Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Scrutinize This!

Steve Benen is concerned that the shorter presidential campaign this time around -- well, at least parts of the public portion of it are shorter -- will result in less scrutiny of the candidates. He backs that up with some pretty good evidence about the coverage patterns of the major newspapers now, compared to 2007.

I tend to agree with Benen that it's a nice feature of the long campaign that candidates are publicly vetted. It's a bit catch-as-catch-can; remember, George W. Bush managed to hide a DUI until almost the eve of the general election in 2000. But still, in a very large nation in which all the politicians can't possibly know each other very well, I think that public vetting-by-media is probably on the healthy side. For the parties, too: remember, if Gary Johnson or Buddy Roemer once killed a guy, Republicans would probably like to know about it before they nominate that Johnson/Roemer ticket next summer.

But I think the evidence is pretty strong that there will still be plenty of time. 1992 was a slow-developing campaign, too, and reporters managed to dig up plenty about Bill Clinton's draft record and marital issues before the first voters got involved. And while I'm generally reluctant to be one who says that the internet changes everything, I do think this is at least plausibly a case where it matters. For one thing, in the old days -- say, before the debut of the Hotline in the 1988 cycle -- it was still possible for a local story to sit out there for a long time without anyone knowing it. No way could that happen now.

Of course, there's always the chance that Tim Pawlenty will never be vetted because anyone who tries focusing on him for more than a few minutes will fall into a deep sleep.

Just kidding. He's probably "boring" in the same way that Gore in 2000 was a liar and Bush in 2000 was stupid. So I probably shouldn't be contributing to it...but, yeah, I do find him dull so far.

(edited the last sentence)

But I'm Clean!

How should House Democrats vote on the debt ceiling increase scheduled to lose on the House floor today? Remember, not only have Republicans scheduled this vote at least in part to give them an opportunity to vote against something that eventually at least some of them will have to vote for, but they've scheduled it under the supermajority-requiring suspension procedure, I guess just to make sure it doesn't accidentally pass.

I haven't seen much reporting on what Democrats are going to do in response. It seems to me it depends on how they believe the end game will play out. If they believe that a deal will eventually be struck without too much disruption along the way, then it makes some sense for them to all vote against the clean limit increase. After all, we know that raising the debt limit polls badly, and eventually there's going to be a deal of some kind that they'll want to portray as a win, so they might as well get on board the "use the debt ceiling as leverage" bandwagon, if that's not too mixed of a metaphor.

On the other hand, if they believe that it will take a market cataclysm to get the limit raised (as Peter Orszag predicted last week), then Democrats most definitely want to pin that cataclysm on Republicans, and the best way to that is to vote yes on the clean increase today.

What about if they're not sure? Then vote yes. If a deal is reached without too much trouble, then the initial vote is probably going to be low-salience seventeen months from now, especially for those who voted yes on the deal. If, however, disaster strikes, it may well be something that Democrats want to run on in 2012. Note however it's a bit tricky; while Democratic House challengers have a strong interest in blaming incumbent Republicans for a market debacle, incumbent Democrats can't exactly accuse their challengers of failing to act (although a general preference for Democrats would obviously help them, too). It may be counterintuitive to vote for something that polls really badly for purely electoral reasons, but that's how I see it.

By the way, for those more interested in the substance of the debt limit fight, I wrote about that over at Greg's place today.

Partisan Media and Party Networks

Over on the twitter, my brother the ace reporter asks:
I guess the Q for me is: Does major-conservative-media fit into trad. party-influence model, or is it a new element?
Good question! (And, seriously, he's a terrific reporter, but don't tell him I said so).

I'd say two things. First, the partisan media that has emerged over the last twenty years is yet another component of the expanded party (see earlier post). Thought of that way, we should expect the partisan media to have its own set of interests and preferences, and to fight for those interests and preferences in the nomination process. Presumably, those interests and preferences overlap with, but are somewhat different from, the interests of the old neutral/objective media (think Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings).*

At the same time, however, the partisan media (and the old "objective" media) also plays an important role in transmitting information within the party network. In doing so, the partisan media can basically play the role that the old neutral media did; for example, they can take cues from party leaders as to which candidates should be taken seriously or which candidates are true conservatives (or, on the other side, liberals). **

And as with every other party component, they're not necessarily monolithic; just as not all activists agree, and not all consultants agree, it's possible that Rush could disagree with Beck, who could disagree with editorial decisions made by FNC producers.

Let me back up a bit...I think I said this sometime recently, but it bears repeating. There are two things going on in nomination battles, conflict and coordination. Just because "the party" is the thing making decisions doesn't mean that there isn't real, serious, intraparty conflict over real preferences and interests; on the other hand, unresolved nominations may well be that way because of coordination failures, not some sort of deeper conflict.

*As far as I know, we don't have a good exploration of this in the political science (or, for that matter, the communications) literature, but I don't always keep up with that stuff, so I may be wildly out of date.

** Same caveat. We know a fair amount about how this worked with the neutral/objective media, but as far as I know we don't know much about how the partisan media work as information transmitters -- but I may well be missing things I should read. Of course, if you know of something relevant, please drop a comment or an email.

Top-Down, Bottom-Up, and Party Networks

For those who read my response to Nate Silver's comments on Herman Cain, I definitely recommend reading Silver's follow-up, with a response to me and others.

Silver makes several excellent points -- as I said, read the whole thing. Perhaps the most important is just how difficult it is to resolve these things empirically because we have so few cases. As I pointed out in the previous go-round, we're talking at absolute best about twenty nomination contests, but it's really quite a bit fewer than that.

Silver argues that the difference between his results and my criticisms is, at core, about different ways of understanding the process. I think that's mostly right, and the rest of this post is about those understandings. So if you're looking for a review of how political scientists think about the nomination process, keep reading; if you want Herman Cain stuff, though, I'm afraid I don't have much today, just a bit at the bottom.

Silver argues for a bottom-up interpretation of the process. In this version, rank-and-file voters are autonomous agents. They're like those focus group participants that the networks sometimes turn to after debates. They start as undecided, spend time watching the candidates, and then make decisions informed by what they see and hear. While voter behavior isn't exactly my specialty (you want award-winning blogger Sides for that), in general I'd say that's not consistent with what we know about voting. To be sure, it's more realistic for primary elections than for general elections, and I don't rule out some role for unmediated interactions between candidates and voters. Indeed, I've argued that the role of primaries and caucuses now has become somewhat similar to what it was before reform. Back then, party leaders used primaries for information about how possible nominees would do with mass electorates (perhaps the most famous example is how JFK used the West Virginia primary in 1960 to "prove" that Southerners would vote for a Catholic). I think that's how it works now; for example, in 2004 I suspect that party leaders were willing to adapt to Howard Dean, but once he demonstrated a limited appeal to voters in Iowa they quickly turned on him and marginalized his campaign.

He calls the alternative "top-down." I have no particular problem with that, but I do need to clarify several things. First of all, not all political scientists agree with a "party decides" version of what happens in presidential nomination politics. Older research on (the reformed) nomination system emphasized candidates, the media, and voters. Voters still weren't really Silver's autonomous actors, but they were influenced mainly by candidates through their campaign, and by the press. So questions about media norms and biases were important. For example, one important story from that perspective was that "Jimmy Carter" rather than "undeclared" was the winner of the 1976 Iowa Caucuses, even though the latter had more votes, because the networks wanted to interview the winner and you can't interview an empty chair; and that decision matters because voters in New Hampshire are swayed by the positive publicity that Carter gets as a result. Or, in 2000, John McCain gets positive publicity because of some combination of his open-door policy (which appeals to the self-interest of reporters to get access) and the self-interest of the press to portray nominations as close, exciting contests, rather than just accept that a candidate with a large lead is very likely to be nominated (and, again, voters turn to McCain because of that positive publicity). Also important were questions about how campaign spending affected vote choice.

That perspective is still common, but party network researchers have introduced a new perspective, which finds that political parties play a far more central role in the process. Party network research begins by understanding parties to be not just formal party organizations (such as the Democratic National Committee or the California Republican Party) but also what I call an "expanded party" that includes campaign and governing professionals, party-aligned interest groups, candidates and their campaign organizations, and activists. Note, first of all, that this party broadly defined is not exactly the same thing as "insiders," and is certainly not limited to Washington-based partisans. Second, at least as I interpret it, this perspective is neutral with regard to which people actually do have more influence within the party -- it could be activists, it could be party-aligned interest groups, it could even be the formal party organizations. The answer will depend on lots of things, including political regulation (such as campaign finance laws), electioneering technologies, and...well, we don't really know.

At any rate, it seems clear to most of us working in that sub-sub-field that parties, properly understood, play major roles in nominations. For state and local nominations, see Seth Masket's No Middle Ground. And for presidential nominations, you should read The Party Decides by Mary Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller (you can also read my own contributions; here's -- albeit gated -- a short article I did with the great Casey Dominguez, and here's my narrative of the 2004 Democratic process).

My response to Nate Silver is that there is, in fact, considerable empirical evidence that expanded parties play a major role in nomination politics. Parties affect voters through fundraising, through how party-aligned and neutral media portray the candidates, and through direct cues to voters. On the other hand, parties haven't always controlled the process (the evidence is that they mostly didn't in the immediate post-reform cycles), and things can always change. And even within the current system, I wouldn't rule out direct voter effects. That is, if one of the things that various party members take into account is how candidates do with rank-and-file voters, then early good polling certainly could be a factor in winning party support, which translates into resources (money, prime spots on Fox News) that then produce higher vote totals in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now, I don't think that's even remotely likely with Herman Cain, because in my view party people would be nuts to trust someone with no record in public office. But it certainly is possible, I suppose; that's what I call Cain (and the others -- Bachmann, Paul, Johnson, Huntsman, etc.) implausible, not impossible, nominees.

And remember, what I'm calling "party people" in that last paragraph includes a lot of folks, not all of whom have identical interests or points of view. It includes activists who might be "purists" and just want the best candidate on their issues, regardless of what happens in November; pollsters and media specialists who might be heavily influenced by financial incentives; GOP candidates who mostly care about winning and little else; organized groups who may care about both winning and a record of loyalty on their issues; and many more.

So my advice to those trying to figure out what to make of early polling is to think about what each of the people in those groups would make of early polling. Because the odds are that it will eventually drive voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the rest of it if and only if enough of the party gets on board.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dogs, Not Barking

An occasional item about things not in the news, which is itself noteworthy. This time, only one that I've noticed, but two that were written up elsewhere...hope that doesn't break the theme of the item, but both pieces I link to below are definitely "dogs not barking" type articles.

1. It's still pretty early, but for what it's worth, the number of House retirements this cycle? None, so far. Ten Members will leave to seek other office, and three have resigned, but no one is just retiring, at least so far. Perhaps everyone is waiting on redistricting. By the way, I have to think that the 8/0 ratio of Senate/House retirements is historically strange for any point in the cycle, but I don't know that for a fact.

2. I've done a "Obama Administration scandals" in this item before, but I highly recommend Brendan Nyhan's column (and his research) about the lack of those scandals. Good stuff.

3. And a related item: Anna Palmer reports on the absent scandal-mongering oversight of Darrell Issa.

4. You know it: Fairness Doctrine, as always.

Kids Vote

I have a new column up at TNR making the case for vote-from-birth, something I've discussed here a few times.

In the column, I basically make the argument that if the justification for democracy has to do with aggregating interests, then the case for vote-from-birth (by proxy at first, of course) is surprisingly strong.

Is the case for vote-from-birth really a winner?

I think it depends on what one consider the reason for democracy. The column depends on what is basically a liberal argument for democracy. However, consider a justification based more on republican thought: Political action is inherently important and democracy is the means of extending meaningful political participation to the largest number of people. That view is less concerned with democracy’s outcomes than with the process of democracy itself. Humans have the capacity for self-government, but they can only achieve it if inclusive, participatory institutions are established. Voting, in this case, can best be seen as a gateway activity: It’s not quite “action” the way that republican thinkers might conceptualize it, but it is an important first step in full, robust citizenship.

Under this conception of democracy, one could imagine a case for teenage or older children voting as a sort of training wheels approach to doing politics. After all, we allow and even encourage teenagers to start becoming involved in politics in other ways, and it makes little sense to be more restrictive with the franchise than we are with lobbying, electioneering, and other forms of political action. But voting, under this justification, would be inappropriate for children too young to do much but ape their parents, and it would make no sense at all for parents to exercise the vote on behalf of younger kids or infants. If the point of democracy is participation, then what matters is citizen action, and action, as Hannah Arendt asserted, can’t be represented.

In my view, the best of the framers (fine -- I mean Madison) thought of democracy as a blend of liberal and republican thinking. and the system they invented basically incorporates both (and, yes, I know they didn't call it "democracy," but I don't think that matters much for the argument at this point). So while I find the argument for teenage voting very strong, I can only say that I find the case for vote-from-birth very intriguing. I will repeat, however, one conclusion I came to in the column: if for whatever reason things had worked out slightly differently and vote-from-birth was the status quo, people would find it normal and natural, and no one would dare to suggest robbing infants of their vote.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

What are the top positive agenda issues you want to hear Congressional candidates talk about in 2012? That is, things that they want to pass, as opposed to bashing Republicans over Medicare and other spending cuts. Note that this isn't quite the same thing as what you want them to do if elected...this question is about what you want them to talk about in 2012, which may or may not be the same thing.

Sunday Question for Conservatives

How much do you care, just in the abstract, about past support for some of the now-forbidden issue positions from presidential candidates? I'm talking mainly here about climate change and health care, issues where the party in general has changed its positions -- not something like abortion. It's pretty clear that most candidates who have been around more than a couple years will have some history of supporting things that the party now finds unacceptable...do you care?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

I'll tell you what I'm looking at: it's one more month that the US couldn't get through without troops dying in Iraq. Deaths there have returned to "normal" after spiking way up last month...still, we're still waiting for the first goose egg. US death in Iraq, January through May 2010: 33. This year, with a bit of May remaining: 24. And the last five months of 2010? Just 15. What matters? Whether the Obama Administration is really on course to be entirely out of Iraq, on its way out of Afghanistan, and closing things out in Libya, or not. I agree with those who emphasize that whenever American troops finally leave, there's a good chance that critics will say it was just a bit too soon. Can this president stand up to that? We'll see.

OK, that wasn't a perfect fit for "what mattered this week", but it's one of the things I'm looking at. A fair amount of shuffling in the GOP presidential field, with the possible entrance of Rick Perry certainly worth taking seriously. More stuff on appointments/confirmations. Some budget votes...I'm on record as not thinking that it's a big deal whether or not Republican Senators actually took a vote on the House (Ryan) budget, so I'm not convinced that one matters a lot, but others disagree. We had PATRIOT renewal...certainly important legislation, but not exactly a surprise (to me, at least).

I don't know -- what do you think mattered this week?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Brandon Crawford, the sixth guy -- according to the broadcasters -- in the history of baseball to hit a grand slam in his first game. Wow! I'm glad I have something to write about other than Buster Posey after all. Instead, I get one of my favorite topics, baseball and memory.

Here's the thing. As soon as Crawford's HR went out of the park, I immediately said -- Bobby Bonds. I didn't think it was nearly as rare as (again, according to the broadcasters) it turned out to be, but I clearly knew that Bonds did it. I knew that it was against the Dodgers, too, although I thought that he had another hit, maybe a double, in the game, which was wrong; I think I once knew it was a 9-0 game, but I had forgotten that. Here's the box from it.

Now, the problems. I thought I remembered watching it, but that's clearly (I assume!) wrong; it's a Tuesday game, and there were no nationally televised Tuesday games in 1968. Since it was the Dodgers, though, we were almost certainly listening on the radio; the Dodgers had an affiliate in Phoenix, as I've mentioned here before (we also could sometimes get the Giants station from San Francisco, but we wouldn't be doing that against the Dodgers). Could I really be remembering it from then? I was 4 -- 4 1/2, if that helps -- in June 1968. Seems unlikely, no? I have no-question clear baseball memories from 1970, and perhaps from 1969, but nothing else from 1968, I don't think. But there's a bit more. I seem to have a memory of seeing Bonds play for the Phoenix Giants. Two memories: one is my dad saying that we had to go out and see him, because he wasn't going to stay there long; and then a specific memory of watching him pull up at third with a triple. Real, or not? No idea. Bonds hit 7 triples in 60 games with Phoenix that summer, for whatever that's worth. Did I conflate that with some other player hitting a triple a couple years later? Was it really Bonds that I remember my dad talking about, or someone else, later -- or was it Bonds, but what I'm really remembering is my dad telling the story after the fact?

I can tell you only what I remember, and what, from looking it up, could have been the case. That's about it.

Now, I'm pretty sure I remember seeing the famous Mays/Bonds catch live on NBC's Game of the Week (Bonds and Mays converge in right-center, Mays leaps over Bonds and higher than the old Candlestick fence to catch it). That was in 1970. It certainly makes sense I would have been watching, since we only saw the Giants on TV a few times a year. But since that catch wound up being part of the Game of the Week opener for a while, it's possible that's what I remember. I don't think so, though.

Here's something I didn't know about Bonds until now: he lost it overnight. In 1979, age 33, he had an OPS+ of 122, playing every day, so he was a solidly above right fielder. The next year for the first time in his major league career he just didn't hit: OPS+ 71. And then in 1981, age 35, OPS+ 96...he tried again the next year in the minors, didn't hit at all (300 OBP/321 SLG in ~100 PAs), and that was that. Of course, Bobby Bonds was a truly great player, but with no value at all past age 33, not a HOFer.

Just amazing that someone could do something that doesn't seem all that extraordinary in 2011 and have it be only the sixth time in major league history.

A Little Friday Counterfactual Fun

I did one item already on Hubert Humphrey, but I hope you won't mind a second one. Nelson W. Polsby did an edited volume of counterfactuals once, and his contribution was "What If Robert Kennedy Had Not Been Assassinated?" It's been a while since I read it, and it doesn't seem to be readily available through a bit of googling (or, alas, on my bookshelf),  but the basic story Nelson told was that Humphrey would have won the nomination; would have offered the VP slot to Kennedy; and Kennedy, being among other things thoroughly a politician, would have accepted. The Democratic Party thus unified, Humphrey/Kennedy go on to defeat Nixon, and all sorts of good things (including, perhaps most importantly, a relatively quick exit from Vietnam) ensue.

That's what I remember from the essay, and I think it's all quite likely. One of Humphrey's problems in 1968 was that he was trapped by the prospect of LBJ withdrawing support; with Kennedy on his side, not only would many antiwar Democrats have been a lot more favorably disposed towards him even without any other changes, but at least in my opinion he would have had a lot more leverage to ignore Johnson. As it was, Humphrey wound up very close in the popular vote but down 301-191 in the electoral college (with Wallace taking 46 electoral votes). A three-point swing in each state would have brought Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Alaska, and (just barely) Illinois to Humphrey for 74 additional EV and a 265-227 lead. California, which Nixon held by 3.08%, would have put Humphrey over the top without going to the House. There's no way to prove anything one way or another, of course, and usually VPs don't make any difference at all -- but in this particular counterfactual, I think it's at least plausible that Humphrey/Bobby does three-plus points better than Humphrey/Muskie.

Now, I don't remember what Nelson speculated down the road, if anything, other than as a long-time Humphrey supporter he certainly thought HHH would be a good president. Just for fun, though...it's easy to imagine the oil shock followed by the deep 1974-1975 recession giving a somewhat younger Ronald Reagan the presidency in 1976 over Vice President Bobby Kennedy, perhaps with a GOP Congress (no Watergate landslide in 1974, for one thing). After that...well, I guess it depends on what you really think of Reagan. It's easy to argue that a pre-Laffer, younger, Reagan serves a couple of successful terms and actually establishes the GOP as a majority party for a while. On the other hand, it's also possible to imagine Reagan having a miserable time with the same things that Jimmy Carter couldn't handle, and Democrats reviving in 1978 and 1980.

But wait! I cheated a bit there; I ignored the 1972 election. I'm stipulating that Humphrey is pretty good at the presidency, and if so (and given what else we know) it's likely that he wins a major landslide in 1972. Over who? Most likely, Ronald Reagan, then halfway through his second term in California, and the clear conservative champion. It's true that in this alternative history the nomination process hadn't been reformed in the same way, but it's very hard for me to see Rockefeller or someone from the liberal wing winning, and I'm not sure who was available to succeed Nixon as the person who was tolerable to both sides. Maybe Reagan sees the writing on the wall and waits until 1976, but I doubt it. I say he runs, gets the nomination, and is totally clobbered.

And you know what? A history in which Goldwater and Reagan get clobbered (plus Nixon, originally from the conservative wing, losing two close elections) might just be enough to shift things around considerably. How? I have no idea. Perhaps it's Howard Baker or someone like that who becomes president in 1976, and Republicans evolve into a moderate conservative party with Reaganites marginalized, and wind up with a long-term majority instead of the deadlock that actually happened after 1980. Perhaps a true three party system emerges, with a southern-based, Wallacite Conservative Party replacing the Southern Democrats. Maybe then Republicans wind up relatively isolationist and libertarian, while Democrats keep serious Cold Warriors in the fold. Who knows?

I'm enjoying the comments over on the other Humphrey post, and I can't wait to see what y'all say on this one.

What Not To Notice

John Sides posted a great graph about how useless head-to-head polling is right now for predicting presidential general election results; I have a post up over at Greg's place in which I add a couple of other things not to pay attention to right now if what you want to know is whether Barack Obama will be re-elected or not. Mostly, I add that state head-to-head polls are useless now, and that they'll continue to be pretty much useless until after the party conventions next year. Why? Mostly, because state results are driven by national results. So if Obama wins by six points nationally, you can bet that he'll win, say, marginally Democratic states such as Iowa and New Mexico, regardless of what state polling indicates earlier on. Eventually, the electoral college will reflect the national results, and specific state quirks only really matter if it's a very close race. The other part of it is that while lots of organizations poll regularly at the national level, state polling tends to be a hodgepodge, and you a bad state poll is apt to be far more misleading than a bad national poll. Of course, this is the kind of stuff that Nate Silver is extremely good at, and when it starts mattering in fall 2012 I'll certainly be recommending his numbers.

As long as I'm on that subject, though, I'll add one more thing to ignore: state polling on the nomination process outside of the early states -- and even then, I'd take New Hampshire and South Carolina polling with a heavier than usual grain of salt. This is just a consequence of the stuff I was talking about earlier today...right now, rank-and-file presidential nomination preference isn't mediated by the people who are going to influence it down the line. In other words, no one is campaigning yet in California, and they won't for a long time. As 2011 goes on, Iowa and New Hampshire polling start becoming more and more meaningful as the campaign really starts happening in those places, but in states without active campaigning the results will lag behind.


Nate Silver goes where his numbers take him:
[Herman Cain] has good chance of having some influence on the race — perhaps like Mike Huckabee in 2008, a candidate with whom he shares some similarities. And I don’t think the possibility that he could actually win the nomination can so easily be dismissed. The argument that you’re likely to hear elsewhere is that candidates without an electoral track record haven’t won the nomination in the modern (post-1972) primary era. But it’s a small sample size, and some or another precedent is broken in nearly every election cycle.
I'm going to spend a little time on this, because it gets at several important things about the process. First, to Silver's credit, he's right about one thing: finding simple patterns in the postreform era is a dangerous game. Indeed, it's a bit worse than he suggests. Reform took place between 1968 and 1972, which would give us twenty trials: 1972-2008, two parties per cycle. But for most questions we can probably ignore "contests" with an incumbent president seeking renomination, which knocks out half of the GOP examples and two from the Democrats. Moreover, the evidence suggests that the early cycles after reform were different in important ways, so for many questions I wouldn't use cases older than 1984.

As far as Cain, however...the point isn't really that "candidates without an electoral track record haven't won the nomination." It's that they haven't really come close. The best showings by candidates who hadn't been elected to anything were, if I recall correctly, Jesse Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988; Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000; and Pat Buchanan in 1996 (and, I suppose, 1992). I certainly wouldn't count Wes Clark's 2004 campaign; military heroes, of course, have a long history of winning nominations. I suppose Pat Robertson in 1988, too.

Not only did Jackson, Forbes, Robertson and Buchanan never get particularly close to winning, but none of them is really a good comp for Cain. Jackson was a national figure, and a leader of an important constituency within the Democratic Party, long before running for president. Robertson was basically similar. Buchanan was well-known, and had worked in two White Houses. Forbes is perhaps a closer fit, but he had instant name recognition, if nothing else. Cain has none of that.

The larger idea here has to do with what a nomination process is really all about. Josh Putnam makes the point today: "The party decides these things -- more often than not." Or to put it another way, it's a mistake to think about presidential nominations as elections between equally matched candidates appealing to mass electorates. Instead, then of it as a political party -- which is a sprawling, unorganized combination of people and organizations -- trying to make a decision. That might involve resolving conflict, or it may just be a question of coordination in a system that has evolved (partially because of the way we regulate political action, and partially for random historical reasons) to make coordination very difficult.

So, yes, it's very easy for obscure candidates who have no real chance to have a couple of good weeks. Or, for that matter, famous candidates -- Bachmann, Gingrich, even Donald Trump -- who have no real chance to have a couple of good weeks. The sorts of things that push the process along in the long run don't really have much effect on short-term bubbles long before the voting starts; they don't even, always, prevent no-chance candidates from winning the occasional primary or caucus. The people who determine nominations don't care much if Pat Robertson finishes 2nd in Iowa or if Jerry Brown wins a late-season primary in 1992. But when they actually choose, that's not what it's about. Now, I don't want to make it sound like a handful of people in a back room -- there are a lot of people involved who matter, including activists, and they don't always agree.  So conflict can be a real part of it. However, it's just not going to be about who focus groups like after a debate -- it's not going to be an unmediated contest with candidates on the one side and independent, autonomous voters on the other. It's a party decision, and there's no reason at all to think that the Republican Party would choose Cain.

Hubert Humphrey

I'll direct everyone to an excellent op-ed today from Rick Perlstein on the occasion of Hubert Humphrey's centennial.

One of the ways to understand what an enormous figure Humphrey was is that one could easily write very different remarks on his legacy and still be correct. Perlstein emphasizes the extent to which the nation turned away from Humphrey's vision in the last thirty years, and that's one reasonable way to look at it. But one could also think about the extent to which the United States in 2010 is very much Hubert Humphrey's world. If we think about the major accomplishments of postwar, post-FDR liberalism, you get: fighting and winning the Cold War; ending formal segregation and the acceptability of explicit, public racism; and basically eliminating poverty among older Americans. Humphrey played a central role in each of them. And then the specifics go on and on, from food stamps to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the Peace Corps...the Senate page on Humphrey is a good start.

Humphrey's failure to win the presidency despite multiple attempts, his service as vice-president, and his association with the war in Vietnam all (mostly unfairly) tarnished his reputation, especially with baby boomers; his speaking style was easy to mock, especially once it was associated with losing candidacies. But that same speaking style produced one of the most important speeches in American history -- no, I don't think that's an exaggeration -- his civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention, which Perlstein rightly mentions. There are, of course, big "historical forces" reasons that the Democrats turned from supporting to opposing racism, but individuals count too, and Humphrey was perhaps the individual who counted the most, from then through the final legislative successes of 1964 and 1965.

Perlstein says that Humphrey is forgotten...I don't know whether that's true or not, but it certainly shouldn't be. Hubert Humphrey was simply one of the most important politicians in American history, and one whose legacy was, as far as I'm concerned, almost entirely a positive one, both in substance and style. In other words, a great man, and a great American.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Forced Ryan's Errors

Ross Douthat today argued that the Republican budget as drafted by Paul Ryan contained an "unforced error" on taxes:
By trumpeting absurd Heritage Foundation growth projections while staying vague (for procedural reasons related to House budgeting, but still …) on how its rate-lowering tax reform would be paid for, the budget made it easy for liberals to claim that the Republicans weren’t just cutting Medicare, but that they were doing it to pay for voodoo economics and tax cuts for the rich. These claims were unfair: The Ryan budget didn’t base its deficit projections on the Heritage numbers, and Ryan’s Medicare reforms assumed revenue-neutrality in the tax code even it the budget didn’t specify how that neutrality would be achieved. But politics is rarely fair, and by packaging an inevitably-unpopular Medicare reform with sweeping cuts in tax rates and then garlanding it with a supply-side fantasy about the likely consequences for economic growth, the House Republicans essentially wrote the Democratic Party an extra set of talking points. (It would have been far, far better if they had packaged the Medicare cuts with a revenue-neutral tax reform that explicitly lowered middle class taxes...)
Well, there are a few things here. . I've talked before about how I interpret Ryan's budget: I think he's signaling that he is, in fact, planning to rely on the Heritage numbers; he has no intension of really paying for rate cuts by cutting an equal amount of tax expenditures. But suppose I'm wrong; Ryan still isn't courting trouble by keeping his pay-fors "vague." If he specified which tax deductions or credits he was planning to eliminate, that's not going to help him at all. Tax expenditures are really popular -- at least for those who get them!

To put it another way...if Ryan admits that he's using phony numbers, then those who praised his "courage" might not have done so. If he specifies the pay-fors and they wind up (as Jonathan Chait expects), that the overall result is to shift the tax burden away from the rich, then Republicans get exactly what they're getting now (but with less wiggle room for objecting to it, if that matters). Or if Ryan somehow does come up with pay-fors that keep the tax burden the same, he's going to wind up having a lot of major Republican supporters quite unhappy with him for taking away their important tax deductions. After all, even if Ryan manages to find enough deductions to can to keep the overall share of taxes from the rich the same, there will be winners and losers within that group, and the losers aren't going to be very happy.

So keeping it vague isn't the problem; the problem is, basically, lowering tax rates for the wealthy as part of a deficit reduction plan. No matter what you do beyond that, it's going to be hard to sell.

One more thing. Douthat suggests, instead, middle class tax cuts. That probably works somewhat better (although it still has some of the same problems; tax reform involving lower rates and fewer tax expenditures is always going to produce winners and losers, and the losers are apt to be a lot more unhappy than the winners are pleased). But, c'mon: Douthat misses the whole point of the exercise, which is to lower tax rates for rich people. Of course, if you accept the idea of increasing the share of taxes paid by the wealthy, then virtually none of these convoluted maneuvers are needed.

So: vagueness isn't a forced error; it's the best of a set of bad choices, given the starting point of dropping rates. And dropping rates for wealthy taxpayers isn't an unforced error; it's "forced" because it's the whole point of the Republican Party, at least these days.

Catch of the Day

Jonathan Chait listens to NPR, which uses its Neutral Omniscient voice to casually refer to the national debt as "the biggest problem facing the nation."  Ugh.

As Chait notes, this really is the triumph of Pete Peterson. It's also the outcome of what Greg Sargent calls the "Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop." After all, anyone listening to NPR is going to tend to believe that the national debt is very important. Politicians, knowing that, are going to hesitate to dismiss its importance, and even more to the point are going to find it costly to say anything positive about deficits, even when they believe (or at least their economic advisors believe) that deficits are appropriate policy.

What it isn't, of course, is a factual statement of an objective condition. As Chait points out, calling anything the "biggest problem facing the nation" is going to be opinion, not fact. Even if you agree with Peterson about deficits, Chait is correct. Nice catch!

Palin Thoughts for the Day

If you're just itching to read about Sarah Palin today, I have a couple of links for you. One is a nice post by Paul Waldman on Palin's resentment and self-pity. The other is from me, over at Greg's place, talking again about my sense of Palin as a factional candidate at the head of a very personal "Palin faction." As usual, I say that factional candidates don't win presidential nominations these days; nominations are won by coalition-style candidates.

Thinking about the two pieces together, however...I guess the question is whether Palin's very personal resentment is enough to transform what looks now like a factional candidacy into something more. I've always thought that you won't go wrong betting on resentment in the GOP. And after all, resentment in the hands of Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, and John McCain all had a strong personal component, too. Of course, those candidates didn't allow their personal resentments to get in the way of active coalition-building; none of them behaved as if the normal rules of politics regarding what you need to do to get nominated didn't apply to them. I guess my bottom line on Palin is still the same: she's a plausible winner, and could still be a very formidable candidate -- but only if she starts acting differently. And, so far, based on what we've seen, she either doesn't believe she needs to do that, or is incapable of it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Catch of the Day

Ezra Klein totally takes a Paul Ryan claim apart today, with some help from Factcheck.

I'll let you go to the links for the details, but I'll just add that this is really amateurish stuff, as far as I can tell. Nor is this new for Ryan. I noted a few months ago that Ryan was still endorsing the "10/6" myth about ACA accounting, which was entirely false when it was invented and, at any rate, totally absurd in the context in which Ryan was using it. My post about that was called "Paul Ryan is Tired of People Taking Him Seriously," and I think I got it right. He may or may not have some real wonkish chops, but he's capable of such immense whoppers that it's hard to take anything he says at face value.

My real question is whether he's just a wonk very willing to play partisan even when he knows better -- and there have been plenty of those on the Hill, many of whom I think of as very good Members of Congress -- or if he really doesn't know better. So far, I don't have a good sense of it.

Who does it matter to? That's easy -- House Republicans, and to a larger extent Republicans in general. They're pretty invested in trusting Ryan, and if he really doesn't know what he's doing, they could easily wind up in a lot of trouble, both politically and substantively. Again, I don't know whether that's the case or now; again, lots of politicians who very much know what they're doing, Democrats and Republicans both, are willing to say all sorts of idiotic stuff when they believe it's important for spin battles. For those of us on the outside, that makes it hard to know which ones can do serious work and which can't.

And, unfortunately, the same is true for insiders.

The 22nd

Matt Yglesias makes the case today against the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms.

My general instincts are with Yglesias when it comes to leaving choices up to voters:
In general, I’m against restricting voters’ choices in terms of who might be president. I think parties should be allowed to nominate an immigrant if that’s what they want to do. Or a young person. Or someone who’s already served as president for two terms. Why not?
And I'm against term limits pretty much anywhere else: Congress, state legislatures, governors, mayors. For presidents, though, I'm much more ambivalent.

It's a close call, in my accounting. I'm not really concerned about the wasted talents of Bill Clinton (who, after all, is the only term-limited president since the amendment was adopted who would have been a plausible candidate for a third term -- and before FDR, it's not as if there's a long line of presidents who would have won a third term if not for the norm against it). I do, however, believe that it's a bad thing to have second-term presidents who don't have to worry about re-election. Returning to the voters is a big part of representation, and that's missing for second term presidents.

On the other hand, as much as I like to emphasize how limited the power of the presidency is, and as much as I don't really think that incumbency advantage is a big deal when it comes to presidential general elections...well, I do understand the point of a two-term limit as a check against presidential power. After all, the president is certainly the single most influential person over policy, including some very potentially nasty policies. Starting, of course, with war, but also including federal prosecutions, detention and imprisonment, spying, and others. One big check on presidents doing awful things with that influence is the question of re-election. But suppose presidents could build an incumbency advantage of, say, five to ten points. That is, an advantage just for being president -- perhaps because of the way that the news media treats the presidency, or through the ability to direct resources to key constituencies, or perhaps through large-scale constituent service. It doesn't bother me much when that happens at the House or Senate level, but it does worry me if presidential elections became unmoored from the consequences of presidential action. The downside consequences for democratic control just seem a lot more serious.

I'm really not sure where I come out on it. Really, I'd like to return to a world in which a third term was Constitutionally permitted but strongly discouraged by norms within the political culture, but that, alas, is not available.

My favorite thing about the 22nd Amendment, by the way, is that it was passed by Republicans to punish FDR. That'll show him!

More Field Talk

I'm sort of committed to noting every time Matt Bai writes a good piece (since I've been unkind when he doesn't). At the same time, I bashed NJ's Josh Kraushaar recently, saying that he was in the running to be the new Matt Bai. So this is a double-obligatory item, because both Bai and Kraushaar wrote the same column today, and in both cases it's pretty good. The topic is that the GOP field isn't as bad as all that. Bai is right that some of the white knights look better from afar than they would up close and that the process of winning will supply the "stature" that none of the candidates have now; Kraushaar is good on the importance of the economy, compared to the candidates. I could quibble around some of the edges, but they're both solid articles.

Meanwhile, I'll use this excuse to repeat my own points about "the field is weak" talk. First, what matters as far as November 2012 is concerned is the winner, not the field. Second, while I agree with both Bai and Kraushaar that the crazy candidates look unlikely to win as of now, the chances that the winner will wind up having to say all sorts of crazy things along the way are as high as ever. And while it's easy to overstate the effect of candidates or what they've said, in a close race everything can matter, so overall you would rather have a strong candidate who hasn't said a bunch of nutty things and taken goofy positions.

Unemployment and Presidential Candidates

Via Douthat, Michael Barone notices something:
Only one of the In or Probably In candidates holds public office, and that is Ron Paul who in the House of Representatives is often on the minority side of 422-1 roll calls. All five of the out candidates holds public office, though Barbour will leave the governorship at the beginning of 2012 and Daniels will do so at the beginning of 2013. The demands of running for president and of tending to official duties have some impact here.
The observation is probably correct, although Michele Bachmann is probably a candidate, and I suppose she has a better chance of winning than Paul. However, unless Rick Perry jumps in and wins, which seems in combination fairly unlikely, or the far less likely event of some other currently elected pol jumping in and winning, it sure looks like the GOP will nominate an unemployed politician this time around.

But as I said before, this isn't a normal consequence of "the demands of running for president," because Romney or Pawlenty or whoever is going to be the first unemployed nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984. Since then, all twelve nominees (including a few sitting presidents) were all currently serving in office when nominated. Barone may be thinking about the first few cycles after reform, when it became conventional wisdom that being unemployed was an advantage after Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Mondale all won. But that didn't pan out over time. At least not until this cycle, when the Republicans will most likely break the streak.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

House Republicans Not Reality-Challenged?

I haven't yet commented on the fascinating reporting by Politico's Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman taking us behind the scenes of the GOP House conference's decision to support Paul Ryan's budget, but it's certainly an important clue to what's happening. Short story for those who haven't read it: many Members had misgivings about passing something that was unpopular and had no chance of being enacted into law, but they went ahead and did it anyway.

The big caveat to keep in mind when reading things like this, to be sure, is that people generally talk for a reason.  Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp looks good from their account, right? Well, sure; it's easy to leak to reporters that you were on the losing but correct side of an internal debate. I'm not saying Camp wasn't; I'm just saying that anything in these sorts of reports should be taken with several grains of salt, waiting for many more accounts before settling on anything, even provisionally, as a full picture of what actually happened.

That said, I see two positive signs for House Republicans in this account. OK, one real one, and one just for fun. The frivolous comment is that it's very good to see that the GOP House conference is apparently relying on real pollsters this time around; in 1995, if I recall correctly, they commissioned Frank Luntz to cook the numbers, yielding a situation in which many Members apparently believed that highly unpopular policies were actually the Will of the People.

The serious positive sign is that Republicans apparently were, and are, aware that their Medicare plan is actually unpopular.

Why is that a positive sign?

This gets back to the old epistemic closure discussion, once again. Recall that Julian Sanchez's famous posts about the conservative feedback loop were concerned with elite, not mass, delusion. In my view, that sort of thing is a serious threat to democracy.

Now, by contrast, I can think of several potentially good reasons for Members of Congress to vote for something despite knowing it's unpopular. They may be more responsive to their strongest supporters than to median voters. They may believe that they have additional knowledge than voters and that what they know suggests that a policy unpopular now may yield popular results by election day. They may be willing to lose their seats over something they believe is morally or ethically required. They may believe (correctly, even) that the policy is overall unpopular but well-liked in their district. I can think of several others; there's nothing, in my view, about democracy that requires the votes of a representative to line up 100% of the time with the majority of her constituents. So when that happens, it may be worth thinking about and examining, but it's not on the surface a sign of dysfunction.

On the other hand, a situation in which party leaders, especially politicians, are structurally incapable of discerning reality -- including what's popular and what's not -- is a pretty serious problem for a democracy. So I'm happy to see any evidence that Republicans may not have that problem.

300 Million is a Lot of People

Oh, that wacky Dennis Kucinich, thinking that he can plop down in some other state's House district if he doesn't like what redistricting will do to the one he currently represents:
"After people found out that Congressman Kucinich's district could be eliminated or substantially altered in congressional redistricting by the Ohio Legislature's Republican majority, Congressman Kucinich received requests from people in twenty states, including Washington State, encouraging him to move and run in their area," a spokesman, Nathan White said in a statement.
I have no idea whether Kucinich believes that nonsense or not; for all I know, he thinks of himself as the much-beloved crusading avenger of the left, and not some guy who couldn't break 5% in any 2008 primary (to be fair, he did manage a bit better results in 2004). Or maybe this is how he thinks you audition for a spot on MSNBC.

But bragging about "requests from people in twenty states"? C'mon -- I'm relatively certain that if I put in a little effort, I could generate requests from people in twenty states to "move and run in their area." One of the very first things to know about politics in the United States is how unfathomably big the nation is, and how having enough people agree with you to pack a room doesn't actually mean much, as far as political impact is concerned.

By the way, I'm no Sherman: if nominated, I'd have a good laugh, but if elected, I certainly would serve. That should be a good enough warning, no?

Oy, Brooks

Apparently there's something in the Official Blog Contract that once in a while we just all have to react to whatever David Brooks is saying that day. I think I'm going to mostly be a slacker on this one...if you want to know what I agree with, see what Jamelle Bouie had to say (hmmm...guess I should actually read it instead of just relying on the tweet version...checking...yeah, I mostly agree); if you want a smart opposing viewpoint (that is, opposing what I think is correct), check what Matt Yglesias says. I'm usually up for arguing political institutions with Yglesias, but I'll pass on it today...meanwhile, I haven't read what everyone else has said, but I'm still gobsmacked at the idea (leading off the Brooks column) that anyone could think of the British political system of 1900-1920 as a success, given that those years would include the greatest political failure of the modern world, the Great War.

To be fair, the Brits only deserve part of the blame for WWI, but really...you know, I could go on, but it's just not worth it. I'm sure there are more foolish things one could say about 1900-1920, but it would take some doing, and it's plenty enough to remind me why I don't read Brooks except when these Official Brooks Commenting Periods come around.


Political Stories

Conor Friedersdorf has been writing lately about ways that political reporting could be improved, and I'll probably have more to say about some of his specific ideas later.

One thing that I think is fairly safe to say is that overall we get too much analysis, and too little great story-telling. Now, obviously I say this as one who is contributing to the glut of analysis, so it's a fair call to say that my own perspective is not exactly that of a typical reader. And I'm of course a huge fan of a lot of the analysis that's out there.

But far too much initial political reporting, in my view at least, is dedicated to proving that various stories matter. My reaction? Great political stories don't need to "matter" to be great stories, and they certainly don't need to matter beyond what they are. That is, the House special election today in NY-26 is a great story even if it doesn't signal anything about what will happen in 2012, or what will happen to Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, or anything else beyond who will represent the folks of New York's 26th congressional district in the House of Representatives for the rest of the 112th Congress. I mean, you have all sorts of stuff: a resignation in disgrace, the effects of a major national issue on a specific local election, a goofball third party candidate, scrambling by national parties to get involved, a candidate who (I found out today) doesn't even live in the district but could still win, and then whatever local flavor you can add to that...it's a terrific story. It shouldn't, at least in the first instance, only be treated as important because of What It Can Tell Us about other things.

Same point about presidential elections. Look, I'll argue forever that only Romney and Pawlenty, among the current fully active GOP candidates, have a decent chance of being nominated. But several of the other candidates are great stories -- and to tell those stories, reporters shouldn't feel obliged to force them into a context of What It Means or make implausible arguments about a mythical Garry Johnson surge or how Herman Cain really could win after all.

And of course analysis is important too; someone needs to point out that Johnson and Cain aren't going to win. That's an important part of news coverage. But in my view at least, there's just not enough appreciate for stories-as-stories.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is Hunstman a Plausible Nominee?

Ezra Klein's weekend question:
In 2008, Republicans nominated a candidate who’d fought the 2003 Bush tax cuts, opposed torture, sponsored the first cap-and-trade bill introduced in the Senate, flirted with joining the Democrats, passed a campaign-finance reform law, led the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and attacked the Christian Right. So why are so many commentators so certain that the heterodoxies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will disqualify them?
Well, I don't want to actually answer his literal question ("why are so many commentators..."), but I've been thinking for a while that I should write again on Huntsman, since I'm definitely one of those who do not believe that Huntsman is a plausible nominee (as regular readers know, I do think that Romney may win).

Why was John McCain a plausible nominee while Huntsman isn't? I'd say there are two major reasons. One is that McCain has advantages that Huntsman doesn't have. He brought to the campaign his war hero image, a long history of national visibility, and the experience of running a presidential campaign. Huntsman has none of that -- on the positive side, he's basically a generic former statewide officeholder, full stop. That's something; it's basically the threshold qualification. But there's no real plus beyond that. Utah is neither a large state nor one that proves him capable of winning swing or Democratic voters. He hasn't been a leader either in his party or of the conservative movement. There's just no plus there. So compared to McCain, he has similar liabilities (heterodox policy views on multiple issues, a squishy record of party loyalty) without any of McCain's advantages.

The second part of it is that John McCain won in part because every GOP candidate in 2008 had severe problems with one or more Republican-aligned group. Mike Huckabee was unacceptable on tax grounds; Mitt Romney had problems with anti-abortion groups; Rudy Giuliani...where to start? I suppose I could add Ron Paul, who national security Republicans couldn't accept. That was exactly why Fred Thompson actually stayed survived for quite some time -- he was the only candidate who would have been acceptable to every group and faction, and probably would have won the nomination if he had shown even a bit of a pulse. The problem for Huntsman this year is that Tim Pawlenty is playing the role of Thompson, and Pawlenty actually wants to be president. (I'd also argue that Romney is probably more acceptable to all factions now, having had four years for his new set of positions to set in; as I've said before, I don't think that health care is the same kind of litmus-test issue).

So, while it's always a good idea to look back at these things from time to time, I just can't see Huntsman as a plausible nominee. I can't figure out who -- in the actual Republican Party, the one that's going to select the nominee -- picks Huntsman over the other entrants. Now, there's always a possibility that something unexpected and unpredictable happens; that's part of politics, too, and, and once can certainly invent a scenario for Huntsman or any of the other implausible nominees. But for now, I don't see any reason to include him on the small list of those Republicans who have a decent shot at being nominated in 2012.

Catch of the Day

Andrew Sullivan finds Barack Obama's "new" wording on 1967 borders -- you know, the wording that throws Israel under a bus or some other such nonsense -- in a six month old joint statement from Secretary Clinton and....Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I do think that there's something real at stake in the latest flap; I'm not sure that Matt Yglesias is completely correct that Netanyahu and other Israelis simply want to keep all the land they seized in 1967, but I do think that there are real differences in what the Israeli government wants and what the United States wants, and that those are reflected in bickering over meaningless words. But, yeah, the specifics of this latest business is just a typical Fox News phony scandal (with Bibi showing that if nothing else, he knows how to play that game).

Nice catch.

By the way, I haven't had an item that gives me a chance to link to an excellent point Jonathan Chait made last week about Israel's security and the 1967 borders: that the old idea of "defensible" borders is basically obsolete in the present context. I hadn't heard that before, and it's very smart. I'd add that prospect here is only of a demilitarized Palestine, which makes the "columns of troops" idea even less likely to happen (and, unlike the Brits and French of the 1930s, the Israelis would surely move quickly, and with considerable muscle, if Palestine obtained even a single tank). Now, under the Yglesias way of looking at things, that's irrelevant; the old rhetoric about defensible borders is essentially a cover for Israel keeping what it considers its own territory. Could be! However, I think it's just as likely, at least for many involved in this debate, that they're just trapped within the old way of thinking -- since the defensible borders thing really was a major issue for twenty years (and, while I don't remember pre-1967, I certainly do remember honest concern about a conventional military defeat for Israel in the 1970s, and the perceived value of the 1967 victory as providing a very useful buffer against that).

NY 26

Nate Silver has a really good post up today about the NY-26 special. Silver, I think, gets it right: it's important not to read too much into the results of any special election, but it is worth assessing the data and getting what we can out of it -- even while being very careful not to extrapolate too much.

To be more specific: what everyone wants to know about NY-26 is how Medicare plays. And, if the polling is good enough, it should be possible to get at least a bit of information about that. But Silver is also right that it's really easy to read way too much into those data (for example, as he points out, those who would have supported the Democrat anyway may say that it was because of Medicare because that's what she's talking about). And what Silver doesn't mention is that knowing how Medicare plays in one place in spring 2011 doesn't necessarily predict how it will play elsewhere in November 2012. It's information, and you always want to add information, but you also have to be careful not to pay more attention to the data you happen to have than to the (potentially far more important) data you don't happen to have.

Silver is also quite right that for questions such as "how is Medicare playing?" the actual W/L election result isn't important at all -- what's important is to get good estimates of how that issue affected the margin. On the other hand, as I said before, the result can matter if it changes expectations about fall 2012, because those expectations then affect important decisions by political actors. Although, again, be cautious: we're all going to pay a lot of attention to NY-26 right now, but we can't tell in advance how important it will be to expectations a few months down the road. For all we know, there might be some other special that goes the other way in a few months, and that one will be on the minds of on-the-fence politicians when they decide whether to run for Congress.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

Same question as the question for conservatives (see longish, probably dull preface there):

Which interest group in the Democratic party coalition do you think is most responsible for preventing the Democrats from being a true liberal party?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Party position on public policy are generally a combination of the interest group basis for the party, ideology, and politician self-interest. Maybe some other stuff, too. But certainly, interest groups matter, and many groups are not particularly interested in whether their preferences sort well with the implications of the party's ideological statements. This can, of course, lead to situations in which a party strongly supports a policy which would seem, on the surface, to be very much opposed to their ideology. That's not a bad thing in my view, but it leads to a lot of frustration among the more ideologically inclined party members (to the extent to which many ideologues will reject party identification, because the party isn't "really" conservative -- or, for the Dems, liberal).

Which interest group in the Republican party coalition do you think is most responsible for preventing the GOP from being a true conservative party?

Daniels Out

Mitch Daniels ends the long tease -- he's not running.

Was it really family reasons? Perhaps, eventually, we'll get enough reporting to put something together; for now, I'll just say that I'm increasingly of the opinion that even the politicians themselves probably don't know the answer. We're talking about multiple variables, with "how much he wants it" only one, and family issues only part of that. So maybe the family was an outright veto -- or maybe if Barack Obama was at 25% approval instead of 50%, and maybe if a few more people were begging him to get in (or, perhaps, making firmer commitments), then his current level of commitment would be enough. As I said, I'm not sure that I'd trust Daniels himself (or any other pol) even if they believed they were being honest about it.

Of course there may be solid, relevant, info we don't know -- Daniels (or Barbour, or Thune, or Huck) could have been told by publicly neutral party leaders that they were really with another candidate, or even that they would strongly oppose him. 

And the list goes down. Remaining from my list (as of early this spring) of plausible GOP nominees for president in 2012 are Romney, Pawlenty, Palin, Perry, and Jeb Bush. I originally said my list of eight (it included Barbour, Daniels, and Huck) had at that point (late March) at least a 90%, and probably close to a 98% chance, of winning the nomination. So far the list as a whole is underperforming, but in my view it's still just about as likely that the nominee is on that list, although I suppose maybe a tick or two less likely. Still safely over 90%, at least in my opinion. By the way, for what it's worth, I really don't think Jeb is going to get in -- he (and Perry) are on the list because if they chose to enter, I think they would still be viable.

As for Daniels...I've never thought he was nearly as formidable as some made him out to be, so I don't think this is as big a deal as Huckabee's recent decision. Basically, I never saw what he had that Pawlenty didn't have, and Pawlenty would have had a major head start, among other advantages. Still, I thought he was at least a viable longshot, and apparently that's done now. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

I'm going to say that Barack Obama's big Middle East speech almost certainly goes down in the "didn't matter" category -- and that's not a criticism. Presidential speeches can matter, but this one wasn't likely to; he was unlikely to present new proposals, he didn't present new proposals, and now we'll move on.

I'm confident that Newt Gingrich's Very Bad Week didn't matter to the 2012 presidential race. Let's see...I guess Mike Huckabee's announcement was technically during the "What Mattered This Week?" week, and that one, I think, does matter. Huck was one of a handful of plausible winners, now a handful minus one.

And then we had the Liu nomination going down in the Senate. I do think that one was important, but I'm just not sure yet, as I said earlier, exactly what it signals. I'll certainly be watching.

What am I missing? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

I'm trying to remember similar cases to Ryan Vogelsong: an OK prospect in 2001, traded, hurt, bad, Japan, AAA...now back in the majors for the first time since 2006, and I don't know how long it'll last but, you know, Wow! With 6 IP tonight and only an unearned run, he's now up to 5 starts, 32 IP, and a 1.93 ERA. I mean, how often does a SP go down and you win the first five starts with his replacement, no matter who it is?

Where did that come from?

Hey -- it's five starts. Still, even if he collapses after this, what a story, no? And for what it's worth, his K/9 and BB/9 are both far better than his career norms.

How about this one.  If when Vogelsong was traded (along with Armando Rios) for Jason Schmidt at the trade deadline in 2001, you were told that his first five starts in 2011 would look like this, what would you have thought of the trade based on that information?

Or, if you don't like that one...Vogelsong actually debuted in 2000. Other pitchers who debuted in 2000 include Adam Eaton and Mark Mulder -- remember them? Or, of the 117 pitchers who debuted in 2000, guess how many have pitched in 2011? How about: 14. Of those, Vogelsong is dead last in ERA -- by a full run. To find guys with comparable ERAs, you need to go back to pitchers who couldn't make it beyond 2007. Which, of course, was Ryan Vogelson, just a few weeks ago.

With pitchers, it's all Joaquin Andujar. Youneverknow. I'm certainly enjoying the ride.

Long Run? See Keynes

Over at The American Prospect, Patrick Caldwell hits the Democrats for relying on soak-the-rich policies in their coming budget bid:
This is a smart political move by Democrats...But in the long term, only leveling new taxes on the wealthy is a bad policy. Obama pledged to leave tax rates as they were for the middle class during his campaign in 2008. When it came to debate the Bush tax rate extension last year, Obama proposed a rate increase only on couples making more than $250,000 a year. That would bring in an additional $700 billion in revenue over the next decade, but unless we revert to Clinton-era tax rates for everyone, the debt will still jump by $4 trillion during that same period. The truth both parties refuse to recognize is that if we're really trying to draw down the debt, doing so will eventually require the government to raise taxes on those in the middle class, too.
I'm going to disagree on two counts. First of all, even if Democrats are willing to break Barack Obama's pledge on middle-class taxes, there's no reason for them to make the first move, certainly not at this stage of the process. It's possible that the Republicans' magic asterisk contains middle class tax hikes; if so, let Paul Ryan spell it out and, if the deal is reasonable, accept it. (Of course, I don't believe that; I think it's just a budget-busting tax cut; either way, there's no advantage for the Dems in countering with real, painful tax increases or spending cuts).

But second of all...Caldwell suggests that the goal should be to "draw down the debt." Why? The same thing applies now as it has for two years: in the short run, there's no reason to increase the deficit; in the medium term, a PAYGO type plan is sufficient; and in the long run, the whole problem is health care costs -- and taxes aren't going to solve that. As for the debt: stabilizing it makes sense. Drawing down? Why? And you don't need middle class tax increases to stabilize. Especially in a political environment that isn't going to allow new spending on liberal priorities.

Let me elaborate a bit...long-term budgeting, in my view, is mostly a mug's game anyway. Matt Yglesias has been good about this (sorry, don't have a link available)...we really have no idea what things are going to look like 30, 50, or 75 years into the future. I wouldn't totally ignore the far-future (that is, more than ten years out) when putting together a budget, but mostly it's the effects now, soon, and a few years down the road that I'd worry most about.

No matter how many times people repeat it, the deficit isn't, at least in my view, something that people should be worrying about right now. Caldwell may be right (I'm not sure, but he may be) that eventually Democrats might prefer to push middle class taxes back to where they were in the 1990s, but it's hard for me to see why that should be a priority, even without the political damage it would cause for them right now.

Liu Down; Gang of 14 Not (Necessarily) Dead

The Gang of 14 agreed back during the George W. Bush administration that they would not vote against cloture on judicial nominations except in cases of "extraordinary circumstances." Yesterday, the four remaining Republicans from that agreement (which never bound anyone else) joined in voting against cloture on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the 9th Circuit Appeals Court; cloture received only 53 votes, with only Lisa Murkowski and Ben Nelson (also one of the 14) crossing party lines.

So, is the Gang of 14 dead?

Not necessarily. Extraordinary circumstances was always intended to be self-defined, and at least to my understanding never indicated that no nominee would be blocked. What it clearly did promise was that routine nominees -- and not only consensus nominees -- could come to a vote, and that at least those Senators were committed to preserving the filibuster on judicial nominations by pledging that they would have a higher standard for voting against cloture than for voting to confirm.

So the Liu vote can't be looked at in isolation; it has to be looked at along with two recent nominations which were confirmed without having the 60 votes needed to get cloture. Particularly important is the McConnell nomination votes, in which 11 Republicans voted yes on cloture and then opposed confirmation.

In other words, we have at least 11 Republicans who believe that opposing cloture needs a higher threshold than just voting no on a nomination, and (so far) two nominees have been confirmed who fell between those standards. Liu, for 10 of those 11, did not. That's not an unreasonable position, whatever their reasons for believing that Liu was a worse choice than the other two.

The biggest caveat is that the two previous cases, McConnell and Chen, were district court appointments, not appeals court. It would be nice to see at least one appellate nominee who gets a cloture/confirm split.

The other is that the Gang of 14 solution is at best limited only to cloture. Should Barack Obama be reelected while Republicans gain a majority in the Senate after 2012, it's not clear that any of his nominees could be confirmed, especially higher than the district court level. This, of course, would be considerably worse than a filibuster problem, which could be picked by changing rules; it may just turn out to be the case that current partisanship will make the constitutional system for selecting judges unworkable with divided government.

But back to the current situation: look, we'll have to see how this goes. It seems to me quite reasonable that one of the effects of a GOP landslide in 2010 would be that the president has new constraints over who he can put on the bench; it seems not reasonable at all if the result would be that no liberal-leaning judge could be confirmed. As petty as it is, if Liu was the Republicans' revenge for previous slights...well, it stinks for him, and it's petty, but the process can continue. On the other hand, if this means that Barack Obama cannot get mainstream liberals confirmed at the Appeals Court (or Supreme Court) level given the current Senate, then that's a problem.

Sorry; I'd like to be able to either tell you that things are dire or that this doesn't matter. Sometimes, we just need to know more.

Read Stuff, You Should

First things first: I've restored five posts that disappeared in the Great Blogger Glitch of last week. I've republished them all into the past, so they won't show up in the current flow of the blog...anyway, they're back, but I'm afraid the comments apparently were lost. Sorry about that. If you missed them the first time around and are still interested, I'll link 'em all here. There's a fun Catch of the Day (to Matt Yglesias) about religion and politics, featuring Breaking News! about drinking on Jewish holidays; a short post on the Common/WH phony controversy; how crazy works in the GOP primaries; why I skipped the Romney health care speech; and, last but certainly not least, congratulations to John Sides and the rest of the gang at the Monkey Cage.

On to the good stuff...

1. I'll start with John, and posts on the political positions of cabinet officers and other bureaucrats. On the other hand, Chris Blattman urges everyone to be careful with academic findings.

2. Kate Harding explains groping and other basics to foolish reporters and editors.

3. From Rortybomb (Mike Konczal), a great discussion of what liberals should want at the Fed.

4. One last thing about the rally effect, from Seth Masket.

5. Jay Cost's speculation about the GOP field and geography is worth looking at, although I'm not sure I agree.. And I really liked Paul Waldman's comments about people who run for president.

6. Budget stuff? Annie Lowrey is against the debt ceiling (she's right!); Pema Levy thinks it's probably unconstitutional. Also, Ezra Klein on why Republicans hate taxes so much.

7. Is the government watching you? Conor Friedersdorf might know.

8. Technology moves to the Hill. Slowly. Good reporting by Felicia Sonmez.

9. Want to change things in the world? Want to know what works? Then you probably should be reading Steven Teles and Mark Schmidt.

10. And if you haven't seen it yet, you'll certainly want to look at the cartoon version of What Newt's Campaign Said.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Appalling (Or Just Really Funny)

Michele Bachmann is considering running for president and so she's reading...The Politician, the book by a John Edwards staffer about how he concealed Edwards's affair?

Check that: Michele Bachmann is considering running for president and so she's bragging about reading The Politician, the book by an Edwards staffer about concealing the candidate's affair?

Also, other journalist-penned process books, apparently. Via Goddard.

(Do I need to spell this out? It's appalling that she believes that the proper thing to learn about if she wants to run for president is superficial coverage of process stuff. It's funny, of course, because...oh, if you don't see that, never mind).

Next Move?

A reader writes about new estimates on FY 2011 spending:
I've been seeing a lot of gloating from the left on the last spending deal turning out to represent a net rise in spending. But isn't this a repeated game? Maybe I'm just a nervous nellie, but this strikes me as something that significantly narrows the opening that any deal made in the next few weeks has to thread - and, alas, we seem to need such a deal somewhat soon. How much leash will his caucus give Boehner in the wake of it becoming clear that the more TPish members got snookered?
That's a good question, and I'm not sure I know the answer. But I'll take a crack at it...

On the one hand, I think there's an equilibrium available that involves GOP Members pretending that they're getting what they were elected to do (but which, in some forms, would get them in lots of trouble with the electorate if they really did it). That is: if you assume that spending cuts are popular in the abstract but specific cuts are unpopular, and that no one actually cares about the deficit, then the best plan for Members of Congress is to convince everyone that "cuts" have happened without, you know, actually cutting spending. The traditional way of doing that is to design and pass gimmicks that allow everyone to pretend that they've solved the problem. But phantom cuts should work just as well, as far as I can see.

On the other hand, there's also an incentive for loudmouth Members (and movement conservative media) to declare that anything that Boehner agrees to is not enough. After all, everybody hates Congress and is eager to believe the worst about them, and Boehner in particular is hardly a Tea Party hero.

The thing is, it's not clear to me that phantom spending cuts (if that's what happened here) change that calculus. That's because I'm assuming that the incentives for rogue Members and talk show hosts have nothing at all to do with actual spending levels or, even less likely, deficit levels. They have to do with broader incentives within movement conservative political culture -- they have to do with the way attention (and money) are given within the conservative network, and how people (customers?) there demand extremism for its own sake, not based on careful policy analysis.

So whatever Boehner does, he has to worry about dissent from the right. If that's the case, he has to spend a whole lot of time tending to it, but it really doesn't affect his decisions.

What would affect his decisions is if there are Members who honestly care, and really want, specific cuts. My guess, however, is that those are in the minority within the GOP conference. That's not to say that all Members of Congress are merely interested in reelection and don't care at all about policy, but that's not really what's at stake here; one way or another, the general policy direction is the same. But as far as the details are concerned, it sure seems to me that Boehner's solution, intended or not, should be one that keeps his conference relatively happy -- if it holds. That is, as long as it's plausible to pretend that they're slashing spending.

Ryan's Plan is Not a Litmus Test

Newt said crazy things about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan; Republicans freaked out. We have three theories to explain the piling on. Two are reasonable; one, in my view, is highly unlikely. The unlikely one, which Democrats are (sensibly) pushing and that Greg Sargent endorsed this morning: the Ryan Medicare plan, or more properly the House Republican Medicare plan, is now a litmus test that all true Republicans must endorse. I believe that's wrong; I think Republicans are free to oppose Ryan, as long as they do it carefully. So why did Newt cause a riot?

Reasonable theory #1 is that it was the way Newt attacked the Medicare plan. Suppose he had said that Ryan was courageous and serious, unlike Barack Obama, and that the Ryan plan was one reasonable option, but that Newt favors...and at that point, he could have filled in the blank in lots of ways, including meaningless rhetoric. Instead, by using language that everyone agrees will turn up in Democratic attack ads, he left Republicans little choice but to fight back. (See, for example, Ross Douthat's summary of the flap).

Reasonable theory #2 was written up well by Steve Kornacki yesterday: Republicans have no use for Newt Gingrich, and have just been waiting for an opportunity to let him -- and each other -- know that for sure.

I believe both of these are exactly right. Of course, House Republicans deserve to get tarred with their VoucherCare plan, since they voted for it -- and, overall, I think it's completely reasonable for Democrats to attack Republicans over their intentions about Medicare. But I really don't think that Paul Ryan's plan is actually a litmus test for Republicans in 2012, as long as candidates are sensible about how they avoid endorsing it, and I certainly don't think that's what's happened to Newt over the last few days. That's why I decided from the start not to take Newt's campaign seriously -- the guy is just a total fraud, and anyone who didn't remember it from the 1990s was bound to learn it soon enough.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

You Won't Know This If You Weren't Shown

Matt Yglesias flags an interesting Kevin Carey piece about a new initiative on open-resourcing information from community colleges. It looks highly interesting, and if you care about education policy I recommend reading through both linked items.

From the policy process perspective, it's a good jumping-off point to hammer home two extremely important things that don't get enough attention.

One is that most bills passed by Congress these days and signed into law by the president contain multiple pieces, many of which started life as totally separate bills but were combined for reasons of legislative expediency. So this one was passed as part of the education add-on to ACA, the health care reform bill. Now, no one tallying up the efforts of the 111th Congress noticed that they had done some important having to do with this aspect of education, but it turns out they had.

The second is that what happens in the agencies and departments matters. A lot. Of course, Congress is important (see above!), but this particular program, according to Carey's reporting, was really the result of innovative people at the Departments of Labor and Education -- in particular, apparently a guy named Hal Plotkin at Education. For the press, the lesson here is to pay more attention to policy-making at the administrative level, and not just at the legislative level (the terms are customary but not illuminating; lots of things that happen in the departments and agencies look just like "laws" and function the same way). For the president, and for those who worked to elect the president, the takeaway is that fully staffing the administration is highly important. Each vacancy is an opportunity lost for creative, innovative policy-making that would have carried out another piece of the agenda the president ran on back during the election.
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