Monday, February 28, 2011

Military Spending Follow-Up

Yesterday's question for liberals around these parts was why Democrats haven't pushed as hard for spending cuts in national security as they did during the Reagan, GHWB, and early Clinton years. Robert Farley has some ideas, including a suggestion that the distribution of military spending has changed in a way that makes more Democratic districts dependent on such programs. Could be! I'm definitely not familiar with any literature there is on this (beyond knowing that, in fact, military contractors appear to locate jobs strategically in order to build support in Congress).

I'll also point people interested in the topic to Andrew Sprung's typically fascinating reading of Barack Obama's Saturday radio message from this weekend.

Which reminds me that it's always worthwhile to remember that even those of us who pay very close attention to politics and government miss lots of what's being said. I can't remember how many times I've heard someone complain that "Democrats should be saying..." only to launch into something that I've heard coming from more than one Democrat, sometimes even including the President of the United States. So I should add: I see there was at least one relevant amendment proposed during the CR debate a couple of weeks ago, offered by Barbara Lee, that would have cut military spending; it received 6 GOP votes and 70 votes from Democrats, with 114 Democrats opposed.

Tom P. Baxter, Presidential Candidate?

It is true, as Jeff Zeleny reported in the Sunday NYT, that one of Newt Gingrich's problems as a presidential candidate is his personal history.

However, the idea that absent his divorces Newt would be a strong candidate is just silly. First of all, Newt's severe lack of popularity predates his second divorce and remarriage; he was terribly unpopular during most of his years as Speaker. So we're talking about someone who has been out of office for over a decade and wasn't popular nationally when he was in office. Not to mention that capturing a presidential nomination without rising about the House hasn't been done in over a century, anyway.

But second, and probably more to the point -- Newt Gingrich is a snake-oil salesman, and he was fully exposed during his run as Speaker. It's possible that Zeleny is correct that "Rival Republicans marvel at his deep well of ideas, his innate intellect and his knowledge of government," but unlikely that those marveling Republicans would include those who served with him in the House in 1995-1998. That's among the reasons they were prepared to toss him out when he saw the jig was up and quit.

Zeleny's story is a good example of the Gingrich style. There's a lot of overheated, general-purpose rhetoric: "The president is replacing the rule of law with the rule of Obama." "Does [the GOP] want to be a party prepared to replace the failed institutions and move to a very bold new approach?" Newt is always on the side of revolutionary change, bold new approaches, breaking through politics-as-usual. And, as always, Newt is convinced that the crisis is here, right now; Zeleny has Newt telling him that 2012 is going to be an election like 1860 and 1932 -- but I'd be shocked if Newt hasn't said that about every election since he was old enough to read the newspapers.

Meanwhile, the only substantive quotation in the article is gibberish: speaking of religion, Newt says that "To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979...In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life." The second part, about the cultural elite and driving out God is fairly normal Christian conservative rhetoric. Newt's special part is the first part: that USA 2011 is just like Poland in 1979. The Newt touch is to add the veneer of Serious Intellectual Heft to whatever he's saying. Often, it's with citations to some trendy book he's adopted; here, it's a fatuous historical analogy. As usual, the "analysis" doesn't bear more than a second's thought (Poland? In 1979? How? Has the US been a Soviet client for thirty years, and we haven't noticed it?). It's not supposed to; the purpose of these things is to remind everyone, or at least the gullible, that Newt is an "ideas man."

As a presidential candidate, Newt is...well, he's less of a joke than Donald Trump, but more of a joke than Sarah Palin has been (unlike Newt, she has a solid, enthusiastic faction devoted to her). I was pretty unkind to reporters who take him seriously here, and I don't see any reason to change that opinion. Oh, and the worst thing about Zeleny's story? How about his reference to the "books, movies and other mementos that help finance the operations of Mr. Gingrich’s array of business enterprises." Huh? Newt Gingrich is entitled, as anyone else is, to sell a bunch of crap to dupes and cash in on his fame and government service, but "help finance the operations...?" Sheesh. I was at the county fair once and bought food on a stick for an outrageous price; I thought they were making a profit, but I guess they were just helping to finance the operations of their array of business enterprises.

Update: forgot to include a link to Andrew Sullivan's takedown of Newt's dishonest babbling in reaction to the Obama/Holder DOMA position. Sullivan calls Newt "intellectually vapid," which is exactly right, and really it's just sad that there are reporters who keep falling for the act.

The Brits Rate the Presidents

Via Matthew Dickinson, there's a new expert ranking of the presidents. This time, it's the Brits getting in on the act -- it's a survey of "UK specialists in US history and political studies." I should start off by reminding everyone that ranking presidents, while lots of fun, is essentially a game, not serious analysis. Nevertheless, it's a fun game, and one that I've posted about before, so I'll run through the news we can wring out of this one.

If I had to come up with a headline, it's that the Brits rank Ronald Reagan higher than most similar surveys over in the colonies have -- he's at #8, while the Siena poll last year had him #18. Alas, they love Woodrow Wilson, putting him at #6, which is a bit higher than most, but in my view he's just overrated by everyone. Perhaps similarly, they like Andrew Jackson, who has fallen from the top ten in most recent surveys; they make him #9.

They rank the Big Three FDR first, then Lincoln, then Washington. While if I'm asked I'll reverse that order, I have no real argument with anyone who has those three on top, in any order -- the big gap, as far as I'm concerned, is between 3 and 4.

Of the postwar presidents, the UK survey shows what I'd consider an inexplicable fondness for Jimmy Carter (#18!), and Richard Nixon (#23). Neither has ever ranked that high in an American expert survey. But while Reagan, Carter, and Nixon do well, Bill Clinton (#19) is at the low end of his usual range. This could be an effect of construction...the survey asks scholars to rank the presidents on five qualities, and then averages the results, and Clinton scores extremely low on "moral authority." A different system less interested in that dimension would have him several slots higher. On the other hand, it's interesting that the respondents put Clinton so low (34th of the 40 presidents rated) on moral authority. Especially with Andrew Jackson at 18th and Woodrow Wilson at 5th. For that matter, JFK is 21th on moral authority, so it can't be based on marital fidelity alone (or on honesty with the electorate).

Last note...the Grant rehabilitation stalls a bit on this one, with USG rating a respectable #29, which is better than how he's usually done but not as well as recent American expert surveys rank him.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between the current budget battle and the budget wars of the past (specifically the 1980s through Bill Clinton's first term) is the extent to which that Democrats have accepted current levels of military spending. Yet my impression is that the underlying public opinion hasn't changed much: Democratic voters would support deep cuts in defense spending, while overall defense spending cuts are relatively a lot more popular than cuts to most domestic spending.

Why do you think Democrats are not demanding lower military spending? Is it, in your view, because Democratic policy elites have shifted their (honestly held) views? Is it because Democratic politicians are more afraid now (perhaps as a consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) of the political dangers of being "weak" on defense? Is it because of changes in the Democratic coalition? Changes in the relationship of Democratic politicians to military contracters? (Note on the latter two -- it has to be about changes, if it's producing a changed result). Some other reason?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Suppose that budget compromises run as follows: there are spending cuts in the current (FY 2011) and next (FY 2012) appropriations, but it's about half of what Republicans are proposing. Meanwhile, virtually all of the major policy riders are eliminated -- no defunding of health care reform, no restrictions on EPA, Planned Parenthood continues to be eligible for government funds. Republicans get a vote on a balanced budget amendment, but it falls short. In exchange, Republicans approve appropriations for both years, and increase the debt ceiling.

If Republican Congressional leaders sign off on those deals and GOP Members vote for them in the House, will you consider that success? Failure? A reason to support primary challenges to Members who went along with the deal?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

Another week in which some obvious things take the forefront: Libya (and etc.) and Wisconsin (and etc.). I suppose I do think that some of the commentary on Wisconsin is a bit more apocalyptic than the events can justify, but yes, it's a legitimately important battle, I think.

What else? I'm not sure what I have, so I'll just send it to you: what do you think happened this week that matters?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Yeah, nothing analytic today. Just how great it is to have baseball back, even if it's only spring training. Getting to hear Jon Miller...well, that's pretty much what we wait all winter for. And getting to hear Miller giving the play-by-play of the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants -- wow. Even if, soon enough, the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants were Chris Stewart and Francisco Peguero and Steve Edlefsen and other guys with numbers higher than the years between Giants champion seasons.

And once again, there really is nothing better than MLB Audio, or whatever it is called these days.

Tea Partiers and Conservatives

I think I agree mostly, but disagree in part with Jonathan Chait, Jamelle Bouie, and Steve Benen when they say that Tea Partiers are really just rebranded conservative Republicans. And to go with that I mostly disagree and in part agree with Kevin Drum, who believes that Republicans are a lot more crazy now than they were in the 1990s or the 1980s.

On that last point -- it's important to remember that (if you're going to generalize from the worst of it) Republicans in the 1990s considered Bill Clinton to be a serial murderer who had traveled to Moscow for vague but somehow very relevant nefarious purposes when he was young. And while Drum notes that Rush Limbaugh has apparently taken to making cheap personal attacks on the First Lady, I can't imagine it's anywhere near the mudslinging he habitually engaged in against Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.

So why don't I entirely agree with the former group (and disagree with Drum)? Because institutions matter. Yes, Tea Partiers are almost always going to be the same group that opposed Clinton in the 1990s. But organizationally, they may well be different in important ways this time around. In particular, their eagerness to contest primary elections really does seem to matter. Granted, a few high-profile successes doesn't really mean that Members of Congress are in grave danger if they cast one bad vote. Politicians, however, are notoriously risk-averse when it comes to elections, and frequently overstate such dangers.

It may well make a big difference that Tea Partiers are an organized (or perhaps several organized) factions within the Republican coalition, and not just a bunch of rank and file ready to support the GOP. Now, how it will affect things is yet to be seen. But that's one of the things worth keeping an eye on over the course of the 112th Congress and the 2012 election cycle.

Unemployment Makes a Comeback (Presidential Campaign Version)

I wrote about this recently in the context of the extremely unlikely possibility of Newt Gingrich winning the GOP presidential nomination, but it's worth an item of its own: there's an excellent chance that the current cycle will mark the end of at least one significant nomination streak.

Beginning in 1988, every presidential nominee has had one thing in common -- they've all been employed as elected officials. That's two sitting VPs, four Senators, and three governors. (Yes, Bob Dole was technically out of work for the fall campaign, but he was in office when he captured the nomination).

Before that, however, three consecutive (out-party) nominees were out-of-office pols (ex-governors Carter and Reagan, and former VP Mondale). And the conventional wisdom was that it was a significant advantage to be unemployed, the better to have the time to meet every single voter in Iowa and New Hampshire in the three years leading up to the caucuses and primaries there.

This time, however, it sure looks as if the streak will be broken. Trying to list candidates during the invisible primary stage is always messy, but for now I'll start with two lists published today by Washington insider journalists.  Of the leading active candidates listed by Mike Allen and First Read, only Haley Barbour [SEE UPDATE BELOW] currently holds electoral office -- Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and longshot/joke candidates Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingirch are all out of office. First Read also lists a next tier of possibly active candidates; of those potentially serious contender Mitch Daniels and potentially extremely amusing sideshow Michele Bachmann are current office-holders, while plausible nominee Mike Huckabee and whatever Sarah Palin counts as are not. Might as well finish off the list...on the employed side, Chris Christie gets a mention from First Read, while Ron Paul, Jim DeMint, and Rick Perry do not. Out of office? First Read mentions a few others there, but the only one who is a plausible nominee is Jeb Bush, and unlike the others mentioned in this paragraph he really doesn't appear to running any kind of campaign at all.

So of those who I think have a relatively decent chance of winning, only Barbour, Daniels, DeMint, and Perry would keep the streak alive, with Paul and Bachmann the only others even on the horizon. For what it's worth, the combined Intrade chances of the currently employed total around 25%. That actually seems a bit low to me -- if I were to get into that market, I'd be buying DeMint and Perry -- but at any rate, it does look as if the streak is very likely to end.

[Update: Josh Putnam points out more kindly than I deserve that I totally forgot that Barbour's term expires in January 2012, so he'll be a former office holder during the primaries, caucuses, and general election. So it's even less likely that a currently serving politician will win the GOP nomination]

Palin Watching Is Hard

Mike Allen thinks the Sage of Wasilla isn't running for president:
BIG SIGN SARAH PALIN ISN’T RUNNING: Neither she, nor anyone on her behalf, is courting top donors, early-state activists or experienced operatives – all of whom are getting locked down, day by day.
That's an important piece of news. The things that Allen is talking about here are serious parts of the nomination contest. This isn't fluff.

However, with Sarah Palin, it's important to be careful interpreting tea leaves. Here's the thing: what we've known about Palin from Day 1, ever since John McCain selected her as his running mate, is that she doesn't believe that the normal rules of politics apply to her. Since she's wrong about that, she wound up highly unpopular with the bulk of the electorate, but as far as anyone can tell it hasn't shaken her conviction that she can set her own terms.

What that means is that we can observe whether Palin is doing the kinds of things a candidate would have to do to win the Republican nomination for president, we can only guess about what she really intends to run or not -- because it's quite likely she might enter primaries and caucuses without doing those things. And because she does have a relatively large and loyal following, she would certainly make a lot of noise if she did enter. Even if, as increasingly seems to be the case, she would have little chance to actually win.

I'm not saying that she's going to be running by fall 2011...just that the only way to know is to get inside her head, and none of us are in a position to do that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Outside the Political Junkie Bubble

The best poll finding of the day is that 22% of all Americans believe that Obama health care law has already been repealed, and another 26% aren't sure whether it's been repealed or not.

It's worth giving the full question..."As far as you know, which comes closest to describing the current status of the health reform law that was passed last year?" The choices were "It is still the law of the land" and "It has been repealed and is no longer law," with the rest in either "don't know" or refused to answer. Republicans were twice as likely to believe its been repealed than Democrats (30% of GOP, 12% of Dems).

Remember: if you're reading this blog, odds are good that you're at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge, and more likely you're in the top 1%. And for those of us in that group, it's hard to imagine just how little the median American knows about the day-to-day events that we pay so much attention to. Even when in some sort of abstract way it makes sense for people to know about politics or public affairs -- for example, it makes sense for Medicare recipients to know how ACA affects them -- they just don't. Sometimes that's because people aren't well-educated enough to feel comfortable reading or even watching the news (and the linked polling shows that college grads do much better on this question, although "some college" respondents actually are more likely to believe inaccurately that ACA has been repealed than are those with no college).  But often it's because people have other, more immediate things in their lives to attend to, or they pay attention only occasionally, or they have low tolerance for conflict, or they just don't see any connection between things happening in Washington and their lives.

I've said this get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps sports in general -- or, for sports fans, a major sport that you don't pay any attention to. Perhaps it's current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I've had that veer off in that direction. It's not as if I know absolutely nothing. It's just that the stuff I've heard is not organized at all, and I'm sure I've picked up misinformation along the way, since I don't scrutinize any of it.

Anyway, when you're involved in what's happening in Wisconsin, or Libya, or the budget negotiations in Washington, just keep in mind that most people aren't paying any attention at all.

Walker, "Koch", and The Virtue of Pathetic Politicians

I agree with Reihan Salam that it's hardly extraordinary that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would take a call from a prominent movement conservative money guy.

On the other hand, to dismiss the call by supposing that pols would take calls from "campaign donors, rich people, and celebrities" and putting them all into a sort of reflected thrill frame is more than a bit disingenuous. Salam is conflating two very different things. It's certainly possible that pols might want the excitement of talking to a big shot, but that's not what's going on in a conversation with a political ally.

Nevertheless, he's correct that taking a call doesn't necessarily mean anything at all about whether Walker is likely to do, or even seriously consider, what the person on the other end of the line says. If there's one thing that politicians are trained to do it's to act as if they're listening carefully and respectfully to those they believe are blowhards and cranks. Of course, in this case it's pretty clear that Walker is solidly following the movement conservative hard-liners, for whatever reasons -- could be because of campaign funding, but it could just as easily be because he really believes in those ideas, or because he's using them to become a national politician. That he's also willing to take a call from a conservative bigshot doesn't really add anything to what we know about that. And I agree with Dave Weigel's point that liberals are becoming a little goofy on the subject of the Koch brothers (although, really, it's hardly a point against the Koch's influence to point out that all of organized labor did manage to spend considerably more than two guys).

At any rate, what interests me the most about Salam's piece is this:
This is a big part of why we right-wingers think that politicians should have very narrow, circumscribed powers. They’re not an attractive bunch.
The problem with that sort of attitude is that if politicians don't have much scope to do anything, then you don't really have much of a democracy. It's all very well to say that politicians shouldn't have the ability to interfere with people's lives, but that's really just to say that the scope of democracy should be very narrow and circumscribed.

A much better answer to this is James Madison's in Federalist 51: allow democracy to be powerful, but constrain individual politicians through various constitutional devices. Make the ambitions of politicians work for democracy, instead of against it.

Of course, to say that politicians -- to say that the political system -- should have the ability to do things doesn't imply that they should do those things. And establishing some limits beyond which the ordinary political processes of democracy may not go (as in human or constitutional rights) can be justified democratically on a variety of grounds

Yes, politicians are often pathetic creatures, ambitious beyond all reason and pathetic in their search for approval from the masses. Those are good things! They make democracy work. The really dangerous pols are the ones who believe the nonsense about ignoring the polls and doing what's right, regardless of the consequences to their careers.

The Mirror

I repeated the cliche that most Senators see a president when they look into the mirror; Ezra Klein doubts it:
So who are all these senators who are keeping their presidential ambitions so tightly controlled? I know Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell don't see a president when they look in the mirror. I don't think Chuck Grassley or Max Baucus consider themselves likely presidents, nor do Ron Wyden or Mike Enzi. Is Amy Klobuchar planning a run? Chuck Schumer? John Barraso? Jay Rockefeller?
Well, he's right that not every Senator is planning a run, and it's true that only 16 Senators have become president (Obama was the first since Nixon, although Nixon ended a run of four out of the first five postwar presidents). Those are small odds! But over the course of their careers...well, let's look at the Senate in 1985. That's long enough ago that presumably those who were going to run have done so, but recent enough that it's easier to get a handle on actual candidacies, which is somewhat easier after nomination reform in the early 1970s.

So, how many Senators from the 99th Congress ran for president? Just eyeballing it, I count Goldwater, Cranston, Wilson, Hart, Dodd, Biden, Simon, Lugar, Quayle, Harkin, Dole, Kerry, Kennedy, Laxalt, Bradley, Glenn, Specter, Thurmand, Hollings, Gore, Gramm, and Hatch. That's 22. I'd add four more who were frequently mentioned as presidential candidates and probably did at least preliminary work for it: Bumpers, Nunn, Mitchell, Rockefeller. And then two more who were VP nominees, Eagleton and Bentson (with the latter certainly counting the previous category as well).

That's 28 out of 100 who were actually involved in presidential politics. I'd be shocked if any fewer than another dozen thought about it in some semi-serious way but passed. And then still others who considered it as a future option, but  whose careers were cut short by electoral defeat, scandal, early death, or other misfortunes well before they thought they were ready. Oh, and people on VP short lists (Hatfield, at least, from that list). In other words, I'd be surprised if half the Senate hadn't thought of themselves as presidential material to some extent.

Now, I'm assuming something that I can't know is true for a fact, which is that  a bit of proximity to the road to the White House causes a reaction that never really goes away. Did Strom Thurmand, in 1985, think of himself as a future president? Of course not. Did his campaign almost 40 years earlier still affect him? Well, anecdotally, that's what the people who've been through it tend to say.

OK, but even if you go along with all of that, we're still only at 50 of 100. But the other 50 know those people, and work with them, and -- I guarantee it -- think that quite a few of those 50 are bozos who should be nowhere near the Oval Office. At least not compared to a serious Senator like themselves. Which doesn't quite mean that they see a president in the mirror. No, they see someone vastly superior to a president.

Postscript: I like this game! Here's 1995, ten years later: McCain, Dodd, Leiberman, Biden, Graham, Simon, Mosely-Braun, Lugar, Harkin, Dole, Kennedy, Kerry, Kerrey, Smith, Bradley, Glenn, Specter, Santorum, Thurmand, Hollings, Thompson, Gramm, and Hatch. That's 23; also semi-sorta-possible candidates Bumpers, Nunn, Ashcroft, Frist, Rockefeller, Feingold, and VP short listers Feinstein and Hatfield, and maybe Hutchison? That's 31, and I wouldn't be surprised if a couple more names from that Senate wind up on the list eventually. Sharp eyed readers are welcome to let me know who I missed, or of course to argue against anyone I included, on either list.

Read Stuff, You Should

There are two things that people do wrong with numbers. For that matter, there are two kinds of things that people do wrong with any sort of serious research, but it seems to be even worse with quantitative research. One thing people do wrong is to believe in numbers too much; the other is to believe in them too little. What should you do with numbers, or conclusions based on numbers? Treat them like you would any other kind of evidence: don't accept it uncritically, but also don't dismiss it out of hand. All of which is a lead in to a link to Andrew Gellman's nice post about a study about public vs. private jobs in Wisconsin and how much they pay.

On another topic, I have a new column on the likely shutdown over at TNR, in which I argue that the open rule on the CR wound up making John Boehner's position even worse than it was before.

The good stuff:

1. Alexander Hart on why the Feds should be helping the states. Also, Scott LeMieux on majoritarianism in the states.

2. Smart comments on descriptive representation from Matt Yglesias.

3. Why Hannah Arendt helps us think about Egypt, from Jeet Heer. Also, Andrew Sullivan explains why movement conservatives seem lost and confused by turmoil in the Middle East.

4. Ann Friedman tells who is accountable. And does something about it.

5. You probably don't need more evidence that John Yoo is an embarrassment, but Julian Davis Mortenson has plenty, just in case.

6. Glenn Kessler tracks down the myth of the Obama apology tour. Never happened.

7. I'm afraid I now believe that a government shutdown is being underhyped; it's very likely, and very well could be gruesome. That means if you haven't been reading Stan Collender regularly already, you should start now. Here's a sample.

8. Probably wouldn't have read this excellent piece by Molly Lambert if she hadn't put Kim Deal's name at the top of it. Just saying. (If she had dropped Kristin Hersh, I'd have read it twice. Seriously -- the 50 Foot Wave album alone is That Good. Oops -- sorry, got distracted there for a minute).

9. Okay, I can't actually evaluate the quality of this post at all, but I have to link to Alex Massie's attempt at All-Live vs. All-Dead for his sport. And not just because he called my post "jolly." I do know who Sutcliffe, Bradman, Lindwall, Miller, Hassett, and Benaud are, though -- Hails of derisive laughter, Bruce!


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Catch of the Day

Goes to a "very clever friend" of Jonathan Chait -- it's a remix of Tom Friedman's column today. I can't really quote from need to read the whole thing to enjoy the effect, but it's short, and solidly recommended.

By the way, my impression is still that the NYT columnists have never really recovered from the paywall experiment a few years ago, at least for bloggers. Purely subjective impressions, to be sure, but pre-paywall it seemed to me that the NYT columnists regularly set the agenda, and while they are capable of it still, it's rare. I suppose this could be analyzed empirically, but I'm certainly not going to be the one who does it.

Crazy Much? The Scalise Amendment

Both sides of the partisan side have their cranks and crazies. It's hard not to believe, however, that tolerance for loonies is significantly higher on the Republican side than on the Democratic side these days. Need an example?

The Fairness Doctrine was a government policy mandating that broadcast media present both sides of controversial issues; it existed from the 1940s until it was eliminated by Ronald Reagan in 1987. To be sure, in those days Democrats strongly supported reinstating the Doctrine, and they tried over the next few years. But interest faded, and when the Democrats had a chance during the first two years of the Clinton presidency, nothing happened. According to wikipedia, the last time a bill was even introduced in Congress was in 2005. Democrats don't campaign on the issue (although every once in a while the occasional Dem mentions it), and of course not only was it not reinstated during the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, but there wasn't even so much as a hint that any Democrat cared about the issue any more. It's as close to a 100% dead idea as there is.

But not to movement conservatives. For many of them, Barack Obama and the Democrats are mirror Scott Walkers, out to destroy conservative institutions as soon as they get a chance -- beginning with conservative talk radio. One would think that the failure of the 110th Congress to attempt such a thing in 2007 might change their minds, and if not that the failure of the 111th Congress and Barack Obama to follow through in 2009 would convince them. Nope.

So, how is the new Fairness Doctrine going to happen (presumably any second now)? Apparently through Mark Lloyd, Associate General Counsel and Chief Diversity Officer at the FCC, whose job (as the FCC's web site says) is to "help ensure that the communications field is competitive." Lloyd does in fact hold positions on the media that many conservatives legitimately oppose, but he neither supports nor has the power to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. No matter; Lloyd is, to conservative conspiracy theorists, a "Fairness Doctrine Czar."

Fine. Some wacko types believe that an obscure presidential mid-level appointee is really an all-powerful Rush-slayer. As I said, there are cranks and kooks on all sides.

But that's where we get to the Scalise Amdendment to the CR last week -- which prohibited funding for nine "czars" including the "Fairness Doctrine Czar." Putting aside how silly the whole "czar" thing is, and that an Associate General Counsel at the FCC hardly fits Scalise's definition of "czars with cabinet-level powers," what we have here is a Member of the House, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, trafficking in wacko-bait. There is no plot to reinstate the Fairness Docrtrine!

I'm sorry; did I say "a" Member of the House? Because Scalise's amendment wasn't just offered in the House; it received the unanimous-but-one support of the GOP conference (dissenting would be Reid Ribble of Wisconsin) and, 13 foolish Democrats. Granted, since there were nine "czars" included in the measure, it's possible that enthusiasm for eliminating the "Obama Care Czar" was the key thing here, but still: that's 236 Republicans voting for something that is, basically, pure hokum.

(And, yes, the underlying idea that White House staffers designated to coordinate policy across various agencies involved in a single policy area are some sort of conspiracy to subvert the constitution is equally nutters, but at least those WH staffers are in fact coordinating policy in those areas. I mean, the president really is implementing ACA, even if it's bizarre to claim that he and those working for him shouldn't coordinate that implementation).

Really, Republicans should be ashamed of themselves.

Hey, conservatives: can you find any example of a crazy conspiracy theory winning the near-unanimous support of Democrats in the House or Senate during the last four years of Democratic majorities?

I'm pretty sure that this is one area in which both sides are not even close to equally culpable.

Barney Frank

I was looking up an amendment to the CR last week that apparently defunded the "Fairness Doctrine Czar" (no, of course there's no such thing as a Fairness Doctrine czar, but that's not the point here) when I came across:
Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. I have a parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Chairman
The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman will state his inquiry
Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. What's the text of the amendment? This is the one we were given. Could I get a reading of the text of the amendment, or could I get a copy of the amendment?
The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman may ask unanimous consent for that.

Mr. CARTER. Will the gentleman yield for a moment?

Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. I yield to the gentleman from Texas.

Excuse me. Does this have anything to do with cement? If you mention cement, I'm not yielding.

Mr. CARTER. I promise not to mention cement.

Mr. FRANK of Massachusetts. Then I yield. Because where I come from, cement was not good news for the people who were put into it.

I yield to the gentleman.
I'm sure there's a good explanation for it, but I think we're all better off imagining it instead of having me look it up and ruin the fun. If you follow the link, you can also read Frank on Czarinas vs. Czars, and his advice to Rep. Hal Rogers to "work out his Lenin fantasy."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lugar vs. Christie?

Paul Waldman has an interesting theory that the reasons movement conservatives have turned against Dick Lugar  is because, gosh, he's just too nice a guy. Waldman draws the contrast with Chris Christie, who conservatives love even though he's not actually all that conservative on the issues:
But you know who else is a moderate? New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who's pro-choice, among other things. But Christie enjoys yelling at people, particularly teachers, and generally acts like a jerk when the cameras are on (granting that in private, Christie might be just the sweetest guy in the world). That has made him a hero to the right.
Perhaps. But Scott Brown was a hero to the right last year, and he was a moderate as a state legislator and has turned out to be a moderate as a Senator -- and as far as I know, he's never yelled at anyone. He certainly has more of a nice guy than a tough guy image. What Brown and Christie have in common is winning in Democratic states, along with being new on the scene. My guess is that Christie's act wouldn't get him very far in national politics, at least unless he adopted the issue positions he would need at that level.

I really don't think there's any need to look to hard for reasons for Lugar's trouble. He's a traditional 1970s, Reagan-style conservative in a 21st century party that isn't very keen on international treaties and organizations and has little tolerance for any ideological divergence at all -- Lugar voted for Barack Obama's judicial appointments, for TARP, and has some other "bad" votes to defend. And for whatever reason, Lugar has chosen not to grovel to the Tea Partiers.

I still think Lugar would be better off switching parties if he wants to remain in office.

Where Are the Senators?

With John Thune not running, Chuck Todd and others quickly noticed that no Republican Senators are currently running for president, which is highly unusual -- according to Todd, it would be the first time since 1904 that no Senator ran (I haven't double-checked that myself; note that candidate lists before 1972 are difficult to generate, because candidates didn't necessarily have to take any explicit, clear actions).

I still think there's an excellent chance that Jim DeMint will enter primaries next year, and at any rate I'd say that both DeMint and Thune have run for president this cycle -- they just aren't going to be running in by 2012, or at least Thune will not. There are also a couple of other Senators that still could be late entries, too.

But putting that aside, why hasn't the Senate produced candidates this time around?

Most of it is just the combination of three election cycles, with Republicans down to only 40 Senators after the 2008 elections, and then quite a few of those retiring in 2010. By my count, that leaves only 33 Republican Senators who have been around longer than Scott Brown. Of those, Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl were both born in 1942 and would therefore turn 70 in 2012, while nine others are even older. That's not an absolute disqualification, but it's certainly a serious problem for someone applying for a job who wants to hold it for eight years. That leaves 22. Of those, two are scandal-ridden. Two others are far too moderate to compete, while a third just lost a GOP primary.

That leaves all of 17 Republican Senators who will have served for at least four years, will be young enough, and are not otherwise disqualified. Most are obscure (Barrasso? Risch?) although of course even feinting a run at the White House is a way to become an awful lot less obscure. Some are unpopular with major party factions (Graham, Hutchison) or back in their home states (Corker, Burr). Several come from small states (Crapo, Johanns, Enzi, and of course Thune).  It's not impossible to win a nomination if you come from a state with few people and little money, as George McGovern and Barry Goldwater proved, but it's harder.

Some may have reasons, good or bad, for not wanting national press attention to themselves and their families. It's even possible that a handful of them just aren't interested, although that's a bit harder to believe.

So: it's an interesting curiosity if it turns out there's no one out of the Senate in 2012, but I don't think it's a marker of anything. Just happened to work out that way. It's still the case that most Senators see a president when they look in the mirror, and that continues to be an important ingredient that helps make the Senate what it is.


So John Thune isn't running for president, after all.

Thune's slot, as David Frum argued last week, was "generic Republican." A position undermined to some extent by some of the votes he's had to cast as a US Senator, as Dave Weigel points out. Still, I'm always a bit suspicious of claims like Weigel's that a single vote -- in this case, TARP -- makes it impossible for a candidate to win the nomination.

The thing is that someone has to win, and most candidates wind up with at least one difficult vote or speech or proposal in their past. No one is truly generic. Senators have all had to cast votes, and governors have all had to sign bills -- plus they can be held accountable for anything that's happened in their state. And it's impossible to navigate these things perfectly, even for a pol who has the White House in mind very early in their career, because it's impossible to know which positions that seem safe today will wind up being dangers tomorrow. That's true for TARP (supported by a Republican president and the Republican nominee for president; it's true for Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health care plan (supported by conservative policy wonks at the time).

Of course, some positions -- some current positions -- draw the vetoes of key party groups and are therefore absolute disqualifications. No pro-choice Republicans or pro-life Democrats are going to win a presidential nomination. But the record on even that most sensitive issue is that conversion experiences can make up for old records, whether it's George H.W. Bush or Al Gore. The bottom line, in my view, is that if the people and groups who choose the GOP presidential nominee had decided they liked John Thune, odds are that TARP and other past votes wouldn't have stopped him.

Meanwhile, the role of generic Republican remains available, although I think that Tim Pawlenty has been the leader for that spot for some time now -- although Rick Perry still seems to me like the most logical candidate for that spot. Under a year to Iowa...

Catch of the Day

Via Weigel, here's Jamie Dupree:
One other note from last week's budget debate - when the week began, the GOP bill had $60.8 billion in cuts.  When the week ended, that number was just over $61.4 billion.
Dupree's post also has a nice preliminary analysis of the Republicans who voted against deeper cuts. The bottom line here is pretty obvious: there's really nothing more to squeeze out of non-defense discretionary spending. That is, even if the extra $22 billion that 92 Republicans (and House Democrats) opposed had passed...well, $22B isn't much in federal budget terms. Already, the current GOP cuts include items that Republicans also claim they want to increase...there's just nothing significant left in that pot.

To me, that just is a reminder that when American say they want a smaller government overall but also say that they want more spent on virtually every individual program, what's probably really operative is the latter.

Anyway: nice catch!

Monday, February 21, 2011


If I were advising Barack Obama, I'd suggest that he should be spending time -- a lot of time -- in constantly wooing Dick Lugar and Olympia Snowe. Both of them appear to be iffy, at best, for renomination (here's the latest on Lugar). And that's before what's likely to be a bitter government shutdown fight in March, which will probably make the position of GOP moderates even more tenuous.

Both would be locks in the general election as long as they could get nominated, but that's more likely -- much more likely, in Lugar's case, I think -- on the Democratic side. Of course, the problem here is Arlen Specter's fate last year, when he switched parties and then was defeated in the Democratic primary. But Obama should be doing what he can to clear the way.

Is it plausible that they might switch? I think so, even though both have deep ties to the GOP, because their version of the party is close to extinct. And because, when it comes down to it, most politicians really like winning elections a whole lot more than they like losing elections. That hardly means it's a sure thing, but it does mean that it's probably worth some presidential time and energy. Especially since the payoff would be very nice for the Dems.

(Switching was discouraged by the Pennsylvania Senate results, but switching in the other direction seems entirely implausible. Does anyone think that Ben Nelson could win a GOP primary for Senate? I wouldn't give him a 10% chance).


This bothered me:
[T]hat’s what we learned in WikiLeaks over three years, that sometimes if you look at raw, unfiltered information, not a write-up by a media organization but a genuine document, then the truth is very blunt, and that is something that has a completely different impact on people. Also, it makes a huge difference whether you only believe something to be a fact or whether a third party — such as the embassy of a foreign country — actually confirms this as factual.
That's from the NYT Magazine interview with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, formerly of WikiLeaks and now of OpenLeaks.

What struck me is that it's a real mistake to believe that there are insiders who invariably know the "real" truth. That's simply not the case most of the time.

Believing otherwise gets into all sorts of difficulties. For example, consider the latest on "curveball," the Iraq weapons fabulist who the Germans did not believe, but George W. Bush's government -- despite working only from German intelligence -- chose to believe. One reaction is Andrew Sullivan's: "This gets to the core of the nagging question: was the Iraq war waged in good faith? We still don't really know, but put this in the evidence pile that suggests it wasn't." That's not exactly a wrong way of looking at it, but I think Neil Sinhababu has a better way of thinking about it:
What's interesting in this case is that the CIA believed this crazy guy. The story here is a pretty obvious one -- the President wanted war, information to support that case would be rewarded, and the intelligence apparatus found whatever it was being driven to find. Exposing the particular people on the inside who accepted the bad evidence would be a more important story.
Now, we don't really know the whole story. We don't know, even at this late date, whether it was the president who wanted war, or if it was a faction within the administration that manipulated the president into it. Nor do we know exactly what the specific analysts who "accepted" bogus stories really thought. Perhaps they were blinded by either bureaucratic incentives or previous beliefs and honestly bought these stories; perhaps they just sort-of bought them but then hid their doubts to those above them; perhaps they didn't really believe them, but honestly believed that they were falsely proving things that they nevertheless fully believed were true;  or perhaps they neither believed "curveball" or the larger weapons narrative but were using those stories as a phony pretext for a war they wanted for other reasons. (I'd only call the last of those, and perhaps the second-to-last one, bad faith).

Notice that a full and complete leak of internal Bush administration deliberations would, if the first of those possibilities was true, confirm the "fact" of dangerous Iraqi weapons and the entire "curveball" story. Or, if the second or third scenario applies, a complete leak would still confirm the "fact" of those weapons. And yet those facts, as we now know, were fictions. Indeed, while we don't know for sure what various Bush administration players believed, I'm willing to bet that a careful reading of the existing public records in 2002 would have been at least as good a way of finding out the actual truth, and probably much better, than reading a full and complete leak of Bush administration deliberations.

None of this is to suggest that it's a bad thing to learn more of what government officials say or believe. It's just that it's very tempting to believe that insiders possess special access to The Truth, and that therefore everything that they say is either honest or a deliberate lie. That's just not how it works.

All Those Votes...

...or as political scientists tend to see it: Data!

The House of Representatives wound up taking over 100 recorded votes on the Full Employment for Opposition Researchers Act continuing resolution last week. All in all, they've now cast a whopping 147 votes so far this year.

Some comparisons...

In 2009, during the first session of the historic 111th Congress, the House took a total of 991 recorded votes all year. Vote #147 was on March 24. In 2010, there were only 664 votes, with #147 coming on March 19.

Here are a few others:

2008: 690 total votes
2007: 1186
2006: 543
2005: 671
2003: 677
2001: 512
1999: 611
1997: 640
1995: 885
1993: 615


1) Second sessions of a Congress (even-numbered years) take fewer votes than first sessions, presumably because they recess much earlier.

2) The two highest vote totals over the last twenty years were in 2007 and 1995, both years in which party control changed. I'll jump in fearlessly and assert that while correlation does not necessarily imply causation, it sure looks as if under modern conditions, change in party control in the House causes lots of recorded votes in the next session.

3) In 2007, they didn't get to #147 until March 14, so this year is beating that pace.

4) I very much liked the way the votes were organized, with occasional blocks of two minutes votes. I'm mostly okay with the fact that they pretty much dispensed with debate...Congressional floor debates are rarely very interesting, and are almost never true back-and-forth conversations, especially in the House. If there are any House staff reading, I'd be very interested in whether Members and staff thought that the process worked well (that is, if you're going to have lots of amendments, was this a good way of handling them). I am certain that a lot of House legislative assistants very much earned their salaries last week.

Presidentialism vs. Madisonianism

Ah, the day-that-isn't-Presidents-day is a good excuse to get around to a response I've been meaning to get to, to a typically provocative aside at the bottom of a recent Matt Yglesias post about nothing less than the future of the current American Constitution. His view is that "US-style constitutional setups are usually very unstable," and that given the current party structure, that inherent instability may well result in significant change. Dylan Matthews agreed, more or less, and talked about what it kinds of change would mean that "divided government is capable of producing real legislation again."

As regular readers might expect, I think they're wrong. On several counts.

First of all, what's the evidence for Matthews' proposition that divided government is no longer capable of producing "real" legislation? It's true that not all that much passed in the 110th Congress, during the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. But Clinton-era divided government produced plenty of significant legislation, including welfare reform, S-CHIP, a significant minimum wage increase, and balanced budgets -- and during Clinton's second term, they handled budget issues in general with a minimum of drama and brinkmanship. Yes, the 112th Congress promises to be unproductive, but it's also little more than month old; it's a little soon to conclude that it will wind up seeming dysfunctional. 

Second, and more importantly, in my view the differences between the Constitutional system in the United States and the other "presidential" systems covered in the comparative studies Yglesias likes to cite are far more important than the similarities. Mainly, the United States isn't really a "presidential" system; it's a separated-powers system, or more accurately one of separated institutions sharing powers. Congress is generally thought of as by far the greatest example of a transformative legislature, which (along with federalism, and other decentralizing features of the American system) allows lots of interests to feel meaningfully represented in government. He's absolutely right that "high stakes" elections are problematic in a democracy. But the solution isn't necessarily parliamentary elections -- which can also produce single, all-powerful winners -- but to have multiple, overlapping elections. 

Stepping back a bit...I agree with Madison (see Federalists 10 and 51, of course) that majority-rules systems tend to be unstable. Parliamentary systems tend to deal with that in a few different ways. One is, as Yglesias says, by inserting another round of elite bargaining in order to form a government after the voters have had their say. Most parliamentary systems also have a strong bureaucracy that narrows the importance of the elected government. In my view, these devises (as well as corporatist arrangements, which are not necessarily related to parliamentary forms of government but do tend to go with them), are all ways of avoiding the instability of majority rule by weakening democracy. That's especially true of bureaucratic rule; corporatism and elite-driven party rule can be democratic, depending in large part, I believe, in how permeable and internally democratic the parties and other institutions are.

The American system deals with it by weakening the influence of majorities, or (ideally) by preventing majorities from forming in the first place. For example, there is no "majority" on health care reform whether there was a plurality against passing ACA last year, or a plurality against simple repeal this time, so many people have different opinions or are entirely indifferent that a victory or loss is unlikely to break the system. And then when majorities do form, the various mechanisms of the system keeps them enacting things easily. That leads to plenty of short-term frustration for electoral winners, but also means that losing an election isn't that big a deal.

However, when I talk about the ways in which Madisonian democracy promotes stability, I always try to include three dangers. The first is that if everyone in the nation believes that a single issue is of overwhelming importance, the odds of producing a true majority which will either oppress the minority or be oppressed increase. The obvious example of that situation in American history was slavery. A second possibility is if everyone is strongly ideological; if that's the case, then losing on one issue probably means losing on every issue. My reading of the evidence (and I don't really keep up on new research in this area, but I'm pretty confident that this is still true) is that most Americans are not ideological -- not just in a strong sense of having identifiable broad ideas that drive issue positions, but even in the sense that issue positions are strongly correlated. In other words, knowing someone's position on abortion will not necessarily predict their position on gun control, or labor policy, or the Iraq War, or other issues. 

The third danger is extreme partisanship: if regardless of issues we all believe that our side must be in office or else all is lost, it's a problem for stability. I think that's a fair description of some activists; it fits the Tea Party profile, in my view, a lot better than ideological coherence does. But still, only a relatively small percentage of Americans feel that way. Most of us, when our party loses an election, do not automatically feel tyrannized. 

Now, in my view we're pretty far from either of the latter two conditions (and the first one isn't a factor at all; there's no single issue that even a strong plurality of Americans believe is the most important). Only our most politically active citizens are either so ideological, or so partisan, that they find our elections very high-stakes contests. Of course, those politically active citizens are also, more or less by definition, the ones most likely to bring us to a Constitutional crisis, so that's worth paying attention to, but I don't see it as a grave danger.

All that said...I think that strong parties are good for democracy, but that American parties are unique (as far as I know) in that they can be strong without being rigorously ideologically coherent and without being hierarchically organized. So I'm in favor of things that decentralize (but don't necessarily weaken) political parties, and I do think that Congress works better when Members reflect not only their partisan loyalties but also strong local influences. To the extent that American parties have become nationalized (which is certainly true) and more top-down (which might be true), it's a bad development for American democracy, at least as I view it. But we're nowhere near the point at which I'd join Yglesias and Matthews and worry about the stability of the system.   

Against P Day

(This one is a rerun: I posted it last year, and I like it enough that I'm basically just reusing it).

Presidents Day is a terrible idea for a holiday.  Just an awful idea.  In this republic, there's absolutely no good reason to take a day to honor our presidents.

On the other hand, Washington's Birthday is a perfectly good idea.  If we're going to honor great Americans, I'm not going to argue with those who put George Washington first on the list of those to be honored.  In fact, the official federal holiday is Washington's Birthday, but lots of states have renamed it to Presidents Day or something similar.

The consensus Three Greatest Presidents are Washington, Lincoln, and (Franklin) Roosevelt, and I wouldn't argue with any celebration of those three. The other two Greatest Men Who Were Presidents are Jefferson and the sadly undercommemorated Madison, and I'm also on board with honoring them (I'm not a huge Jefferson fan, but I don't really object to his status as a great American. Want to argue Adams?  Ike?  Take it to comments).  On the other hand, I'm also pretty comfortable with Washington and King being the only two Americans honored with national holidays.

So, Happy Washington's Birthday, even if it isn't actually Washington's birthday, and even if most of what you're seeing are references to Presidents Day, President's Day, or Presidents' Day -- any way you spell it, a really bad idea.  Which reminds me -- if you happen to think of James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, or Richard Nixon today, I think what you're supposed to do is spit twice over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

I guess I'll go with a version of the same questions I posed to conservatives. How do you see the budget stalemate playing out over the next couple of months? Are you rooting for a shutdown?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Are you rooting for a government shutdown in March? Hoping that a deal can be cut to prevent one? If it happens, how do you think it ends?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

The various unrest and reaction to it around the Middle East, certainly. The president's budget.

I think I'll also say that the marathon amendment session in the House mattered, in a couple different ways. I'll do a post in a bit about the possibility of shutdown, but I think that it became more likely. In addition, it was certainly a full employment act for opposition researchers -- a lot of Members took votes this week that are going to turn up in TV ads next fall.

What else? Wisconsin? Other state budget battles? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

The All-Live Team?

Is Pujols the All-Live 1B? I guess not; it's probably Musial, since he's not going to fit in the OF. McCovey, McGwire, Thomas...lots of good choices, with no real standout.

Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt are clearly the 2B and 3B. Let's see...for SS, we have Rodriguez, Jeter, and Ripken as the contenders, right? Without studying it, I'll assume it's A-Rod (obviously, part of the question is how much time away from SS matters).

Piazza over Berra and Bench at C, at least in my book.

Bonds, Mays, and Aaron? Not bad.

Clemens, Seaver, Maddux, Randy Johnson...who gets the fifth spot?

Obviously, the All-Live Team totally dominates the bullpen.

Hmmm....I'll make a 25-man roster. Ten man staff, so I get 7 bench guys.

I'll take a couple of Oakland guys, Rickey Henderson and Frank Robinson, as the next two OFers. I'll take Bench and Berra, both. I want Ripken. Hmm...I'm awfully tempted to take Ozzie Smith; can I count him as a backup at 2B? That's a bit of a problem with this team. Molitor? Rose? Behind Musial, well, that's a tough one, unless I want to spend some time being careful about it. Since I don't, I'll take McGwire and -- hey, my bench tilts way to far to the right! Better take McCovey over Thomas and Pujols.  Uh oh, that's eight. I suppose I'll take Ozzie as my UT IF (since A Rod can shift to 3B, too), lose Ripken, and...damn, this is hard. Rickey, Robinson, Bench, Berra, Ozzie, McGwire, and McCovey.

That leaves the fifth starter, and five for the bullpen: Rivera, Gossage, and then pick three -- I suppose if its a real team, better make at least one a lefty. Especially since the All-Dead team is lousy with lefty hitters. I'm gonna want Marichal for my 5th starter, but I'll admit that's pure bias.

So, can they beat the All-Dead team?


A new continuing item, I expect.

The House Republicans acted to repeal ACA back on January 19. Since then, they've, well, repealed it again, or they're in the process of doing so, this time by zeroing out funding in the 2011 continuing resolution. I should expect that they'll repeal it several more times over the course of the next two years, at the rate they're going.

Now, back on January 19, they also promised, as they did in the campaign, that they were actually going to repeal and replace ACA. Perhaps they will! But I'll note that they're about to leave for a recess, and as far as I know no replace bill has been introduced. No hearings on a replace bill seem to have been held. I checked Ways and Means, which has had hearings on ACA implementation but nothing on the repeal bill; Energy and Commerce, which has also had hearings on the effect of ACA; and Education and Labor the Workforce, which had its own hearing on the effects of ACA. Not that there's anything wrong with oversight hearings; to the contrary, that's one of the things the committees should be doing.

Replace, however? Not a trace of it, so far.Well, that's not quite true: I did find a link to an op-ed by five House Chairs, from a month ago, entitled "Repeal is first, not last, step" and pledging throughout that replace is just around the corner:
Replacing this law is a policy and a moral imperative...The committees we lead will tackle these challenges with the seriousness and steadfastness of purpose they deserve. We will pursue changes on which there is widespread agreement as we seek to meet the monumental challenges of a nation on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory.
And as I said, perhaps they will. It's only been a month, so far. And I do think it's fairly likely that they'll bring a tort reform bill to the House floor at some point, although claiming that it would be comprehensive reform, or really do anything significant about either costs or access, would be a major stretch. But of course doing those things is really hard, and a few stale talking points are a long ways from legislation.

So maybe I'll have a new continuing item to run for some time. I guess we'll see.

Deficit Idealists vs. Deficit Realists

OK, this one is a bit off my usual style, but I feel obliged to speak up for a scorned and ignored group in American politics, those of us -- and, yes, I'm certainly one of them -- who don't believe, as a matter of policy, that the budget of the United States of America should be balanced at all times. Or over time. Or in the long run. We may disagree on the particulars, but we tend to agree that fiscal policy is a tool, a means to other ends. Sometimes, that means running a smaller deficit, sometimes a larger one, and perhaps at times even a balanced budget or a surplus. But as a rule we believe there's nothing principled at stake in the size of the budget deficit, thought of on its own. Economic growth, full employment, stable inflation -- those are reasonable goals. The deficit, for us, is just a means of getting there.

What's frustrating to me is that this group doesn't really have a name. People who actually care about balanced budgets are commonly called deficit hawks (okay, I admit it: I and others of my type tend to call them deficit scolds, or worse). But "deficit doves" doesn't really make any sense. Doves, in foreign policy, are those who prefer peace, while hawks prefer war (or, at least prefer always being very, very, ready for war). But most of us in my group aren't for large deficits in general. We think that fiscal policy depends on circumstances.

What I'm going to propose is that we follow a different foreign policy analogy: we are deficit realists, and we oppose not deficit hawks or alarmists, but deficit idealists.

Alas, one of the leading deficit idealists, Pete Peterson himself, has claimed the mantle of deficit realism. But clearly that's not correct. Pete Peterson has been for deficit reduction, well, forever -- and it's the mark of an idealist for policy preferences to remain unchanged no matter how circumstances change. They know how they think the world should be, and that's how it should be, and of story.

Realists, on the other hand, are always about the contingencies, always about the pragmatic solution for the moment. So many deficit realists may have supported deficit reduction packages in 1982, 1990, and 1993 -- but probably did not during the last three years. Some realists might be concerned about projected deficits twenty or thirty or seventy years into the future -- but we're more likely to believe that if the bond markets don't say its a problem, then it really isn't a problem. Realists are apt to point out that the United States managed to prosper perfectly well in the second half of the twentieth century while running a budget deficit almost always, and to cringe when we hear nonsensical rhetoric about future generations having to "pay back" current deficits.

But the main thing that really separates the idealists from the realists is any kind of talk about the morality and ethics of budget deficits. To idealists, it's axiomatic that it is fundamentally irresponsible to run budget deficits; to realists, deficits per se simply do not raise ethical issues.

Why do budget realists need a name? Well, for one thing, it's better spin, and while spin is generally overrated in politics, there's always the possibility that it would help around the margins. Currently we only hear about Very Serious budget hawks and those irresponsible other people who are ignoring the future of their nation. It might be a bit harder to call budget realists irresponsible (although perhaps it will be even easier to call them unethical, but that's the downside that realists of all types must accept).

But a better reason is because well-meaning deficit idealists -- and I do think that quite a few of them are well-intentioned -- are often just plain confused by those who don't share their religion. For example, Andrew Sullivan seems just baffled by the idea that there might be legitimate competing priorities to his preference for entitlement reforms that would reduce projected long-term deficits. For Sullivan, the main reason for lack of action on the deficit must be, as he says, political expediency; there's no sense at all that someone might have a substantive reason for putting off projected deficit problems until they start causing current trouble (to be fair, Sullivan was willing to accept countercyclical Keynesian deficits during the worst of the recession -- and his deficit idealism has been consistent over time, and regardless of whether he likes or dislikes the current administration). Explaining the point of view of deficit realism would surely not convert idealists, but it might help to prevent people from talking past each other.

It might help deficit realists, too, to understand better the other side of the debate. Liberal deficit realists are invariably suspicious that balanced budget are really a plot to destroy Social Security and other liberal priorities (and conservative deficit realists are suspicious that balanced budgets are really a plot to raise taxes). To be sure, GOP deficit pretenders (and there's no other way to think of most movement conservatives, who consistently support higher deficits in practice even while mouthing the rhetoric of deficit idealists) certainly do act far more interested in slashing spending selectively than in anything about the deficit. But there are real, sincere deficit idealists out there, and in my view they deserve to be taken seriously, even though I, as a deficit realist, strongly disagree with them. I suspect that thinking of them as deficit idealists would help facilitate useful conservation between the two groups.

At the very least, I think calling the two groups deficit realists and deficit idealists would promote clear thinking on the subject. So, if you think Pete Peterson is a menace to the nation and find Kent Conrad (the Senator who I believe has the longest record of sincerity on deficit reduction -- he once gave up his seat over it) a nuisance and a scold, embrace it: you're probably a deficit realist, and be proud of it.

She's Always Running Against Murkowski...

...or maybe it was one of her earlier opponents in local elections. Anyway, Sarah Palin, in her mind, is always the outsider running against entrenched pols:
"What people are desiring to see is no more status quo — not necessarily just seeing more players in these political machines, who are sort of preordained and get to be the ones who get nominated and go forth,” Ms. Palin said. “People are ready for our governmental establishment to kind of shake it up."
On this, at least, I'd be shocked if she wasn't perfectly sincere -- if it's an act, she's amazingly convincing, at least to this observer. Yes, I know -- the Sage of Wasilla is hardly the only candidate in American history to embrace the underdog imagine regardless of her actual standing. Still...

It's just nuts. Perhaps she's an outsider in some sense compared to second-generation pol Mitt Romney, but she's on Fox News, she's widely quoted by everyone, and she was the Republican Party's Vice Presidential nominee a couple of years ago. There's no "political machine" to run against, no "preordained" candidate. It's all nonsense (as, for example, Seth Masket pointed out recently). There is, of course, an actual political party, which has various internal groups, some of which have very strong voices on particular issues of concern to them, but that's about it. Not even George W. Bush got a nomination handed to him. The way to get these things is to earn them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Sarah Binder has a post up at the Monkey Cage today responding to my recent piece on judicial nominations and a bit of empirical research by John Sides. I recommend it, and also her new Brookings study with Russell Wheeler, which looks in detail at which factors seemed to influence where nominations were made and where they were confirmed during the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency. Takeaway: the Obama administration has been much more likely to make nominations for openings in which the local Senators are Democrats.

Even in the best of circumstances, however, not all vacancies received a nominee during the 111th Congress, and the conclusion of the Brookings study is that the data suggest "the priorities of the federal judiciary do not bear heavily on the work of the White House in finding nominees or on the work of the Senate in confirming them.

I do want to respond to a couple of points Sarah makes in her post. She argues that the percentage of vacancies receiving a nominee over the full two-year period of a Congress is a better measure than what I used in my piece, which was just the current number of openings without an appointment. Actually, I'm not sure either is ideal; a better measure might also incorporate the time it takes between announcements of vacancies and White House action. For comparison's sake, any, or perhaps some combination, of these measures is probably okay. But I think this is one case where, in assessing the president, it's pretty straightforward: if there are currently 99 openings and only 45 nominees, along with 20 announced future vacancies with zero nominees pending, then there's something seriously wrong.

The second point is that Sarah puts a little more emphasis than I do or John does, I think, on Senate resistance rather than White House lack of initiative, using as evidence her finding that Obama has nominated judges most promptly when the local Senators were Democrats. I think that's a fair point. But it's also something that points to serious structural problems in an era with high levels of partisanship, a 60 vote Senate, and strong interest by some very noisy interest groups in judicial nominations. Solutions to that problem may prove hard to come by. The question of Obama's relative lack of attention to the judiciary (along with that of Democrats in the Senate), on the other hand, seems to me to be quite a bit less structural. In other words, while the general issue of judicial nominations is structural, a large chunk of what's happened over the last two years, and continues now, is simply Barack Obama's fault.

More on What Birthers (Might) Believe

Since I wrote on this earlier in the week, I'll pass along some relevant links, and renew my previous plea to reporters and/or pollsters to investigate this more carefully. John Quiggin has a long, interesting post in which he interprets birtherism as a "shibboleth" -- I'll let you read the whole thing, but it's intriguing. Jon Chait responds by, in part, raising our old friend the closed information feedback loop. And Dave Weigel's thoughts about birtherism as a partisan marker are worth reading, too.

I should also pull up from comments tesibra's reporting that there's a large strain of birther belief that fully accepts that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, but believes that he is nevertheless not a "natural born citizen" because of a strained reading of the Constitution -- one that has the added benefit (from one point of view) of also disqualifying many Mexican-Americans from citizenship.

I'll just mention again that while all of this is interesting, it's almost completely speculative, at least at the mass level. What is clear is that Republicans, and especially the most partisan Republicans, have learned to answer polling questions with birther answers. As far as I can tell from the discussion, however, we really know very little about what most birthers actually think beyond how they will answer those questions. As I argued, there really is a range of possible beliefs here that would generate those answers, some of which are pretty disturbing (in that imply either rabid conspiracy thinking or rabid racism or both) while others are largely benign. And again, see the links above and comments on my previous post for even more plausible speculation -- but it really is speculation, as far as I can tell.

I'm all for the kinds of interpretive analysis that Quiggin presents in his post, but I also think that there's an empirical question here once we get beyond the elite level for which more information would be very helpful, whether such information is gathered by reporters doing follow-ups to polling, or by someone (maybe these folks?) doing a more extensive survey.

No Deal

There's a ton of stuff the last couple days about a possible grand budget bargain in the works -- yielding lots of worry from liberals, who as usual are panicked that any Democratic president's number one agenda item, at all times, is to sell them out. I agree completely with Ryan Avent's astute analysis (via Sullivan):
I would expect neither Obama administration Jedi mind tricks or secret deals to yield real budget solutions. Explicit outside pressure, from bond markets, will yield deals. And that pressure is not yet forthcoming.
Yup. The last two major deficit reduction packages -- the bipartisan one during the George H.W. Bush administration, and the partisan one passed by the Democrats in 1993 -- were both driven by that kind of "explicit outside pressure." There's simply no reason to believe that Republicans would agree to significant increased revenues under current circumstances, and no reason to believe that Democrats would slash spending enough to make a serious dent in medium-term deficits without a Republican buy-in on taxes.

There are, however, major incentives for various politicians to act as if they are serious about negotiating such a deal. Not the least of which is that the sorts of people who write editorials love that sort of thing.

It's also true that some sort of deal will have to get done on the 2011 continuing resolution, on 2012 spending, and on other budget-related items over the next two years. So we'll get bargains. Just as we had a deal at the end of the 111th Congress to slash taxes (and, therefore, to massively increase the deficit).

So I'd expect plenty of stories about possible Grand Bargains. Regardless, that is, of whether there's anything much to it.

Anyone who thinks that the constituency for deficit reduction is larger than the constituencies against tax increases and large-scale spending cuts, however, is almost certainly mistaken. Absent, as Avent says, a conviction among politicians that deficits pose an immediate, tangible threat to the economy.

More on That Open Rule

Yesterday's item supporting John Boehner's use of an open rule on the 2011 spending bill (and by the way, see a very similar, but I think slightly better, item published right at the same time from Ezra Klein -- great minds, and all that), elicited some very interesting comments and a Barry Pump post. The general theme is: instead of congratulating the Speaker for choosing an open rule, the more helpful task is to figure out why, and what it tells us about what's happening in the House. I think that's correct, and so here's a second go at the topic. (Quick recap: the open rule allows lots of amendments; recent Democratic and Republican majorities in the House have almost always used some form of closed rule for most bills, which allows the majority party to dramatically limit and control which amendments will be offered).

I'll start with Pump, who follows up on my suggestion that closed rules and other leadership devices have made the House appear more partisan than it would be if Members had more choices:
A bigger question I have is whether this sort of issue matters at all. Even if agenda control is masking the number of potential cleavages (beyond party/ideology), members are still signing on to that agenda control. The median voter, at least, could demand open rules and play both parties until she got one. Polarization, then, manifests itself in procedure rather than policy per se. (This argument is consistent with Sean Theriault's findings.)
In the case of today’s votes on H.R. 1, Speaker Boehner may not have had much of a choice in allowing an open rule for the bill’s consideration. Bernstein would be falsely praising Boehner for allowing an open rule when in fact it’s the chamber’s median voter who demanded it of the Speaker.
Political scientist Matt Jarvis, in comments here, argues that two interpretations are consistent with what we see. One is that the open rule, and the subsequent voting across party lines, is basically for show, with everyone realizing that the real game will be in conference once both chambers act. The other possibility, however, is similar to Pump's speculation: as Jarvis puts it, "Boehner doesn't have control." If that's the case, he's used an open rule only to avoid defeat on a rules vote if he tried to choke off the ability to offer some of these amendments.

I'll give one other possibility, which is suggested by Stan Collender's very interesting comments about the possibility of a government shutdown -- for Collender, it's all about the demonstration effects:
[T]he House GOP leadership may have to agree to a shutdown to show the tea party folks that they are willing to do it.  They also need to show that the Republican Party will suffer real political pain from everyone but tea party supporters by shutting down the government.  As Bill Hoagland implies with his quote, the inability of the House Republican leadership to temper its tea party types last week on the continuing resolution is as strong an indication as you can get that it needs additional leverage over that faction of its caucus and the likely negative political reaction to a shutdown may be the best/only way it can get it.
For the CR, this logic would imply that Boehner's real goal in using an open rule could be twofold: to show hard-liners that they don't have the votes for many of their most aggressive spending cuts, and at the same time to show them how easily the GOP can lose control of the chamber if rogue Members insist on their personal preferences instead of sticking with the party. Surely, if Boehner believes that a shutdown would be very damaging to the GOP in general and to his ability to remain Speaker in particular (and indications are that  he does believe those things -- as in my view he should!), then finding some way before the final crisis to defuse some of the intensity of budget-cutters who have a lot less leverage than bravado would be a smart move. If, of course, it works.

I think that's four or five possible explanations, some compatible and some not, for the open rule, and that's not counting the one that I (and Klein) emphasized yesterday, which is simply that the Speaker is fulfilling a campaign promise. I wouldn't discount that, either. So: which one is correct? I don't know! I think this is one of those cases in which we just have to watch and see what happens as the year goes along (and as additional reporting tells us more about what's happening behind the scenes). What I think is fair to say at this point, however, is that the House promises to be quite interesting this year, and I'm going to try to shift some of my attention over there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kudos To Boehner

Real legislating (well, that and plenty of spin and mischief-making) has broken out, of all places, on the floor of the House of Representatives this week. That's because Republicans have brought up the bill funding government agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year under an "open rule," meaning that Members can offer amendments. Lots of amendments. Over 400, apparently. And votes, lots of votes -- I just watched the tail end of 15 consecutive two-minute votes.

Of course, many of these amendments are of the grandstanding and gotcha variety, but there's substance, too. What's interesting is that unlike the purely symbolic votes that began the 112th House, the voting patterns on these amendments aren't purely party-line votes. So, for example, the first vote was on an amendment by Arizona Republican (and Senate candidate) Jeff Flake to cut $18M on "unneeded boards and commissions." I have no idea which boards and commissions were covered (doesn't seem to be anything on Flake's House web site) but the amendment failed 207-223, with Democrats supporting it 115-75 and Flake's fellow Republicans opposing it, 92-148. Interesting, no? The House web site doesn't have most of the amendments up yet, but the ones that I watched had several different interesting voting patterns: for the most part, they weren't just >90% of one party against >90% of the other.

By the way, one of the initial reactions I have is that it's a reminder that voting in legislatures is to at least some extent a function of what's offered for voting -- which suggests that the extraordinary level of polarization in voting during the 111th Congress may have been to at least some extent a function of how Speaker Pelosi and the majority structured floor action.

At any rate, I'm impressed that Speaker Boehner and the rest of the Republicans were willing to allow amendments on this bill. I expect that when push comes to shove the GOP will, like the Democrats before them, resort to closed rules and other tactics to make sure their priorities will pass and to protect their Members from tough votes -- and they've done so on several things so far. But on this one, they've kept their promise about open government and fairness.

Presidential Weakness (and Strength?)

I previously linked to Matthew Dickinson's post about how presidents are constrained by the options presented to them. Over at the Monkey Cage today, Elizabeth Saunders responds to Dickinson by pointing out examples  of how presidents break through these constraints. Basically, she has two answers. One is that presidents can challenge what's presented to them; she cites cases including Lyndon Johnson's intervention in the Domincan Republic and Barack Obama's policy in Afghanistan. The other is that presidents choose the advisors who are choosing the options, and those advisors may well choose with the president's preferences in mind.

On the first one, I'd say that I strongly agree that presidents can challenge the options they are given, but whether they will is another question. On the one hand, if there's one main lesson from Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power, it's that presidents should be active, not passive. On the other hand...Saunders is selecting the very highest stakes decisions, ones that both life and death and the future of the presidency are clearly at stake. It's one thing for a president to spend the time it takes to ask for additional options on that kind of decision; a president who does that for everything will rapidly run out of time. Dickinson's example was White House staff re-organization -- should Jimmy Carter really have spent more time on that? Perhaps so (given that his eventual choices weren't very good ones), but if that, then maybe not specific budget decisions, or choices about energy policy, or health care policy, or appointments, or, well, something. Presumably the art to this is to challenge the options presented often enough (and sharply enough) that those presenting the options get a good sense of the president's real preferences, and generally to keep everyone on their toes. But there are real limits, too.

On the second one, the problem is that (especially outside of the White House staff) presidential advisors have multiple bosses: not just the president, but their agency's bureaucracy, Congress, and perhaps outside groups. As Saunders says:
[T]he bureaucracy will surely leave its own mark on presidential options--whether through deliberate manipulation, well-intentioned but misguided advice, bad information, or flying under the radar of presidential monitoring.
Now, she's certainly correct that "when we observe a president selecting from options presented to him by advisers, we cannot necessarily conclude that he had little effect on their formation." But that's a fairly minimal standard.

What I'd say, following Neustadt -- and the more I learn about presidents, the more I think he's right -- is that it's certainly possible for a president to amass a great deal of influence, both inside and outside of his administration. But that influence must be earned, every step of the way. It doesn't come with the job, and it doesn't come easily.
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