or are willing to pretend he is in order to (they hope) get more access. As a (long-ago) former Congressional press secretary myself, I tend to be a fan of virtually all WH press secretaries -- I've been in many arguments in which I've defended all of them, Democrats and Republicans, against charges that they were lying weasels or, even worse, that if only they worded things more forcefully their boss would immediately get surging approval ratings. But, really, these other jobs are extremely important, and the emphasis on the press office is, in my view, too bad. Readers of these stories will wind up misinformed about some of the most important people in the government.

Meanwhile, presidency scholar Matthew Dickinson has more about how White House staff turnover is a normal part of the pre-election year.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Senate Reform Goes Dormant (But It's Not Dead)

Both Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent interpret today's agreement on Senate reform -- in which Harry Reid explicitly and apparently unconditionally pledged not to attempt to change the rules with a simple majority vote -- as the end of the road for reform. The reasoning? Since neither party will ever reach the 67 votes it takes to unilaterally change the rules by using the rules, the only way significant reforms will happen will be through either a majority vote, or, perhaps more likely, in response to a threat of a majority vote. So by taking that threat off the table, Reid is basically ensuring the safety of the filibuster and the 60-vote Senate forever.

I'm not convinced.

What's promised today can be revoked tomorrow. Now, comity is an important value within the Senate, and I hardly expect Reid to go back on his word without clear provocation. But clear provocation is in the eye of the beholder. Harry Reid is a very partisan Senator, and I won't be surprised at all if at some point he finds reason to at least begin threatening that he'll move off his pledge.

And that, as Klein and Sargent correctly say, is really the issue: at what point now will Reid threaten a simple majority rules change as leverage to force less obstruction? It seems to me that we already know that he's been reluctant to do so, at least publicly, so it's not news that he'll be reluctant to do it (at least publicly) in the future. But I'm not sure that this changes anything.

Meanwhile, it's very possible that the Democrats struck a fairly good bargain this time around for how the Senate will run for the next two years. The key issue at this point is whether Republicans really are going to cooperate in confirming (that is, allowing votes on) all but the most controversial nominees. If so, that's a pretty good trade for dropping much of the the largely inconsequential Udall/Merkley/Harkin reforms. For the rest...well, on legislation, filibusters matter far more in times of unified than divided government. My guess is that when those conditions reappear, whoever is Majority Leader at the time will find an excuse to more towards further reform. Notwithstanding whatever was promised today.

They'll Say What They Want

Greg Sargent has an excellent post today (following up on Ben Smith's catch; see also Michael Sheer) about conservative insistence that Barack Obama refuses to talk about "American exceptionalism" despite Obama's frequent, and in the SOTU, constant invocation of what a spiffy keen place the U. S. of A. is.

Beyond the specifics of this debate, this is a reminder that one side of a political argument really can't determine what the other side will say. You hear this all the time, often in wish form: If only the president would say X, then Republicans would have to stop saying Y. Or: the president's rhetoric boxed in his opponents, leaving them with no arguments.

This was nonsense back in the days of the explicitly neutral mass media, and it's if anything more nonsense today. Politics is not refereed by people who can disallow poor arguments; politicians can and will say what they think will work, regardless of how ill-supported it might be. That goes for "facts" and for arguments. Especially within their own partisan press, but even outside of it, both Republicans and Democrats are going to say what they want to say. That doesn't mean that presidents and others shouldn't make their best arguments, but those arguments just aren't going to end anything.

Catch of the Day

(Updated below)

Nepotism alert! It goes to my brother, the terrific reporter David S. Bernstein, who complains about gullible journalists buying the idea that expectation-lowering Mitt Romney might skip Iowa.

As David points out, it wasn't even true that John McCain skipped Iowa in 2008; he shifted resources away, but still was campaigning and competing there. And read him on Rudy Giuliani's 2008 -- excellent. He's correct: Romney is trying to lower expectation in Iowa, not skipping it. Great catch!

I'll add two things. The first, and most obvious one, is that every single serious candidate for the nomination must compete in Iowa and New Hampshire. It isn't necessary to win in both. It might not even be necessary to win one of them, although no modern nominee has ever managed that trick (Updated: see below). But there's just no way to survive the winnowing down effect if a candidate self-winnows in either of the first two states.

The second thing is that, near as I can tell, the idea that one can "skip" these events is purely a throwback to pre-reform days. Before 1972, primaries were mainly a demonstration sport. Formal state party organization officials and state and local politicians, who were the ones who controlled delegations and therefore selected nominees, used information from primaries to help decide if a candidate would "play" in their state in the general election. The most famous example was John Kennedy's victory in West Virginia in 1960, which "proved" that Southerners would be willing to vote for the Catholic Massachusetts Senator. In those days, candidates most certainly did actively enter only selected primaries, and there were appropriate strategies for which primaries -- if any -- to contest. But applying the language of those times to the post-reform world is entirely anachronistic.

I've argued, or at least speculated, that in the current elite-driven process (see Cohen et al.) that primaries have to some extent returned to their old demonstration, signaling function in the process. However, as long as everyone pays attention to Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps South Carolina, as the key signals, there's no way any candidate can afford to actually skip any one of them.

See too Josh Putnam's take -- hey, he's quicker than I am!

UPDATE: Dana Houle tweets that neither Bill Clinton nor George McGovern chalked up a win in one of the first two states, and concludes: "Only 14 competitive pres primaries (8D 5R) after 68. Small sample yet in 2 cases nom didn't win NH or IA."  He's correct about Clinton and McGovern; Clinton finished second in New Hampshire, while McGovern finished second in both Iowa and New Hampshire. I should have remembered that, above.

However, I don't think it changes much. In 1992, there essentially were no Iowa caucuses; oh, they held them, but not only did the candidates pass on it with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin running, but the press stayed away, thus truly making it a non-event. As far as 1972, the brand-new process was still just getting organized; indeed, no one really understood that Iowa mattered until after the event. Regardless, McGovern and Clinton both contested what there was to contest in the early going. They may or may not be counterexamples of whether or not one needs to win in IA/NH, but they are certainly not counterexamples of the need to compete in those states.

Mega Mega

Something about this Nate Silver post struck me as both capturing the current conventional wisdom and, at the same time, a bit off:
With Democrats no longer in control of the House of Representatives, Mr. Obama will not be able to pass any major Democratic policy initiatives now, no matter how much political capital he might be willing to stake on them. Meanwhile, the Republicans control only the House, not the Senate. In contrast to Bill Clinton — who faced opposition control of both houses of Congress after his first midterm election — Mr. Obama may never have to use his veto pen. 
I suspect that the whirlwind last two years of the historic 111th Congress have thrown off everyone's normal expectations of how things work, and a bit of a re-set is in order. The current Congress, of course, is not going to pass anything as major as the ACA or the failed climate/energy bill. However, recall that Bill Clinton was able to get both S-CHIP and a significant minimum wage increase through Republican Congresses in the 1990s. Is there any possibility of a similar success now? Sure; education fits that well. If the current balance persists, I could easily imagine an S-CHIP sized climate bill with a fighting chance, but as Matt Yglesias notes the president seems to be just surrendering, for now, on that issue. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a new initiative next year, however.

Don't forget that welfare reform, too, was a Clinton initiative, although I don't think there's anything really analogous in the Obama playbook. Instead, we're more likely to get non-ideological technocrat things such as tax reform and government reorganization. They aren't health care or environment -- but they're still Democratic policy initiatives, and the president will still need to make choices about which ones to push, and how hard.

As far as vetoing anything...I suspect that Silver is dead wrong about that, although much depends on GOP strategy. If Republicans in the House mainly take symbolic votes to please their base -- like the ACA repeal vote -- then their bills will die a quick death in the Senate. It's highly likely, however, that over time they (and the GOP minority in the Senate) will shift to finding ways of forcing tough votes for marginal Democratic Senators, votes on bills or amendments that are popular (or at least thought to be popular) but which liberals don't like. In that situation, it's easy to predict that marginal Democratic Senators scramble for safety, rather than volunteering to fall on grenades to spare Barack Obama from taking the hit.

So, no, the 112th isn't going to be anything like the historic 111th Congress, but that doesn't mean that Obama can ignore what's going on at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There's still plenty of legislative drama, or perhaps no-drama, to come.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nothing Shows Love of Constitution Like Amending It (Lots of Times)

I have a post up at Greg Sargent's Plum Line talking about the Balanced Budget Amendment and Speaker Boehner's choices as he navigates around conservative activists. I argue that Constitutional amendments are a logical strategy for him, although it's not clear whether it will work.

Hey -- I haven't run a contest around here for a while, and the last one has so far fizzled (hey, I never expected a serious impeachment effort this soon, but I really did think that some backbencher would go for the big media hit and introduce an impeachment resolution by now).

So: how many, and which, Constitutional amendments will actually reach the House floor this year? None? Just the BBA? More? Which one(s)? Fame and glory to those who nail this one; be sure, by the way, to note any that you think will actually pass in the House.

Keeping ACA Myths Alive

I skipped the GOP response to the State of the Union because, well, I always skip the out-party response; they're invariably dull, pointless affairs, and a long time ago I decided that it was a perfectly safe choice to just never watch them. I think the last one I watched involved four Democrats, and one of them was Tom Daschle...when he was still in the House (looking it up: hey, it was twelve Democrats, a strategy that died when Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection).

However, I'm glad to see that Michele Bachmann's alternate response relied, according to TPM, on one of the best ACA myths: the army of IRS agents supposedly hired to enforce the new law. Why do I like this particular myth so much? What's especially fun about it is the way that the number varies in different tellings. Bachmann picked a relatively low value, 16,500 -- but she gets points for the 500 part, in that it adds the kind of specificity that gives these things their special verisimilitude. In fact, I believe that 16.5K was the original number, although -- and I'm afraid I've lost my convenient link to this, so you'll have to trust my memory -- anything from 16K to 20K, at least, has been used.

Of course, the big question for Bachmann is whether the IRS has already hired these mythical agents to enforce the mythical ten years of revenues to go with six years of benefits. That answer I'd tune in to see.

Actual News From the SOTU

Afghanistan. I'll admit that I don't hear everything that Barack Obama says, but to my ears at least he went pretty far last night into new territory. It wasn't, to be sure, a "Mission Accomplished" statement, but he sure seemed to embrace a story in which his plans are working and as a result it's close to time to start packing up and leaving. Here's the text:
We’ve also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad.  In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces.  Our purpose is clear:  By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency.  There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance.  But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.  This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead.  And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.  
Contrast that with last year's SOTU:
And in Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.  (Applause.)  We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans -- men and women alike.  (Applause.)  We're joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose.  There will be difficult days ahead.  But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.
Those "difficult days ahead" are now only "tough fighting ahead," which sounds, especially in context, a whole lot milder to me. And while it's true that he did include the July 2011 date last year, the entire section was framed in future tense, as if it was a brand new conflict that began with the Obama presidency, not one that stretched back almost a decade. This year, he sounds as if he's laying the groundwork for declaring victory and going home. And, of course, talking about removing troops eighteen months in advance is a lot less clear than the same thing only six months in the future. There's still nothing precise about what it means to "begin a transition" and "begin to bring our troops home," but neither is he giving himself much (rhetorical) wiggle room here. He's clearly staking out a position that things are starting to go well in Afghanistan, and that's going to be the position on which people judge him going forward, I think.


First of all, I sure hope the seating arrangement was a one-time gimmick; it spoiled most of the fun of the thing. Beyond that, and leaving aside whatever policy stuff was in there and just thinking of a critique of the language employed, all I can come up with would be:

Top Ten Reasons For The "Quality" Of Tonight's State of the Union Speech

10. Part of complex, sneaky plan to lower expectations for 2012 debates, convention speech.

9. WH planns to write speech over weekend thwarted by Oxygen Channel's "Buffy" Marathon (and can you blame them?).

8. Once speechwriters realized it was going to be the same day as the Oscar nomination, they knew no one would be listening anyway.

7. Actually, an academic team convinced CoS Daley to substitute cheezy, soporific speech for normal speech as part of a study of partisan responses to innocuous rhetoric.

6. Gotcha! Obama, like Jimmy James, celebrates April Fool's Day on randomly selected day to catch people totally unaware. Also, Anna Eshoo and Ben Quayle both got slimed when president asked them trick question designed to elicit "I don't know."

5. Weird. Mirror universe Obama SOTU totally awesome, leads to solutions within six years for climate change, cancer, and budget problems. Also puts American on Mars in ten years, which begins a chain of events in which earth is conquered by Romulans.

4. White House read Gallup table in Ezra Klein's blog, rationally decided to blow off SOTU to prepare for elaborate staff Super Bowl pool.

3. You know when Jeannie had a cold and blinked wrong and Major Nelson's moon trip got all screwy? It was something like that.

2. Incredibly advanced scientific methodology discovered key swing, tipping point voter for 2012 is this one woman in Cincinnati, who really, really, loves bland crap like that. And of course has a thing for salmon jokes.

1. Every good line in every Democratic President's SOTU from 1961 through last year? All written by Ted Sorensen.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SOTU 1998

Ezra Klein:
According to Gallup's table, the only State of the Union that had a really significant impact on a president's approval ratings was Bill Clinton's 1998 address, which lifted his favorables from 59 percent to 69 percent. And looking at approval numbers for that year, it looks like that benefit stuck with Clinton for a bit. So how'd he do it?
In fact, what happened between Gallup polls that year was not just Clinton's SOTU, but also the first news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which dominated the news in the week ending with the speech. Fortunately, we know a lot about this because there's a great article about it by the political scientist John Zaller, "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science" (speaking of how to title your academic papers...; link is gated, but look around and you'll find it).

What Zaller finds is that the initial news of the (at that point alleged) affair hurt Clinton's approval ratings for two days, during which time the news was totally negative, but after that, as Clinton fought back and the news became balanced, his approval ratings bounced back to a higher level than they had been initially. His hypothesis is that, basically, the new higher ratings reflected peace, prosperity, and policy moderation. The main effect of the scandal in that first week, he speculates, was to force people to drop their standing decision on the president and re-evaluate it in the current circumstances and they liked what they saw. It's a great essay, and I recommend the whole thing.

At any rate, getting back to the question of "how'd he do it?" -- the answer is almost certainly not about the speech, but about the Lewinsky scandal (one note: the dates in Gallup's table today don't seem to correspond exactly with the dates in Zaller's paper, but since he uses polls by multiple organizations, I don't think it matters much). So while I recommend watching it anyway for those who want to see a real master of that particular setting -- Clinton was better at delivering joint sessions than, I think, any other president in the television age -- it's not going to tell you much about what Barack Obama should do tonight.

(Ronald Reagan was probably second-best during the TV age at addressing joint sessions of Congress, but I think he never found a way to get the setting to enhance his style; his best performances were elsewhere).

From House to White House

Aaron Blake argues today that present-day circumstances make it more likely that Members of the House can win presidential nominations, something that as he notes hasn't happened for some time. He points to former Speaker Newt Gingrich and current Members Mike Pence and Michele Bachmann as potentially viable national candidates this time around.

I continue to disagree.  Let's see what we have here.

First, I think Blake undercounts past House candidacies during recent (post-reform) history. Blake list four serious candidates: Richard Gephardt in 1988, Jack Kemp '88, John Anderson '80, and Mo Udall '76. I think one would have to add Gephardt '04 to that list; while his campaign fizzled, it was certainly a serious effort, much more so in my view than Anderson's (which drew some votes, but at no point had anything close to a chance of claiming the nomination).

At any rate, Blake's list undermines his claim that things "have begun to change." Counting Gephardt ('88), Kemp, Anderson, and Udall, we get four serious candidates in the six open nomination battles 1972-1988, and either one (Gephardt '96) or none in the seven open contests 1992-2008. Hard to call that a rally for the House!

What about candidates of any kind? Blake sets up 2008, with four candidates (Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Dennis Kucinich) as a step in the House's direction. Perhaps. I count the following as candidates for major-party nomination for president who had never reached higher than the House of Representatives to that point, and ignoring clear favorite son candidacies:

1972: Shirley Chisolm, Pete McCloskey, John Ashbrook.
1976: Udall
1980: Anderson, Phil Crane
1984: none
1988: Gephardt, Kemp, Pat Schroeder
1992: none
1996: Bob Dornan
2000: John Kasich
2004: Gephardt, Kucinich
2008: Paul, Hunter, Kucinich, Tancredo

I don't think I missed anyone, unless wikipedia also missed it.

So 2008 was, indeed, a high point for pure numbers, although certainly not for serious candidates.

As far as the substance, I've been over this recently with the excellent reporter David S. Bernstein. Take fundraising: yes, on-line appeals do allow previously unknown candidates a mechanism for raising money quickly. But really; Blake is impressed by the $13M that Bachmann raised in 2010. It's a lot. But Al Franken and Norm Coleman raised almost twice as much to run for Senate from Minnesota in 2008, and a presidential campaign -- at least one launched in order to attempt to win a nomination -- takes far, far more.

More broadly: running for president is about building a coalition big enough to reach a majority of a national political party. Running for the House just isn't very good training for it. House districts are small, with relatively few interests, and a very small primary electorate. Win a Senate nomination (or win a gubernatorial nomination and then serve as governor) and you are almost forced to work outside of your comfort zone, to learn how to expand your coalition.

That doesn't mean it's impossible for a Member of the House to win the presidency. I do think that Gephardt was a legitimate contender both times (as was Udall, but that had something to do with the newly reformed, and therefore unsettled, process of the time). Mainly, what I think is that since at least 1984 every nominee has been a coalition-style candidate, not a factional leader -- and that there are systematic reasons to expect that to continue, and systematic reasons to expect those who have won statewide office to be better coalition-building candidates than those who have not succeeded, or even competed, at that level.

(Update: dates corrected)

Catch of the Day

Via Friedersdorf, John Tierney rips into Kennedy family (successful) efforts to keep RFK's papers, including his Attorney General papers, secret. I love this:
We are just coming off one of our periodic paroxysms of hagiographic hype about the Kennedy family.  (I may have more to say about this in a future post.) Some of what we've seen in recent weeks is perfectly legitimate -- observance of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration as president and the passing of Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver.  But in the past month we've also been treated to widespread news reports about the death of Teddy Kennedy's 13-year-old dog, Splash; weepy commentary about how this month marks the first time in sixty years that there hasn't been a Kennedy in Congress; and Camelot-coated ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's swearing-in as Attorney General.  (Really?  The 50th anniverary of a cabinet officer's swearing-in? Please.)  This sort of thing is orchestrated by the Kennedy family and their legion of acolytes and media flacks. 
I know a lot of liberals find the hype surrounding Ronald Reagan to be annoying, but it's really nothing compared to Kennedy worship -- and, as Tierney suggests, it doesn't come close in terms of buy-in by the press. Well, at least outside of the GOP partisan press. 

On the other hand, I found the personal post-professional reputation campaigns by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter even more annoying. And at least Ted Kennedy was a terrific, first-rate Senator, who used the Kennedy hype to help him in getting a huge amount of work done. Still, I'm glad that nepotism and dynastic politics appears to be at least to some extent diminishing, Mitt Romney notwithstanding. At least until the GOP feels its safe to go back to another Bush, that is.

Monday Movie Post

I thought a lot about whether I had anything to say about Caprica, the ill-fated Battlestar Gallactica prequel. I had written about Ron Moore earlier, about Gallactica and his earlier show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (as I said then, there's enough thematic overlap that I've chosen to believe that Moore is responsible for all the stuff I like in DS9, whatever the actual facts are. Anyway, I figured I'd write about Caprica, but when I got around to watching the final episodes, I had a lot of trouble figuring out what to say about its politics, and decided to walk away...until Seth Masket posted an interesting item on the show, which got me thinking again until I realized what's interesting, to me at least, about it.

When I wrote about BSG/DS9 earlier, I focused on the religion and politics aspects, which I think is truly fascinating about the two shows. I also mentioned the question of terrorism in both shows, and questions about war and politics more generally. What I didn't really talk about is a major theme of Gallactica and a fairly important one in DS9: military/civilian relations.

What's odd, then, about Caprica is that outside of the police and some brief allusions to the military, there's very little in the way of the government in the series. The show is certainly, I think, set in the world of politics (terrorism is a major theme of this series too), and continues Moore's interest in religion and politics, but there are no politicians here. Of course, in an aborted series such as this one, you can only speculate about what would have been added in seasons two and more, and therefore it's always dicey to speculate about the meaning of something missing from what we did see, but, well, I'll do it anyway.

Moore's characters are, it seems to me, rather obsessed with governing a world in which formal politics -- which presumably exists -- is little more than fodder for Jay Leno; it isn't connected with the actual, real politics of people's lives. What the characters are doing here is intensely political, whether it's the monotheists terrorism, or Daniel's world-creation, or the struggles of the Adama clan within their mob, which like the mob in The Godfather is certainly presented as sort of alternate politics for those who are dismissed from the normal political world. All of which, in a way, is paralleled by the anarchic nihilism of V-World.

If this is a show, then, about a culture that is so corrupt to the core that it (almost?) deserves to be destroyed a few years down the road (which certainly has to be at least one interpretation of what's going on), then the challenge is to figure out what, exactly is corrupt about that sort of politics. Is it that the offscreen government has become what Jay Leno says our government has become, a corrupt, irrelevant punch line? Is it the disconnect between the intensely political nature of our characters -- and, really, the more I think about it the more I'm convinced that they are intensely political -- and the private, clannish, or even purely personal arenas in which they play out their political instincts?

I'm going to stop with those questions, and not try to write answers, because this is going to be long enough already. Meanwhile, some business to take care of. It's really hard to evaluate a show that's as truncated as this one turned out to be. I can say that unlike Gallactica (and more like DS9), the cast of this one, it seems to me, was decidedly mixed. I have very little use for Eric Stoltz, who I guess was more or less the star, and of the front-line players, I'm not sure I'd put anyone in the category of outstanding. The show had a lot of trouble juggling plot lines, exemplified by poor forgotten Tamara, who was sometimes a major character and then sometimes was entirely ignored. Some of that, of course, might have been cleared up had they had more time. The world-building stuff, I thought, worked a lot less well off the enclosed environment of Gallactica, with some of the "just like us, only a bit off" things working, but others, to me at least, seeming forced.

I also thought that the portrayal of religion was less interesting than in either Gallactica or DS9 -- with the obvious caveat that they obviously were going to expand it had the series continued. I guess in Caprica, the monotheists always seemed to me a lot more like terrorists with a religious excuse for self-aggrandizement than like believers who were led to places they would never have gone were it not for their belief. Nor did this show, unlike the other two, really explore different shades and intensities of religious experience.

All told, it's a hard show to recommend, I suppose, although I certainly enjoyed it enough that I'm glad I watched it, and I wish it had continued (although part of that, no doubt, is the trust that Moore -- and collaborators, including Jane Espenson -- have built up over time). If you're not inclined to enjoy science fiction settings, this is probably one to skip, but if you tailed off after the first few episodes, I'd probably recommend coming back and watching through the season, albeit without especially high expectations.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Sort-of Demise of Sort-of Senate Reform

Yes, it looks like Senate reformers are going to settle for, at best, a few crumbs.

This is not a big deal.

First, any reform, including moving to a pure majority-party-rules Senate, would not have made much of a difference as far as legislation is concerned in this Congress. There's very little that could get 51 votes in the Senate, 218 in the House, and the president's signature and not get 60 in the Senate. Reform could make a bit more difference on nominations, but the actual proposals involved were unlikely to get there. I continue to believe that the "make them talk" reform is pointless and wrongheaded, and in practice wouldn't have actually changed anything; the demise of "live" filibusters was for the convenience of the majority, not the minority, and it's unlikely that the Merkley/Udall plan would have changed that. And the idea of dropping the possibility of filibustering the motion to proceed, whatever its merits overall, is irrelevant to nominations, where it's already the case that the motion to proceed cannot be debated. That leaves secret holds -- and there, I continue to believe that the issue is holds, not their secrecy.

Second, whatever Tom Udall has been saying, there's nothing special about the first day of the Congress. There is, in fact, a fair chance that we're going to have serious nominations gridlock in the 112th Senate, much worse than in the 111th, with 41 or more Republicans simply refusing to vote for anyone that Barack Obama nominates (or, perhaps, anyone he nominates for certain higher-profile categories, such as circuit court appointments, or cabinet-level appointments). If that's the case, there's nothing at all in the rules or the Constitution to keep Democrats from revisiting the rules, and proposing (and if necessary invoking by simple majority) reforms a lot more significant than what Udall and Merkley were talking about at this point.

Third, this has always been, I believe, about the long haul. Liberal activists are going to continue to demand in 2012, even more than they did in 2010, that Senate candidates run on filibuster reform. Remember, Democrats elected in the middle of the last decade were making the exact opposite pledges; they were valiantly standing up for the traditions of the Senate and minority rights against George W. Bush, Trent Lott, and Bill Frist. It takes some time for these things to change, and if Democrats retain the White House and a Senate majority after 2012, reform becomes a lot more likely -- and that's even more the case if the Democrats also win the House, and the filibuster again becomes a major factor in legislating.

The Merkley/Udall proposals, in my view, have never gone beyond the superficial and the symbolic. I continue to believe that the status quo hasn't been stable since Bob Dole shifted to a 60 vote Senate in 1993; any time the same party controls both Houses of Congress and the White House, the pressure for Senate reform is going to start building. My hope, as someone who opposes both the full 60 vote Senate and simple majority party rules, is that we'll wind up getting a compromise that enables individual Senators to still have plenty of influence. Either way, however, I'm confident that (assuming the reports are correct) the demise of Merkley/Udall is just a very minor bump on the road to whatever the Senate will look like in the future.

Repeal Vote Strategy in the Senate, Again

I'm following up here on last week's discussion of the possibility that Democrats could bring up ACA repeal in the Senate in order to force Republicans to take a series of tough votes on amendments. Barry Pump has a worthwhile post in which he surveys the relevant classic political science literature and reminds us that what's often important is what Members of Congress think will matter in elections, even if we find that voters don't actually behave as Members think they do.

That's true, and always worth pointing out. I'm not sure it changes my sense that it's a poor strategy for Democrats, however. It's still the case that any Republican afraid of being tarred as an opponent of closing the donut hole can be so attacked just from the final repeal vote; I'm not sure why we should expect Republican Senators to be more scared of the series of individual votes than the one big one, in this context.

Which gets back to Ezra Klein's original speculation that no Member of Congress ever really loses a seat over that kind of vote, or even that such manufactured votes ever become major campaign issues. Against that, Pump offers the case of Bart Stupak:
[A]fter his compromise became “The Stupak Amendment” that managed the unenviable task of pissing off both liberals (for restricting abortion access) and conservatives (for seemingly “caving” on his pro-life stance), his district became a flash point in the national debate that it wouldn’t have been had he not played such an important role in the controversial compromise. This meets the semi-embarrassing vote criteria in Klein’s challenge because Republicans were threatening an abortion provision in the motion to recommit. 
If we're willing to accept the idea that the abortion issue in ACA was essentially manufactured in order to generate tough votes for pro-life Democrats, which I don't know that everyone would grant, but I probably would...still, c'mon. If the counter-example is the guy who put his name on the compromise to the extremely volatile abortion issue on an extremely high-visibility issue...well, my guess is that if that's all you have, then Members can feel pretty safe just plain voting for lower-visibility amendments on lower-visibility issues (and, yes, I think it's highly unlikely that ACA repeal '11 will be as visible as ACA passage '10, much less that symbolic amendment votes on the entirely symbolic ACA repeal vote will be high salience in the next election cycle). 

At any rate, what kind of tough votes would matter? Two kinds, I should think. One would be a vote that asks a Member who plans to vote for final passage to commit to something controversial in addition to whatever she already would be on record for with the final passage vote. The other would be an amendment that appears to be popular for a Member who supports the bill, but would undermine the underlying bill in some way if it passed. In this case, I don't think that either applies. Nothing can really undermine the repeal bill, because everyone knows it isn't going anywhere, so who cares if amendments pass that render it hypothetically unworkable public policy?

So: if the Democrats go ahead with this, as apparently they may do, I agree that Republicans will be more afraid of the consequences of their votes than is warranted by any evidence of how elections really work. I'm just not sure how Democrats can use it to their advantage.

Advantures in Foolish Early Polling (Yes, It's a Palin Item)

Via an approving tweet from Ezra, Public Policy Polling makes much of the idea that Sarah Palin runs much worse than other Republicans against Barack Obama in Texas.

Look, this kind of polling is just meaningless. Republicans are extremely unlikely to nominate a candidate who is unpopular among Republicans, including Republican-leaning independents. Not just because such a candidate won't win primaries and caucuses -- but because such a candidate that does win will receive highly favorable coverage from the Republican partisan press, and therefore become popular among most Republicans.

It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that a party could nominate a candidate intensely supported by 51% of the party but hated by the other 49% so much that even positive coverage in the partisan press won't matter; it's even theoretically possible that a factional candidate with an even smaller base of intense supporters could win a nomination with even less support if that faction turns out to vote in disproportionate numbers. However, nothing like that has happened in the last thirty years, and there is good reason to believe that it is at the very least highly improbable.

Now, it is of course true that there may be some variation in how popular a nominee might be, but for out-parties the odds are that it won't make a whole lot of difference. Presidential approval matters a whole lot more than how well-liked the challenger is.

As long as I'm at it, the even more obvious reason to ignore a lot of this kind of polling is that while it may be theoretically possible that a party could nominate a candidate who remains unpopular, it certainly isn't possible for a party to nominate a candidate who remains unknown. Even testing Mitt Romney at this point is probably going to undervalue his strength because low-information voters may not recognize his name and therefore be reluctant to say they'll vote for him, and that's even more the case with lesser-known candidates.

Bottom line is that head-to-head general election polling at this point just can't do what PPP wants, which is to tell us which candidates will do better against Obama in fall 2012 -- because we really can't know what the nominee will look like after another year of invisible primary, after Iowa and New Hampshire, after the rest of the primaries and caucuses, after spending months as the nominee pre-convention, and after getting the three day propaganda-fest that is the modern national party convention.

Electoral College Advantage

Have Democrats developed an electoral college advantage?

Throughout the 1980s, Republicans and some gullible reporters (and not a few easily-intimidated Democrats) assured us that there was a GOP electoral college lock on the presidency. Just look at all those states Ronald Reagan (and then George H.W. Bush) won! Even if Republicans lost some swing states, all they had to do was to win the states that they always won, and they would win the presidency.

This worked just fine...until an election came along in which the Democratic candidate received more votes than the Republican candidate, and it turned out the "lock" was meaningless.

Well, all it's taken is a grand total of one election for Chris Cillizza to roll out a reverse version of the argument. See, he says, Barack Obama is in great shape for 2012:
[A] detailed examination of the national map heading into 2012 suggests that the president still sits in a strong position for reelection - able to lose half a dozen (or more) swing states he carried in 2008 and still win the 270 electoral votes he needs for a second term. 
The problem with this kind of analysis is that it ignores the possibility that the Republican candidate might actually do better than the Democratic candidate overall. If that happened, it wouldn't just be the states that Obama won narrowly that would swing to the GOP; it could be lots of marginal states. Cillizza's "detailed examination" is meaningless; all he's telling us is that Obama won big in 2008 and could do a lot worse and still win. That's true -- but Democrats in 1968 and Republicans in 1976 could tell you that large swings from election to election are quite possible. As could George H.W. Bush.

Usually, it's safe to assume that the winner of the popular vote will win the electoral college. In very close races, such as the 2000 contest, that can obviously go wrong...but both parties are capable, over the last few decades, of winning decisively overall, and if so they'll win the electoral college, too.

The correct way to check for an electoral college advantage is to see what would happen in tie races by shifting each state equally to reflect a tie result. Up until recently, it turns out that neither party had any kind of advantage in the electoral college.

It is perhaps worth noting that while the college tilted to the Republican in the only modern election in which it actually mattered, since 2000 the college has tilted dramatically to the Democrats. In 2004, John Kerry lost the popular vote by 3% to George W. Bush, but would have won had Ohio, which Bush won by 2.5%, swung to the Democrats (and a universal swing of that size would have brought New Mexico and Iowa with Ohio, leaving Bush with a narrow popular vote lead but a 284-254 electoral college loss).

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won the overall vote by a bit over 7 percentage points, but only a few states -- Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana -- went to Obama by less than that margin; in an evenly shifted 50/50 election, John McCain would have added 72 electoral votes and lost 293-245. Even a ten point shift to McCain only adds another 20 electoral votes and leaves him a solid popular vote winner but an electoral college loser. Only after that does McCain start grabbing a large electoral college lead.

Electoral college advantages are certainly theoretically possible. A party will have an advantage if it does better in small states than large ones, all else equal; or, more likely, it will have an advantage if its votes are distributed more efficiently, with the other party wasting votes in huge landslides in large states. As I said, this doesn't seem to have been the case generally over time. For every Republican Wyoming there's a Democratic Rhode Island, and for every GOP wasted margin in Texas there's a Dem wasted margin in New York. So we'll see if 2004 and especially 2008 is a trend that sticks, giving Democrats a real advantage, but my guess is that it's just a fluke.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

I suppose it should be a SOTU question, with the big (such as it is) speech coming this week, and details beginning to be leaked out/pre-spun.

I want to set up a choice about what liberals should want out of the speech. The two things I can toss in are that, on the one hand, these speeches are never nearly as important as reporters treat them as in terms of presidential approval. They might make a bit of difference short term, but mostly they're forgotten in a few days, and any polling effect is gone rapidly. On the other hand, there's also no evidence that I know of that "bully pulpit" stuff works well in the long term.

Given all that, here's the two choices I can imagine. One is to go with poll-tested and focus group tested pablum designed to maximize short-term popularity for the president. Don't sneeze at that; my guess is that it really does make a difference whether the president is at 55% or 45% approval if there's a real budget showdown in a couple of months, and even though SOTU alone won't make nearly that much of a difference, it might, conceivably, be a piece of it. The other direction is to preach the liberal gospel, knowing that there will be a cost in short term approval for the president (not because liberal ideas are unpopular, but because by definition, as I set this out, the alternative is designed to maximize short-term approval), and knowing, as I said, that there's no evidence that long-term public opinion would in fact be affected by such a speech.

There is, by the way, something else that SOTU speeches actually can and do accomplish, which is to communicate the president's priorities to Washingtonians (that is, to Congress, to lobbyists, to activists). Presidents may not be able to affect public opinion very much (or, possibly, at all), but they certainly can put something on the Washington agenda, and high-profile speeches are opportunities to do so. However, for the most part that can be done in the context of either one of the above options, so I'm leaving that part of it off of the question: should the president try to maximize immediate public reaction to the speech, or should he try to maximize long-term education?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Addressed to conservatives, as always, but this time everyone is welcome to play along, since it's only to conservatives by circumstance, not ideology.  The State of the Union response is a hopeless task; poor Bobby Jindal is still, I think, recovering from his fiasco. So: time to think creatively about this. Is there any way to make a SOTU response good TV? Or is it really just a pointless task -- and if so, should the out-party just not bother?

Insult of the Week

While the main topic is some other politician, and the piece as a whole is only so-so, I liked that the NYT's Robert Mackey treated Osama bin Laden and Terry Jones as equals back on Friday.

And not the real Terry Jones, either.

So, in the spirit of mocking bin Laden by treating him as the equal of some guy who managed to get in the headlines for a few minutes, I'll present three quotations, and let you guess which of these three newsmakers -- Osama bin Laden, Terry Jones, or Terry Jones -- said which:

1. "You're always on about it. 'Will the girls like this? Will the girls like that? Is it too big? Is it too small?'"

2. "The text, vic! Don't say the text!"

3. "We use choicest juicy chunks of fresh Cornish ram's bladder, emptied, steamed, flavoured with sesame seeds, whipped into a fondue and garnished with lark's vomit."


Saturday, January 22, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

Well, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the ACA repeal vote. Or who's giving the Republican response to the SOTU. The China summit? Tunisia? The regulations initiative? I don't know -- what do you think mattered this week?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The GOP War On Budgeting

I think I'm finally beginning to understand GOP thinking about fiscal policy. It's not that they're at war, as Krugman thought, with logic. Or, as Jonathan Chait writes, with arithmetic. Or even with CBO, as Ezra Klein concludes. It's the concept of budgeting that they don't like.

That's my takeaway from Greg Mankiw's seemingly bizarre post yesterday, in which he mocked Democrats on health care:
I have a plan to reduce the budget deficit.  The essence of the plan is the federal government writing me a check for $1 billion.  The plan will be financed by $3 billion of tax increases.  According to my back-of-the envelope calculations, giving me that $1 billion will reduce the budget deficit by $2 billion.
For Mankiw, and for Charles Krauthammer, who has a very similar column today, this is self-evidently foolish as a deficit reduction plan. Put aside casual misdirection (both of them imply that ACA raises spending and taxes, but in fact there's also quite a bit of spending cuts in ACA -- something that Republican politicians have made a chief talking point against reform). Put aside too outright lies and myths; Krauthammer embraces 10/6, which Chait once again destroys. Put aside, too, that Mankiw's "plan" of giving $1B to him personally isn't actually conceptually different from real-life plans to give very wealthy people very large tax cuts, without the corresponding new revenues or spending cuts to balance them, that Mankiw has supported in the past.

No, just take them at face value. What's going on? What is Mankiw telling us?

It's the idea of a budget they don't like. Here's NRO's Reihan Salam, applauding Mankiw's post:
In my view, it is conceptually useful to think of the spending component and the revenue-raising component of PPACA separately. Why? Because there are much better ways to raise the same amount of revenue, e.g., by eliminating or paring back the mortgage interest deduction and the state and local tax deduction, among other thing. My sense is that thinking of revenue-raising mechanisms separately leads us to better public policy conclusions. 
I don't want to stretch what Salam said too far, but let's just say it pointed me to a way through the confusion that I've had, and that I think others have had, about conservative budget thinking, and makes sense of Mankiw -- and of GOP opposition to PAYGO, support for unfunded tax cuts, and the rest of the Republican fiscal stew.

To understand what they're saying, just throw out the entire concept of a budget.

So: to characterize conservative talk about revenues and spending, I think what I'd say is that conservatives believe that each program, and every tax, should be judged on its own merits. If a spending program is necessary, like missile defense, then it should be fully funded. If not, it should not be funded. On revenues, the justification for any sort of taxation is that citizens should have "skin in the game," and therefore everyone should pay the same, small amount. Any more taxes, and any more spending, are by this way of thinking fiscally irresponsible.

Now, you may note at this point that there's nothing in that formula to make government revenues equal government spending. As far as I can tell, that's correct; conservatives aren't interested in that question. Oh, there's plenty of lip service about "budget deficits," but the point is that they've never made sense if you read "budget deficit" as "government revenues minus government spending."  It does, however, suddenly make sense if you translate "budget deficit" to mean "unwarranted spending or taxes." Regardless, that is, of how changes in that would add up.

That's why the whole concept of a fiscally sound bill that involves new spending on health care is nonsensical to conservatives who believe that individual health care just isn't the job of the federal government, a conclusion that liberals find baffling. Yes, in the trenches, some Republicans have made specific arguments about why the CBO score is wrong. But you can tell, I think, that their hearts aren't really into it -- or at least, that would explain the poor quality of some of their arguments, such as the idea that the cost of "doc fix" somehow or another is both a cost of passing and of repealing ACA. Whatever, they seem to be saying; why are we even debating this, when it's self-evident that increasing the scope of government responsibilities to include some form of universal health care, even if it's structured by creating markets, is a mistake.

That still doesn't excuse shenanigans like 10/6, which is just factually wrong. And, of course, it doesn't mean that Republicans are correct. And it certainly doesn't excuse actual deficit hawks, people who really do want government receipts to equal government expenditures, from mistakenly believing that folks like Paul Ryan are their allies. All it means is that, when listening to liberals and conservatives debate the budget, remember that they're often talking past each other -- because, I strongly suspect, they're just using the same words to talk about two different things.
Who links to my website?