Sunday, July 31, 2011

Quick Note on the Prospective Deal

A few quick points:

1. Everyone is working off of incomplete information.

2. It is in the interests of all advocates, as long as negotiations are still open (or negotiations can potentially be re-opened) to denounce any compromise as a sell-out that's just too much for their side to accept, in the hopes of moving the final agreement a tick or two or more in their direction.

3. Almost everyone is taking their cue, including the basic information they are getting, from partisans and advocates; see points one and two for where that gets us.

That's not to say that no one is right or wrong about how good a deal anything in particular might be; it's just worth pointing out that the dynamics of the situation should, at this point, leave everyone unhappy.

After the deal is finally enacted, the incentives are a lot more complicated; some partisans may find it in their interest to portray it as a win, and others will not. But at this point, everyone outside of the negotiations should be upset.

Oh, and by the way, Seth Masket is absolutely right.

Sunday Question for Liberals

You know, I ask Sunday Questions because I'm really interested in hearing what people think, but (1) I'm pretty sure I know what liberals are thinking about the debt limit/deficit potential deal, and (2) it seems sort of lame to try asking about anything else. I was thinking of just calling it an open thread for liberals on the topic...

Well, instead, I'll just let y'all get into it with this one: how (if at all) do you think things would be different in these negotiations if Hillary Clinton was president?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

What's the main lesson that you've learned (so far) from the debt limit/deficit talks?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

You know, I've been so focused on the debt limit stuff that I really haven't been fully alert to whatever else is going on. So, yes, the debt limit situation; the truth is that it's already damaged the economy no doubt, and it's likely to do more before it's over. That's not even counting that any deal that cuts the deficit short-term will, at least in my view, damage the economy. And then there's the damage, short and long term, that could escalate this week.

Sorry, I don't have much good news for anyone on this one.

The other very big news was the terrible GDP numbers, both in the recent quarter and the downward revisions over the last few years.

What else? Libya, I suppose. It's close to the end of the month; I might as well note now that coalition deaths in Afghanistan are off sharply year-to-year for the second month in a row. Indeed, barring a terrible weekend, July 2011 losses will be lower than the last two Julys, something that hasn't happened (month-to-month, that is) since February 2008 was lower than Februarys 2006 and 2007.

But I'm sure I missed stuff: what else? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, July 29, 2011


As we head into the weekend, after the Boehner plan squeaked through the House and got clobbered (59-41) in the Senate...I have no idea what's going to happen. Here are some of the things I don't know that I wish I knew:

1. How many votes will the Reid plan get in the Senate?

2. Assuming that's below 60, what would the Democrats have to offer to entice 7-12 Republicans to vote for the Reid plan? So far there's a lot of talk about who will or won't negotiate, but what exactly does a more Lamar Alexander friendly version of the Reid plan look like?

3. If #2 -- how many, if any, Democrats would Reid lose?

4. What would a McConnell-friendly version of the Reid plan look like? Presumably, that would get some 70 or more votes, but what would it look like?

5. Suppose a bill passes the Senate with somewhere from 60 to 65 votes. Would John Boehner be willing to allow a vote?

6. If so, does it get a majority in the House?  Presumably, that would take all or almost all of the Democrats, plus a small minority of Republicans.

7. Boehner would certainly bring up a bill that Reid and McConnell supported and that had received 70+ votes in the Senate. Would it pass the House?

8. If Reid brings a clean one-week debt limit increase to the Senate floor early in the week, would it get 60 votes? Does every Democrat stick for that?

9. If a clean one-week extension passes the Senate, would Boehner allow a vote? Would it pass the House?

10. Suppose none of this happens. What choices would the administration make about how to proceed over the first several days of the post-deadline period? By the way, see Annie Lowrey for a good primer on how it might look.

11. Or would the president blow through the limit?

12. If so, which option would he use: the 14th amendment, the coin, selling options to the Fed, or something else? Or would he just claim some sort of emergency powers inherent in the presidency?

13. Should that happen, would it "work" as far as the economy is concerned?

14. And would the House impeach him?

15. By the way, it's not really related to any of these exactly, but does anyone know just how much of the spending cuts from Reid's bill come out of the Pentagon? Philip Klein did some reporting on this and believes that it's a fairly big number ("hundreds of billions") which is a pretty big chunk of the bill if true -- but I'm not convinced that it is. Anyone?

Reports of Boehner's Death Greatly Exaggerated

I have a new column up at TNR arguing that Eric Cantor would be nuts to support a coup right now against John Boehner. Basically, it's the wrong time for anyone who has any interest in being a long-term Speaker, because right now whoever is Speaker will have the same problems that Boehner has right now.

But you know what? Part of the problem right now appears to be that sensible Republicans have massively overlearned the lessons of 2010 -- in particular, the cases of the handful of Republican Senators who were denied renomination. Sensible Republicans -- and I'm convinced that at least half, and perhaps well over half, of the House Republican conference fits into that category -- know very well that the line pushed by the Michele Bachmanns of the world is all a bunch of nonsense, and quite unpopular with the general public anyway. Sensible Republicans, no matter how conservative, realize that the current political context requires that they will eventually have to compromise with Barack Obama (and the Senate) over the budget and, well, everything else.

They appear, however, to be convinced that they're all one false move away from being defeated in a primary -- or, in Boehner's case, from being deposed in an internal House coup. Guess what? It's not true! In 2010, the big Tea Party year, almost every Republican Member of the House was renominated, and most GOP Senators were, too. Moreover, the exceptions were all cases that won't apply to most Republicans in Congress. Bob Bennett was defeated in a caucus/convention system, not a primary. Arlen Specter (who was chased out of the party, but probably would have lost) and Lisa Murkowski were both at risk mainly because of abortion.

And as I didn't quite say in the TNR piece, I wouldn't bet against John Boehner at least making it through this Congress, and perhaps a lot longer.

To be sure: paranoia about re-nomination is only to be expected; traditionally, Members of Congress have acted paranoid about re-election, no matter how many of them actually did get sent back every two (or six) years. Unfortunately, while obsessive and massively overstated concern about re-election has all sorts of benefits in a democracy, obsessive and massively overstated concern about re-nomination is much more of a mixed bag.

Beware Overreaching Interpretations of the Delayed Vote

Hey, sometimes I have something complicated to say, but this isn't one of them. Short and simple enough that it fits into the header above: beware overreaching interpretations of the delayed vote. As I write this, we don't know whether the House will wind up passing some version of Boehner's plan or not; if they do, 24 hours of chaos may turn out to have been entirely unimportant. And remember, it's not entirely clear that it matters at all whether the House passes it or not, since either way it's not going to get 50, let alone 60, in the Senate.

That's not to say that what happened yesterday clearly didn't matter, or even that it clearly mattered only on the margins. We mostly don't know yet. But it's also the case, and so far I've tried to duck this stuff but I've seen a little and I'm sure that there's plenty more out there, that we're getting plenty of What It All Means and What This Shows and What This Will Cause types of pieces, and I'd just caution everyone that what looks really important at the moment often fades a whole lot quicker than seems possible. Perhaps years from now yesterday will be the point at which something really significant happened in American politics and the Republican Party...but it's equally likely that three months from now yesterday will be entirely forgotten.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

All of a Sudden (It's Too Late)

Here's one wild guess about what's happened over on the House floor, where John Boehner had to postpone a vote at the last minute, presumably after he didn't have the votes.

My guess? He never got close. This late update from The Hill had not only the 25 no votes that put the bill below sea level, but a whopping 33 undeciding/not saying (along with 6 more probable yes votes). That's after a day of heavy lifting.

Now, it could be that Boehner has been a handful of votes away, and it's just a question of a couple of dozen Members fighting it out over who has to bit the bullet and take one for the cause. That's a tricky coordination problem, and it's even possible (as I write this, the vote is postponed but still possible later this evening) that it's just taking a bit more time than expected.

But another possibility is that he's been far from getting there all day, and tried to stampede it as the only remaining tactic. Perhaps if he gave the impression that it was going to happen, he could stampede GOP-oriented media who might not want to be on the wrong side of practically every Republican in the House, and that in turn would put pressure on wavering Members to sign on. A longshot, but if Boehner knew yesterday that he was likely to lose, maybe it was a longshot worth stabbing at.

I have no idea which of these were true, and as usual I'll toss in a caution that I'm not a reporter, but my hunch is that he didn't come close. The clue? That big group of undecideds, all of whom were needed to vote yes. If Boehner was really close, you would think that he would have had some of those 33 jump on the bandwagon a lot more loudly over the course of the day. It's only a clue; it's possible that they all told him they would be with him if necessary...but at least some of them should have been convinced that they weren't in the very last group of Members whose votes might not be needed. But it is a clue.

So that's my guess. I suppose we'll see, later tonight and on into tomorrow. Meanwhile, my casting of Boehner as Mal yesterday isn't looking so good -- but my take on the House GOP as the geek Trio is looking better all the time. Which is not, to be sure, something that I'm very happy about.

Outside World

So how real are any of the proposed cuts, anyway?

Brad Plumer, now at Ezra Klein’s souped-up and even more must-read than before blog, had an excellent piece yesterday about whether a Congress can force a future Congress to stick to budget cuts or deficit targets. His answer, which I think is exactly right, is that well-designed procedures such as PAYGO rules to enforce widely agreed-upon targets can in fact work pretty well. He makes the excellent point that most of what Republicans are pushing right now wouldn’t fall under those categories. Indeed, that’s the real problem with the GOP debt limit blackmail strategy: even if they win now, the less there’s a consensus on what they win, the less the chance that the cuts will wind up being implemented.

I’d add a couple of things. One is that Plumer is mostly talking about discretionary spending. For programs which receive yearly funding in appropriations bills, Congress must act every year – and whatever the budget rules might be, strong Congressional preferences can relatively easily overcome any procedural safeguards. So what’s supposed to be cut this year could be very real, but once we get to the future, it’s a lot harder to know.

However, when it comes to entitlements, the logic works the other way around. Entitlements (sometimes called “mandatory” spending) simply are programs in which anyone who meets certain conditions is entitled to payment. If Congress never acts, they stay in place forever (the tax code works the same way; Congress doesn’t have to act to put next year’s income taxes into effect). So any entitlement changes enacted into law has a very good chance to stay in place for a very long time.

That’s really why those opposed to spending cuts are correct, I think, to focus mainly on entitlements. Not because discretionary spending isn’t important; indeed, one could make a strong argument that liberals should care more about the programs funded by yearly appropriations. But because once entitlement cuts are made, they’re really made. No matter what happens with discretionary spending now, the real decisions won’t be made until the actual fiscal year. And there will be many elections between now and then.

Frivolous Tonight

Unfortunately, this isn't a joke:
The disadvantage of tabling is that Republicans will insist that Boehner’s proposal had a chance in the Senate, and that Reid was simply afraid that it would pass.
Of course, in the real world, voting to table something is exactly the same thing as voting to kill it. But alas, the above analysis by Suzy Khimm is just good reporting on looking-glass land, as seen in this pathetic Erick Erickson post (my emphasis):
One week ago the entire conservative movement was unified behind Cut, Cap, and Balance as was both House and Senate GOP caucus — no small feat to be sure.
Then, because Harry Reid denied CCB a vote through a procedural motion, John Boehner produces a crackpot plan that rips the conservative movement apart at the seams and after taking two stabs at it, still can’t get to the promised $1.2 trillion in cuts he initially claimed it would have.
I'm not sure whether Erickson is irresponsibly misinformed or telling a deliberate lie, but Harry Reid did no such thing. Allowing a vote to table is allowing a vote. Indeed, Reid is under no obligation to bring up House-passed bills at all, and if he does bring them up they could easily be killed through the cloture procedure, which would at least give opponents an argument about a "procedural motion," albeit hardly a reasonable one given that it's the Republicans who have made it a 60-vote Senate. But a motion to table? That's pretty much what Republicans during the Bush presidency used to call an "up-or-down vote," before they (and, to be sure, the Democrats) flipped on or about January 20, 2009.

And as I've been writing this, Harry Reid just announced that he'll hold the vote to table tonight if Boehner can get his bill through the House this evening.

Cue the utterly implausible whining.

Deliver Us From the Elements

Norm Ornstein, on the House vote today (my emphasis):
So Boehner and his leadership team are pulling out all the stops, putting his full prestige on the line, to get members to renege on their ironclad pledges. Every speaker has these moments when getting to a bare majority is excruciatingly difficult, and it requires offering inducements or simple begging. But a speaker can only go to the well once or twice to get his or her members to walk the plank. In this case, Boehner’s tactical maneuvers mean that he is asking two dozen or more of his colleagues to walk that plank in return for something that has no chance of becoming law. Instead, it is a vote to give him the barest amount of additional traction to cut a deal for a plan that will dilute even further the package that they are on record condemning for its weakness.
What matters now, I guess, is whether the Speaker in doing so is gently pushing the bulk of his conference towards accepting a compromise in the next round, or whether they will, as Ornstein fears, balk at that next step. Note, by the way, that there's an interesting switcheroo going on here.

Today's vote isn't a tough one for the extreme Bachmann faction, which gets to vote no to everything. That's going to be about 20 Members, even in a successful vote (indeed, my guess is that Boehner today either just barely succeeds or gets clobbered, perhaps even having the bill pulled if that's what the whip count says). They'll love it; they get to pretend that if only everyone had stuck with them and defeated Boehner then the White House would have had no choice but to go for whatever they wanted. Of course, that's delusional, but that's what they're selling and, as far as we can tell, what their constituencies (or their markets) are buying.

It's certainly a tough vote for the next group, something like 30-80 Republicans, who like to pretend that they're with the rejectionists but don't really have their hearts in it. Voting for Boehner today makes it harder for them to keep up that pretense, and leaves them open to charges of flip-flopping and breaking various promises.

The thing is that today's vote also isn't all that tough for the remainder of the GOP conference. They're basically voting for something they support; it may not be their ideal position, but it probably isn't all that far off. And since (if it passes) they'll be with almost the entire conference and against, if reports are correct, every single Democrat, they'll have a good deal of cover from RINO charges. Oh, the crazier of the Tea Partiers will still call it a sell-out vote and all, but it's not apt to be a really damaging one.

But then, after Boehner gets clobbered in the Senate, it'll be time to cut the real deal. And if that does happen, we can expect the swing group, that 30-80 that will be with Boehner today if it passes, to oppose the compromise (along with the Bachmann group of 20 or so). The tough votes, on that one, are going to be for the rest of the Republican conference. Voting yes on that one is going to very much be a tough for for them. Not only will they be accepting a substantive package that will be far from the Cut, Cap, and Balance bill that they passed last week, and the Ryan budget they passed earlier, but of course they're going to be voting with the hated Nancy Pelosi and against something like half of the GOP conference.

Indeed, one way to see what's happened over the last several months is a long, long process of inoculating those Republicans against the damage from a debt limit vote that they surely knew was eventually going to happen (barring, as always, the possibility that Barack Obama saves them from it by blowing through the debt limit on his own). They got to vote for the Ryan budget, CCB, and soon direct votes on Balanced Budget Amendments. The vote today isn't quite as good as those, but it does give them yet another example of when they voted with an almost unanimous GOP against a (probably) unanimous Democratic Party.

Of course, this also as meant that all of these mainstream conservative Republicans now have a lot of votes on their record which put them far to the right of the median voter, perhaps even in their own districts. But that, by now, is an old story; if there's one thing that's clear about the 112th Congress, it's that Republican Members are far more concerned about re-nomination than about the general election.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 27. 1971

Nixon is still pushing the staff hard for results on leaks, on smearing the Democrats, on the Jews, and on Ellsberg. It's the latter that's about to push things well, well, over the line.

First, the president talks to his Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman:

President Nixon: Another thing we should do. I had mentioned to Ehrlichman or to you [...]I want to have the group in here now to get for me personally, particularly, the documents concerning the Bay of Pigs -- ...the Bay of Pigs, the U.N. confrontation, Berlin, the whole business of the Johnson and Kennedy administrations [...] In other words, make studies like that, Bob, like they make in the Pentagon Papers but I want to get those documents, you see. I'm supposed to have access to them, the bombing halt. Well, that's a good example of it. Now will you take the thing --

Haldeman: Yeah.

President Nixon: You tell, I guess, Krogh is the man or somebody over there that that's an assignment that is to be given. I will expect that to be followed out so that that's in mind. I don't see it in my file or any --

So the President is well aware that the Plumbers exist, and he's giving them assignments through, apparently, both Haldeman and Ehrlichman, at least. And what are the Plumbers up to? Ellsberg. They're still trying to get more information about him. Remember, they tried through the FBI, but Ellsberg's psychiatrist had refused to talk. So try again. Indeed, on that same day, July 27, Plumber David Young wrote a memo to Ehrlichman that they had asked the CIA for a complete psychological profile on Ellsberg. But the CIA wasn't enthusiastic at all about doing it, and the next several days were spent, in part, in pushing the CIA for results.

Meanwhile, the next day, July 28, Howard Hunt sent a memo to Chuck Colson called "Neutralization of Ellsberg." It listed various people to interview, in order to get information to "destroy his public image and credibility."

And among the action items was:

"Obtain Ellsberg's files from his psychiatric analyst."

And so it started. More on that one, soon.


Hey everyone! Plain blog is two years old! Today was my blogging birthday!

Thanks so much to everyone for your help and support. I don't want to bore everyone with a big long list, but thanks to everyone for the links, for the help & encouragement, for comments, and for reading. I very much appreciate it, and here's hoping for another great year.

Thank you!

Burn the Land and Boil the Sea

My piece over at Greg's place today emphasizes the differences between the Boehner and Reid plans. I wish I had seen Jonathan Chait's post before I wrote mine; he goes at it from a different angle, but I basically agree with how he sees it.

I also want to direct attention to what Chait said earlier today about House Republicans:
[I]t seems that Boehner successfully appealed to the GOP's sense of partisanship. Selling a compromise with Obama as a necessary step toward the fulfillment of one's agenda in a power-sharing arrangement is hard. Selling an attack on Obama in those terms -- even one that does far less to reduce the size of government -- turns out to be pretty easy...[O]nce you've gotten the right to cross the philosophic threshold Boehner has, the next step is a lot easier. Boehner will lose plenty of conservatives if and when he cuts a final deal, but he'll gain Democrats. The key step was breaking down the right's default denialism and sense of entitlement to total victory. That's achieved.
As I said earlier today...maybe. The problem is that Boehner is trying a pretty tricky move: step one is to get them to give up "total victory" and, in some cases, a reluctance to ever vote for a debt limit increase in return for the partisan loyalty of voting against what Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid want -- and then next step will be to get a lot of those same Republicans to sign onto a deal that Obama, Pelosi, and Reid also support. Except he won't need all of them, because for every Democrats who goes for that deal, that's a Republican that doesn't have to. I think it's still too early to see how it turns out.

Seth Masket managed to fit a Boehner/Indiana Jones into his excellent post on the debt limit negotiations today, so I'll try to top that by saying that John Boehner is a bit like Mal Reynolds, who having decided to do the right thing and realizing that it involves betraying Niska, is busy scrambling around trying to figure out how to save his skin (that basically makes the Tea Party Niska, right?). The question here is only whether Niska's flunky (no, I'm not going to suggest a name) will meet the same gruesome-but-awesome fate in this version of it. Also, I sort of doubt that House Republicans would come to Boehner's rescue if the Tea Party catches and tortures him. Even if they have Wash, too.

More on House Leadership*

Steve Benen is all over Speaker Boehner for selling his debt limit/deficit plan to his conference based on the argument that "Barack Obama hates it, Harry Reid hates it, Nancy Pelosi hates it." Benen's fun point is about hypocrisy : Boehner has been claiming that it's the Republicans who have bipartisan support while the Democrats do not, something that is not at all consistent with pushing a plan that he claims Democratic leaders hate.

But the bigger point, which he also gets at, is far more important. The truth is that Boehner's plan is a totally legitimate, if many months late, opening offer. But if he's presenting it to his conference as a done deal -- if he's arguing that if only they vote for this, the Democrats are sure to fold and accept it -- then he's just not telling them the truth. I'm not sure I agree with those who say that Boehner's plan is very similar to Harry Reid's proposal, but I do agree that it's not hard at all to picture a compromise between them. However, it's just not true that the Senate will vote for Boehner; indeed, as of now it looks as if Boehner won't get a single Senate Democrat while losing four or more Senate Republicans. Reid might have 50 votes for his own plan, but probably doesn't have 60. So the two plans, after the votes are taken, are headed for another round of deal-making. Which, of course, is how this stuff is supposed to go.

If Boehner is selling his plan as a way to avoid compromise...well, then we're basically not much closer to getting this done than we were when Boehner and Barack Obama were throwing big numbers at each other that had no chance to pass the House. It will, to be sure, be a step back to reality if House Republicans actually vote for (and pass) a debt limit increase, regardless of the conditions. But if they're being told this is the farthest they'll have to go, then they aren't quite to reality yet.

*Apologies for boring item titles today. Stupid 19 inning game....

The House Leadership

I thought Pema Levy's post about blame for the debt limit mess was excellent -- with the important caveat that we're still waiting on a lot of the behind-the-scenes information that could help confirm what most of us suspect.

Levy's point is that the GOP leadership should have been preparing rank-and-file Members from the start for an eventual compromise, no matter what they were saying in public. After all, they knew that eventually the House was going to have to vote for a debt limit increase, one way or another (at least barring unilateral action by the president, which presumably wasn't the goal). So if things go wrong, John Boehner, and especially Eric Cantor, deserve the blame.

I think that the key evidence for this is in Mitch McConnell's plan to dump responsibility on the president, but to surrender on GOP-backed spending cuts. At the time, I interpreted McConnell's plan as primarily a warning to Republicans: if you don't cut your best deal with the Democrats, you'll wind up getting nothing, and still the debt limit will go up, because it eventually must. The question is: did Boehner (or Cantor) ever make that case in private to GOP Members of the House? Did they do anything to educate their conference on either the substantive or political realities of the situation? Perhaps we'll find out that they did, and that what we've been seeing in public is nothing more than really good play-acting. If not, however -- if House Republicans really don't understand the policy they're dealing with, or the political context -- then I agree that Republican leaders are very much to blame.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Double Super Secret Plan, an Update

Inspired by Nate Silver and Nicolas Mendoza, I've reluctantly decided to revisit a topic I blogged about on the Friday evening leading into Fourth of July weekend, which means no one noticed it.

Oh well. Might as well have fun with it.

July 28, 2011 Barack Obama announced he's had second thoughts, now fully endorses Boehner plan, CCB, and Reid plan. His new bottom line? He'll accept anything Congress can pass, as long as it isn't just a short-term clean debt limit extension.
July 28 (twenty minutes later): House passes clean debt limit extension through 2013.
July 29 Obama condemns House, urges Senate to pass Reid plan and DeMint's Balanced Budget Amendment; Senate passes clean extension.
August 1 Obama signs bill with great reluctance, calling out Boehner and Cantor for ruining the nation.

August 30 Obama says debt limit great missed opportunity, calls on Boehner to implement $4T, all spending deficit reduction with FY 2012 bills -- veto threat against clean appropriations bills without fundamental Medicare and Social Security reform.
September 15 Congress passes and sends to Obama clean appropriations bills for FY 2012.
September 16 Obama vetoes FY 2012 appropriations, threatens government shutdown if Republicans won't slash entitlements.
September 21 Combined Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh rally to save Social Security and Medicare ("Don't Touch a Dime") draws 5 million to Capitol Mall, millions more across the USA.
September 22 Congress overrides appropriations vetoes.

October 15 Obama goes on Hannity, declares support for Constitutional Amendment to revoke 14th Amendment "born in USA" citizenship.
October 18 Obama overheard on live mike telling racist joke about Latinos featuring multiple slurs.
November 4 House passes historic amnesty as part of comprehensive immigration reform, once again becomes law over Obama's veto.

October 31 Freak Halloween snowstorm dumps three feet of snow on DC, shuts down government; Obama delivers Oval Office address blaming Al Gore.
December 13 New House-passed carbon tax enacted into law.

January 2012 Michele Bachmann sweeps to GOP nomination after Obama hangs "Anyone But Bachmann" sign off White House balcony.

February 2012 Lawsuits dropped: video released of Obama musing at fundraiser that he had always been against the individual mandate, and they would be surprised to know that he actually considered it a mistake.

March 2012 House passes "Back to Work Act," massive public jobs program, after Obama pens NYT op-ed attacking FDR and praising misunderstood Hoover

May 2012  Andrew McCarthy, Marc Thiessen, and Liz Cheney respond to Obama Law Review article: we must close Gitmo now, try all alleged terrorists in Article III courts. Congress appoints Truth Commission to investigate Bush-era detention, recommend prosecution.

July 2012 After "wouldn't want my daughter to be one" comment, House repeals DOMA, passes ENDA.

September 2012 Convention shocker: Obama will stay on ballot, but "As for myself, I'll be voting for Bachmann/Cain and urge you all to vote straight-party GOP ticket"

...and you can fill in the second term yourself.

UPDATE: See too Paul Waldman, who beat me to it today by several hours.

Did Obama Miss a Better Path on the Debt Limit?

Andrew Sprung thinks so:
What would have felt like leadership from a Democratic president in 2011? Outline a deficit reduction/tax reform plan that included new stimulus at the outset, backloaded spending cuts and at least $2 trillion in new revenue over ten years. Refuse definitively, early and often to tie deficit reduction talks to the debt ceiling; insist early, loud and often that the debt ceiling must be raised unconditionally, and threaten to use the Constitutional option if it weren't. Say to the GOP: I'm ready and willing to negotiate - call me when you're ready to consider revenue increases. Eschew high-drama deadlines, and make it clear that the Bush tax cut expiration date is the endgame.
I guess I just don't see it.

The ability of the president to force Republicans to separate deficit limitation from the debt limit, in Sprung's (or any other) scenario, is limited to the threat of invoking the 14th Amendment and running through the limit. Whatever the Constitutional status of that threat, I would have argued that it contained grave, serious threats to the president. Invoking the 14th now, or next week, after well-demonstrated GOP stubbornness and immanent danger, is one thing; declaring the debt limit unconstitutional by executive fiat right after a GOP landslide would have been seen by everyone except core partisans as an illegitimate overreach. Instead of constant reminders about presidents of both parties supporting increases in the debt limit, we would have been subject to constant reminders about how presidents of both parties accepted the limit, even when Congress delayed or attached stuff to it. At least that's my best guess. In my view, it would have handed the Tea Party House a huge gift: they, and not the president, would have been the reasonable ones.

The other half of this, as I mentioned over at Greg's place, is that even if the debt limit wasn't an issue, Obama and the Republicans in Congress would still be headed for the exact same showdown at the beginning of the next fiscal year this fall. Granted, a government shutdown without the threat of a default would hold somewhat fewer long-term dangers (and, therefore, I fully agree that the Democrats should have rid themselves of the debt limit problem last year, and at this point I definitely believe the president should seriously consider blowing through the limit if necessary). But a three-week or so shutdown will be damaging enough in the short-term, and therefore the president would still (will still) have a strong incentive to avoid it.

Beyond that, I just don't see any good options for Obama, then or now. Nothing we have seen gives any indication at all that the House of Representatives was at all willing to pass a debt limit increase without adding  measures unacceptable to the Senate and the Obama. I see no reason to believe that changes if the president spins better or bargains better.

I'm not at all convinced that Obama has done a good job bargaining over the budget so far this year, but I'm not convinced he's done a bad job, either. Mainly, I'm just not convinced it matters much, except on the spin and public relations side, where in my view he's doing just fine. As I've been saying, I really do think that liberals are not taking seriously enough just how wacky the U.S. House majority is right now, and how little ability anyone has to do anything about it. I agree with those who say that the exception -- maybe -- is the business community. If they put pressure on the House to be reasonable, then we'll get a deal. If not, and perhaps even if they do, we're not going to get one.

The 14th, Revisited

I haven't written about this recently, so just a reminder:

At some point after August 2, if the debt limit is not raised, the President of the United States will have no choice but to break some law or obligation. Remember, Barack Obama has no legal authority to stop spending money that's duly authorized appropriated by Congress and signed into law. Nor is he allowed to fail to pay contractors who have valid contracts with the government. Nor is he allowed to not pay interest on debts that have been duly authorized, or redeem bonds that come due. And he won't have enough money to do those things, and will not, per the debt limit, be allowed to borrow in order to do so.

That's the context in which "invoking the 14th" (or it's playful cousin, the coin thing) is generally mentioned. Essentially, the problem is that the law (that is, laws passed by Congress and signed by the president) give contradictory instructions: you must spend this much more than you have available, but you're not allowed to borrow to do it. Given that the president must, in that situation, violate the law (or come up with improbable interpretations of the law), better that he do so in best keeping with the spirit of both Congress's most recent actions and, meanwhile, avoid or minimize economic disaster.

Will Obama choose to blow through the debt limit? I have no idea. There are both legal and political risks if he does so; the question is whether those are more, or less, important than the legal and political risks for not doing so.

Boehner Plan/Reid Plan

I don't have anything much to say about Barack Obama's speech last night, which I thought was not particularly inspired, or John Boehner's speech, which I skipped, at least for now (I had a prior engagement for family viewing of one of the weaker Buffy Season 4 episodes, which was nonetheless more fun than the president's speech, and almost certainly more fun than the Speaker's).

I do have one comment, however, on where things stand now.  For all the huff and puff of everything yesterday, not only is it obvious that Boehner's plan couldn't win in the Senate and Reid's plan couldn't win in the House -- but I  find it not very likely right now that Boehner's plan could pass in the House, or that Reid's plan could win in the Senate. The reporting on the House has convinced me that Boehner would probably lose 50 or more Republicans and I can't see him winning more than a handful of Democrats. I haven't seen any reporting at all on the Senate, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Reid lost Democrats on both the left and the right if his proposal went to the floor (especially given that it has no shot of getting 60).

Which I guess means that I think yesterday was just for show.

Monday, July 25, 2011

For Decades Now???

I get cranky sometimes.

NYT economics reporter Catherine Rampell says:
Economists want spending cuts and/or tax increases that come after 2012, when the economy is expected to be stronger. But to use Standard & Poor’s lingo, cuts that take effect in 2012 may not be fully “credible.” Committing to future cuts/tax increases is just another way of kicking the can down the road, as Washington has been doing for decades now. Almost every time Congress promises painful fiscal measures at some future date, later politicians jump in to dismantle them just before they take effect.
This is just so massively wrong. Incredibly wrong. Totally, completely wrong.

"Decades"? The budget was balanced -- in surplus -- just over one decade ago. Because Congress did, in fact, implement various measures that were passed in the 1990 (bipartisan) and 1993 (partisan) deficit reduction packages. And: "later politicians"? Well, yes, and they even had names, and belonged to a political party: George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, and other Republicans. They didn't so much "dismantle...painful fiscal measures" (although, yeah, they did that too), as that they enacted huge tax cuts. Sort of like the ones that got the budget into a mess in 1981. Which were, you know, also from Republicans.

(Note: in both cases, quite a few Democrats went along with the tax cuts, and fair enough from a deficit point of view to bash them for that -- but they were obviously and clearly GOP policies).

I might be willing to say that the Gramm-Rudman scheme and other mid-1980s attempts to find gimmicks to reduce the deficit would fit in Rampell's world, but certainly not the 1990 and 1993 plans. And certainly not anything since then.

Against Magic

Matt Yglesias wrote an absolutely wonderful post over the weekend about party politics, and how to go about improving things in the world. It's called "How To Move American Politics To The Left," but if that's not your interest it works just as well for the center, or for the right, or for libertarianism of whatever stripe, or for whatever your own idiosyncratic ideology or set of issue positions might be. The gist is this: if you don't like policy outcomes, the best way to do something about it is to elect people who agree with you. Or at least people who are closer to agreeing with you than the people in office now. And the process of doing so basically comes down to (if you want to move things to the left) two things: in marginal districts, support the Democrat against the Republican, and in primaries, support the more liberal Democrat.

Sound trite? I suppose it might, but it really isn't. Yglesias is writing against something that seems to have much more appeal, but is unfortunately entirely phony: the magic of a third party. I could add more: the magic of the perfect presidential candidate, or the magic of finding the perfect argument that will convince (or silence) your political opponents, or, and this one is of course more for self-described moderates, the magic of the grand bargain that solves issues for good.

The point he makes, which is absolutely correct, is that winning in this way is hard. It's incremental. It's not, usually, particularly heroic. It requires supporting the lesser of two evils most of the time. It requires, sometimes, skipping the fight that would feel good because there's another fight that rational analysis says would do more good. And it requires motivating oneself and others without the promise that if only we work a few more hours, if only we give a little more, if only we win this time then finally all will be right with the world.

Well, let me back up a bit...I said it was not heroic. It's not heroic in the sense that, if one accepts that political gains are incremental and usually temporary, it's harder to feel that what one is doing is on the grand scale, which is, for the most part, how many like to envision themselves, certainly in politics, if not generally. However, there is something heroic about it, precisely because believing in magic is a form of contempt for the democratic process. And why do we support democracy? In my view, it's not because of the illusion that if only democracy worked properly that our side would win.  It's because it's worth believing in democracy for it's own sake -- because there's something great about the idea that humans should have collective control over their own world. Believing in that means accepting that some people really differ with what you want, for good and bad reasons; and since they are human too, it means accepting that they get a say, also. And to me there's something a bit heroic about that, albeit not, perhaps, the kind of heroic that gets people to walk precincts in unfortunate weather conditions.

So hard, yes, and dull, yes. But heroic nonetheless.

How To Run Against the Ryan Budget After a Grand Bargain

Case #1: If you are running for Congress against a Republican incumbent. You say: my opponent voted for the Ryan budget that would destroy Medicare.

Case #2: If you are an incumbent Democrat who voted for the grand bargain. You say: my opponent supported the Ryan budget that would destroy Medicare.

Case #3: If you are Barack Obama. You say: my opponent supported the Ryan budget that would have destroyed Medicare.

In case 1, if pressed by reporters, you say: I support deficit reduction, but I oppose Medicare cuts and [insert any and all specific cuts that have been raised by the reporter or which harm your district], and I oppose the Ryan budget  that my opponent and other Republicans in Washington support that would destroy Medicare.

In cases 2 and 3, if pressed by reporters, you say: I got our budget under control. As far as Medicare, I supported modest cost-savings, but my opponent supports the Ryan budget, which would destroy Medicare.

Note: I am not suggesting that Democrats should (or, for that matter, shouldn't) agree to Medicare cuts as part of a grand bargain; and, for what it's worth, I agree with Scott Lemieux that the White House is nuts if it believes that a grand bargain will help in any significant way in November 2012. But the idea that a grand bargain including Medicare costs would prevent Democrats from running against Ryan in 2012 is just wrong.

Dep't of Very, Very, Obvious Observations

If in fact the debt limit is not raised well beyond the August 2 target date, and the economy suffers the severe blow that experts, Democratic politicians, and most Republican politicians believe is likely to happen -- the dissenting Republican politicians such as Michele Bachmann, Steve King, and Louie Gohmert (and other insiders) will not, in fact, admit that they were wrong about it.  Instead, they will blame Barack Obama for implementing the debt limit badly. And they will do so no matter how he implemented it (I'd say that would include if he did it precisely how they had advised, which would be true, except that I believe their position is mathematically impossible, so it won't be happening).

What's more, and this is only slightly less obvious and slightly less certain, they will almost certainly not be penalized within the GOP for being wrong. Indeed, what's far more likely is that if, as virtually all economists and budget experts currently insist, failure to raise the debt limit causes economic disaster, the likely effect within the GOP will be to enhance the prospects of those who claim that the experts don't know what they're talking about -- and any post-limit disaster will be considered yet another sign that the experts don't know what they're talking about.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

Do you support long-term deficit reduction? Do you support a long-term balanced budget over time?

As I've said, it seems to me pretty clear that over the last 30 years or perhaps longer, Democrats in office -- mainstream liberals -- have favored policies that tended to place a fairly high emphasis on either long-run balanced budgets or, at the very least, relatively small long-term budget deficits. Republicans in office have favored policies that yielded, or would yield, very large deficits. I'm curious about the extent to which those preferences of Democrats in office are in line with general liberal preferences.

(Note: virtually all liberals all the relevant politicians in office, believe that deficit reduction should begin after the economy resumes growing at a more rapid pace. Barack Obama and many Democratic Members of Congress do say that cutting a deal now for deficit reduction later would be good for the economy now. I'm not asking whether that judgement is sound -- I'm asking about whether, once economic growth is restored and unemployment reduced, deficits should be lowered significantly -- regardless of whether the agreement was reached now or later).

Additional, related question. Suppose that Republicans offered the following deal: they would support any plan that Democrats write that would cut $4T from total deficits over 10 years, with the only condition being that there would be no new revenues of any kind. Democrats would have total control over both the timing and the content of the cuts (but imagine controls that would actually require that every single dime of the cuts gets implemented). Should Democrats take that deal? Would that deal be better than a clean debt limit extension through 2013?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Here's the 2008 Republican platform:
Preserving Traditional Marriage
Because our children’s future is best preserved within the traditional understanding of marriage, we call for a constitutional amendment that fully protects marriage as a union of a man and a woman, so that judges cannot make other arrangements equivalent to it. In the absence of a national amendment, we support the right of the people of the various states to affirm traditional marriage through state initiatives...
Republicans have been at the forefront of protecting traditional marriage laws, both in the states and in Congress. A Republican Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, affirming the right of states not to recognize same-sex “marriages” licensed in other states. Unbelievably, the Democratic Party has now pledged to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which would subject every state to the redefinition of marriage by a judge without ever allowing the people to vote on the matter. We also urge Congress to use its Article III, Section 2 power to prevent activist federal judges from imposing upon the rest of the nation the judicial activism in Massachusetts and California...
Safeguarding Religious Liberties
...Forcing religious groups to abandon their beliefs as applied to their hiring practices is religious discrimination. We support the First Amendment right of freedom of association of the Boy Scouts of America and other service organizations whose values are under assault, and we call upon the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to reverse its policy of blacklisting religious groups which decline to arrange adoptions by same-sex couples.
Here's the question: what do you think the GOP's position on same-sex marriage will be in 2020? More generally, what will the GOP's position on issues surrounding gays and lesbians be in 2020?

Annals of Spin

I really enjoyed this bit of objective reporting, from Byron York at the Washington Examiner (via Drum):
Once the Senate Democratic leadership blocked "Cut, Cap, and Balance," House leaders stepped up work on the new proposal.
Did you catch it? "Blocked." Blocked. Of course, the Senate Democratic leadership didn't "block" CCB, at least not in the way the word is normally used. They gave it a vote! It lost.

Congressional leaders normally "block" things by refusing to allow them to be considered. Sometimes minorities in the Senate block things by filibuster. Of course, none of that happened here; CCB lost on a straight vote, failing to achieve a majority of Senators present and voting.

But York manages to insert here a hint that some nefarious scheme is underfoot to prevent GOP measures from passing, even if he has to manufacture it out of absolutely nothing. Cute, isn't it?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

You know what mattered this week? If it happens, that is: the decision to require birth control to be covered by health insurance. That's a big one, no? If, as I said, it happens. Way farther along the line of the decision/enactment/actually happening sequence, we also had the official end of DADT, and the remnants of the overall ban on gays in the military.

Oh, yeah, there's the debt limit/deficit talks. I don't really know what to say about it...the day-to-day stuff matters a whole lot less than everyone thinks, but of course there's plenty of reality here, too. The problem is it's hard to tell, at this stage, which is which. In the sense of unexpected events that will have long-term implications, though, there's nothing obvious this week that would count. As far as anyone can tell.

What else? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Hey, why didn't someone tell me that Clay Davenport's stuff is back?

EQA report, Playoff Chances, Adjusted Standings -- excellent.

I don't really have anything to say about it, other than I'm a big fan of Clay and his work. I could tell you stories about the long-ago days of, but all I'll say is that it was one of those nice communities that comes around every once in a while, and I very much appreciated the friends I made there, and the chance I had, back then, to talk baseball with a whole bunch of people who (I soon found) knew quite a bit more than me, but were interested in talking about exactly the same sorts of things that I was interested in. And were, almost down the line (and certainly Clay included) just a bunch of nice, fun, people to talk with.

Anyway, I remain a fan of Baseball Prospectus, and I guess Clay is still attached to it, but I had missed his version of the stats there, and I'm glad to see them back.

And I'd start diving in and do a little talking about the adjusted standings, but I think I've had enough blogging for one day.

July 22, 1971

President Nixon and Bob Haldeman seem to be spending most of their time on trying to figure out how to dump Spiro Agnew for John Connally, at least according to Haldeman's diary.

Meanwhile, though, the Plumbers are in action. E. Howard Hunt, in particular. He had been hired the first week of July, and charged, he said later, with being the new White House expert on Vietnam -- that is, on how the war started, or, actually, what dirt they could dig up on the Kennedys. John Ehrlichman paved the way with a phone call to the CIA to ask them to cooperate with Hunt...I should backtrack a bit. This is John Ehrlichman, the #2 guy on the White House staff behind only Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. Ehrlichman was in charge of coordinating domestic policy -- you know, really policy, such as the economy and the environment and race and whatever. Anyway, he got Hunt started, and asked the CIA to help.

Hunt stared by interviewing a CIA expert on Vietnam. Unfortunately, while Hunt was trying to learn about the coup against South Vietnam President Diem  in 1963, he failed to use his tape recorder correctly, and lost it all. Oh well.

Next, a trip to New England, to meet with someone who they heard knew something about Chappaquiddick (wait a second...Chappaquiddick? A White House aide was doing this?). Chuck Colson authorized Hunt to go. But Hunt wasn't just a regular staffer; he fancied himself, uh, well, uh, let me just tell the story. He decided he needed a disguise, so he went out on July 22, 1971 to Langley (remember, Ehrlichman had paved the way) and got over the next days various way-out CIA disguise stuff...a full wallet of fake ID for a phony name, hair and glasses and (Fred Emery's description) a "speech-altering device that gave him a lisp and a gait-altering device to make him limp."

Then he went up to Rhode Island and met with a guy who said that Ted Kennedy had been to parties, but no, he couldn't talk about Chappaquiddick. You know, the kind of thing he probably could have said in a phone call.

Howard Hunt is going to be a lot of fun.

Why Republicans Will Lose the Debt Limit Battle (more than the Democrats will lose)

So the talks are broken down again. It's not exactly a surprise; the odds have always been good that any deal, whether it's a Grand Bargain or something like the clean McConnell that gives the GOP only symbolic gains, will happen at the last minute. Remember, almost all of what we're seeing is either bargaining, spin, or some other form of posturing or misinformation. That's not bad -- but it is what it is, and there's no point in pretending that it's anything else.

Meanwhile, in a post over at the other place earlier today, I pointed out that the eventual deal, should there be one (and sooner or later there will be some sort of deal) will wind up a lot closer to the Democrats’ ideal position than to the GOP perfect spot. I owe an explanation for that, so here it is, in three parts.

The first is the most obvious. President + Senate > House. Republicans may have the most recent electoral triumph, and that may give them some advantages (what would be called intangibles in the sports world – often because they don’t exist). But the bottom line is that control of one branch of Congress is a much worse bargaining position than control of the presidency plus a majority, albeit a slim one, in the Senate.

The second is easily overlooked but terribly important: Democrats have the status quo on their side. The US political system makes change hard, and movement conservatives want an enormous amount of change. Mostly, Democrats just have to block it. Democrats, of course, do want quite a few changes of their own, few if any of which they’re going to get anytime soon, but those changes are nowhere near the magnitude of those in the Paul Ryan budget or current GOP-endorsed version of a constitutional amendment.

And third is that popular opinion just isn’t on the Republicans’ side. The story here is complicated if we’re talking about small shifts from current levels of government – most people report wanting a smaller government in the abstract, but most people also think that most individual government programs should be larger. There are a lot of different ways to interpret that reasonably, anywhere from arguing that the public is with the Democrats when they want to modestly increase the size and scope of the federal government, or with the Republicans when they want to pare it back a bit. But the public clearly wouldn’t support socialism, and it clearly doesn’t support repealing the Great Society and the New Deal. That puts public opinion far closer to where the Democrats are (since, just to point it out, even the putatively socialist Bernie Sanders doesn’t actually appear to favor government ownership of much more than health insurance).
Put it all together, and we’re certain to get something a lot closer to Henry Waxman’s or Tom Harkin’s or ideal world than Rand Paul’s or Paul Ryan’s.

Republicans. Not Congress. Republicans.

Ezra Klein (with Dylan Matthews) had a great primer on the debt limit, both in general and the current fight, earlier today that I highly recommend. Klein also had a very nice item about the debt and the ratings agencies just now that I'd like to recommend, except for one thing. It's called "How Congress put our credit rating at risk."

In my view, and I believe in Klein's view, this is wrong. The piece would be accurate if he replaces "Congress" with "Republicans" each time. Or, if that's not what he believes, then he should be talking about "Congress and the president" throughout. But I don't think he believes that. I don't think he believes that Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or Kent Conrad, or Steny Hoyer has put our credit rating at risk. And I don't think he believes that Barack Obama has.

(For what it's worth, I don't believe that Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or Tom Coburn has, either, although in each of these cases, including with the Democrats, I'm open to evidence to the contrary).

No, I think it's Republicans, both in and out of Congress, who are threatening the economy. And they deserve to be called on it.

The Obama Approval Mystery

Frank Newport of Gallup reported yesterday on a bit of a mystery in Barack Obama's approval ratings: he's doing better than he should, based on how Americans feel about the economy. Newport's speculation here; Jonathan Chait's here; Andrew Sullivan's here. Lots of plausible theories, and I have no idea which one or ones are correct.

But, hey, I might as well pile on with a completely different -- and equally speculative -- possibility. What all of the theories linked above have in common is they take Americans' views of the economy as a given, and theorize why Obama's approval rating is higher than that would predict. What if, however, what's going no has to do with views about the economy? I'm pretty sure that this story fits the top-line numbers in the data.

Let me back up a bit. What Newport actually says is that Obama is outperforming a particular question: "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?" Suppose that until recently, most Americans answered this question based on more or less the same information, and on the same basis. If things were going well in general for the nation, people said satisfied; if not, not. If that was the case, the satisfaction question would be correlated with approval ratings for weak partisans and true independents, but not for strong partisans. For them, the satisfaction answer would vary, while approval would not (that is, they would always approve of a same-party president, and never approve of an opposite-party president). Now, suppose that core GOP partisans during the Obama years no longer interpret the satisfaction question the way everyone else has, but instead are now automatic "dissatisfied" respondents as long as a Democrat is in the White House (either because the partisan news sources they listen to report the news that way, or because they interpret the question to include partisan politics, rather than economic conditions). The key is that their answer on the approval question would remain the same (extreme partisans, about a quarter of respondents on both sides, always give partisan answer on the approval question; that's why it's very rare for approval ratings to go above 75% or below 25%).

So what would have dropped out would be strong partisans, not from the president's party, who in the past might have been "satisfied" with "the way things are going" but disapproved of the president's job performance; now those same people would be dissatisfied, and disapproving.

Unfortunately, while Gallup does have the satisfaction question broken down by party for the last six months, they don't seem to have it posted going back any farther (there's a nice link at the bottom of that page to thirty years of the satisfaction question, but no crosstabs). The good news is that it would be very easy to test it, if one had the data.

Anyway, it's totally speculative as I said, and I could easily be dead wrong, but it fits what we know as well as the other theories, so I figured I should mention it.

Update: and yet another possibility, from political scientist Amy Fried. Good stuff!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Yeah Right, Harry

Harry Reid today, reports Felicia Sonmez and Rosalind Helderman, took to the Senate floor today to bash the House...for not staying in session this weekend. I'll give that a well-deserved Ugh.

Two comments. First, I'd bet that the five minutes or whatever that Reid wasted on that one would have been more profitable had he spent them on debt limit negotiations or strategizing than, well, any 72 hours of keeping either chamber in session with nothing to vote on. It's hard to know for sure, but my guess is it's better for Members of the House to get back to their constituents, who might actually have some reality-based thoughts, then to force them to listen to each others' partisan rhetoric. At any rate, the rank-and-file Members don't have much to do until someone comes up with a deal for them to vote for or against, and I'm pretty sure the leadership knows where to find them if they need a whip count on something.

Second: maybe Mark Schmidt is right. Perhaps the Democrats really are bad at this stuff.

Catch of the Day

Matt Yglesias points out that party polarization in Congress is not driven by gerrymandering, pointing to the obvious counterexample of the United States Senate, which has plenty of polarization but no partisan-manipulated districting at all.

What does produce polarization? This seems like a good cut at it:
There are two main reasons why the parties are so polarized today. One is that we have the best-educated, best-informed electorate that we’ve ever had in American history, so elected officials are under more pressure to reflect the ideological views of their backers. The other is that we lack a major, high-salience issue that’s uncorrelated with the main fights in American politics. In the middle of the 20th century, some economic populists were also white supremacists and some business friendly conservatives had progressive views on race and racial politics was very important to a lot of people. If something brand new (barbershop licensing, parking regulation, etc.) were to become highly salient that might cut across existing partisan divisions.
I'll also refer everyone to a useful article by Paul Quirk reviewing four recent books that touch on polarization.   I should note that in general, the literature puts a lot more weight on elite-level players, whether it's activists or politicians or other political professionals, than on the electorate as a whole. There's considerable debate, however, on exactly who the key players are and which way causation runs.

My own view is that we should promote political regulation that supports strong parties, but discourages ideological lockstep or internal party hierarchy. I don't believe that districting matters much one way or another, but I do think that a floor, not ceilings approach to campaign finance would be helpful. In two ways. Well-financed minority party candidates might sometimes win; therefore, parties might attempt to nominate candidates who match their districts (in other words, Mark Pryors and Scott Browns), and those candidates will have a much stronger incentive to run. Even more likely is that majority-party candidates in lopsided partisan districts will have a much greater incentive to care about median voters in the general electorate, rather than just caring about primary election voters and party activists. Sarah Binder wrote an excellent post the other day about Members who are "single-minder seekers of re-nomination," rather than re-election. If every major-party candidate had, say, $250K or even $500K in publicly provided campaign funds, re-election would at least stand a chance of remaining as a  major goal.

Hmmm...I could have more to say, but this is already long for a CotD post. So I'll leave it there, except for adding: Great catch!


Ezra Klein's post yesterday on what he called "the paradox of presidential leadership" made a strong case, with which I agree, that going public is apt to be counterproductive in an era in which the out party demonizes the president and demonizes compromise.

Klein refers to Richard Neustadt, however, and I do want to clarify Neustadt's idea of presidential persuasion. It's not, or at least not primarily, about what Klein describes as Washington's idea of persuasion, which is "taking strong positions, giving speeches, getting out on the campaign trail and forcefully making your case." I think a nice long quote from Neustadt is in order:
The separateness of institutions and the sharing of authority prescribe the terms on which a President persuades. When one man shares authority with another, but does not gain or lose his job upon the other's whim, his willingness to act upon the urging of the other turns on whether he conceives the action right for him. The essence of a President's persuasive task is to convince such men that what the White House wants of them is what they ought to do for their sake and on their authority...
Persuasive power, thus defined, amounts to more than charm or reasoned argument. These have their uses for a President, but these are not the whole of his resources. For the individuals he would induce to do what he wants done on their responsibility will need or fear some actds by him on his responsibility. If they share in his authority, he has some share in theirs. Presidential "powers" may be inconclusive when a President commands, but always remain relevant as he persuades...
A President's authority and status give him great advantages in dealing with the men he would persuade. Each "power" is a vantage point for him in the degree that other men have use for his authority. From the veto to appointments, from publicity to budgeting, and so down a long list, the White House now controls the most encompassing array of vantage points in the American political system. With hardly an exception, those who share in governing this country are aware that at some time, in some degree, the doing of their jobs, the furthering of their ambitions, may depend on the President of the United States. [His emphasis]
OK, what does that all mean? For Neustadt, "persuasion" is about transactions; it's about bargaining, in which the president has considerable advantages. It is not, and certainly not primarily, about what he calls "charm and reasoned argument." It's not, that is, about convincing anyone to agree about some subject; it's about convincing others to agree to do something, generally because he can align their self-interest with doing so. In order to do that, presidents may try using "charm and reasoned argument." They may try using what Neustadt calls status; Newt Gingrich, reportedly, used to go all weak in the knees when he stepped into the Oval Office. But most of all, for Neustadt, a president can use his "vantage points"  -- the many, many, bargaining chips that the modern presidency give him.

Note too that it's transactions between Washingtonians. Constituents aren't irrelevant; they have interests, and all Washingtonians with constituents must try to represent those interests, and presidents can use that to their advantage. Constituents, too, may like or dislike the president, and if a Member of Congress knows that the president is popular in her district, or an interest group leader knows the president is popular with the membership, she may be more disposed to go along with what he wants (what Neustadt calls "leeway"). Figuring out how to do that in a polarized era, in which many Republican Members believe that their constituents will on principle hate any deal with the Kenyan socialist president, is certainly a challenge that Eisenhower and Truman never had to deal with. There is, to be sure, plenty of room for argument about how well Barack Obama is handling that particular challenge.

But as far as "giving speeches, getting out on the campaign trail and forcefully making your case" is concerned: that's not persuasion as Neustadt understands it. His political system (and he's of course writing in the late 1950s) doesn't feature constituents who pay attention to such things, and if they don't pay attention they aren't going to be convinced of the president's views, and they aren't going to put pressure on their representatives to go along.

Of course, presidents have in fact done what political scientists call "going public" -- trying to win arguments in Washington by enlisting ordinary citizens. There's some evidence that, at least in some circumstances, it can work. In my view, however, it's unlikely to be anything more than, at best, a small additional weapon in a president's arsenal. Which is basically what Klein argued in his post.

Either way, however, I think it is important to remember that Neustadt's "persuasion" wasn't about convincing people who think one thing about public policy to reconsider and decide to think something else. It's about finding ways to maneuver their self-interest so that they'll agree to do what the president wants them to do, with as little cost to the president as possible. Skill in doing so, for Neustadt, both makes a president powerful and, as a side-benefit, produces good public policy. So it's terribly important that presidents realize what game they're playing, and get really good at it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

July 20, 1971

Richard Nixon has mostly been off in California, where there is no taping system, so I haven't been running any of these lately. He's also been busy with Henry Kissinger's secret trip to China, which of course is relevant to our story: part of why Nixon is so intensely concerned about leaks is that there really are important secrets that, one could argue, would harm the nation if they were exposed. Just as the fear of domestic terrorism was at least in part rational in the era of the Weathermen.

But of course what's really happening inside the White House has little to do with any of those legitimate concerns.

Catch of the Day

Republicans claim that they should be rewarded for conceding that the debt limit should be raised at all, because their ideal policy outcome involves not raising it, end of story -- and that there's enough money coming in to cover the essentials, defined as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, salaries for the military, and then debt service to avoid a default. The problem? This is nuts; it would mean that the entire remainder of the federal government would shut down. Liberals have been making the point for weeks, but so have plenty of responsible people from every spot on the ideological spectrum, and I think Megan McArdle today has the best list yet of some of the specific effects. Highly recommended.

Remember, there's a big difference between opposing an increase in the debt limit unless certain negotiable conditions are met (perhaps irresponsible, but hardly unprecedented), and a claim that the debt limit should nevernevernever be increased and that no harm would come of keeping it where it is for good.

(Via Drum, who also has a good post on Michele Bachmann, the leader of the nevernevernever caucus).

Oh, and -- nice catch!

Gang of Six

I think Jonathan Cohn nails it in his post this morning:
[W]hile it’s not inconceivable that leaders from the two parties could figure out some way to pass a plan like this, they would need time -- and that’s the one thing they do not have now...first we have to get past August 2. And it’s not clear this plan actually makes that easier.
The famous 1986 tax reform bill was a grueling two-year struggle that involved leadership from many quarters, including the White House and Members from both parties and both chambers, all united by a goal of a revenue neutral improvement to the tax code. It involved multiple complex fights over a wide variety of obscure provisions, each of which meant a whole lot to, generally, a small number of people. It was, in all respects, an improbable accomplishment.

And yet we're not supposed to believe that we can get not only a repeat of that, but also a major restructuring of the budget process, and specific spending cuts, and raise lots of money...all against a backdrop of the various mishegas of the debt limit...and in two weeks.

It's not going to happen. It's not going to come close to happening.

If you told me it was going to get done by the end of the year, I'd tell you that you were wildly optimistic.

What could happen is that everyone could decide they would rather have a resolution supporting Gang of Six principles than to actually have deficit reduction (since actual, specific deficit reduction has to include unpopular spending cuts or tax increases). They could even do a bit more; they could put a mechanism into place to turn the principles into legislation, and they could provide favorable parliamentary treatment for that legislation. But they can't guarantee that a bill would emerge, and they certainly can't guarantee that it will pass.

They also could peel off a piece of it and pass it now -- say, some spending cuts. But the problem with that is that it undermines the whole idea of the grand bargain; if some people get what they want now, they'll have no incentive to vote for the rest of the package down the road.

Of course, for those who believe that kicking the deficit can down the road is best policy, the Gang of Six approach has a lot going for it. But beyond that, in my view at least it counts on the side of symbolic deficit reduction, rather than actual deficit reduction. Whether that's enough to get it through the House? I have no idea, but I doubt it.

Constitutional Hardball Revisited

I wrote yesterday about the idea of "Constitutional hardball" -- the idea that there's always a gap between the norms of politics and the literal rules, and that if one side attempts to exploit that gap for short-term gains, it tends to be destructive to the system. I blamed the Republicans -- I really associate it especially with Tom DeLay and (to some extent Newt Gingrich) -- for doing so in several instances over the last twenty years.

I'm going to expand on the idea at some length here; I'm going to start by considering some examples raised in responses to my post, and then discuss a little what I'm trying to get at that's a bit different from the regular flow of politics. I'll start with Ron Replogle's interesting post. I'm going to skip the interesting stuff, which has to do with politicians and ethics (c'mon, click through and read it) though, and focus on one bit:
Let's not get hung up on the issue of whether Bernstein’s memory, and therefore his sense of outrage, are selective. I’m sure Republicans would be happy to remind him of, say, Democrats’ unprecedented decision to start filibustering Circuit Court nominations just because the manifestly over-qualified Miguel Estrada would have made such an attractive Supreme Court nominee or Obama’s decision willfully to opt out of, and probably destroy, the system of public financing for presidential general elections just so he could exploit his monetary advantage over John McCain in the 2008 general election.
I disagree on both counts. Filibustering on routine measures began under Republicans in 1993, not Democrats during the George W. Bush years.  As it happened, Republicans were in the majority in the Senate from 1995-2000, and so filibustering took the form of burying nominees in committee, rather than demanding 60 votes on the Senate floor, but this was more of a case of mutual escalation (going back to Bork, and the Nixon nominees, and Abe Fortas); I think it's wrong to say that Democrats crossed some sort of important bright line in the Bush years. On the public finance opt-out, I just don't really see it as a norm violation; the option of opting out always existed, and the norm ever since 1976 has always been to exploit the rules whenever possible.

I'm open to "Democrats did it" examples, but I really don't think either qualifies.

On the other hand, Kevin Drum has a whole mess of alleged GOP examples, and I'm not really convinced with his, either. Newt's use of Special Orders? Innovative, yes. Norm-violating? Not really that I'm aware of. Leaving House votes open beyond the official expiration time? Republicans during the DeLay years certainly overdid it, but Democrats had done similar, though less extreme, things when they ran the House. He's right about the norm of Senators not campaigning against each other, although it's pretty trivial (and, for what it's worth, I'm aware of at least one example as early as 1988; for all I know this is a norm that has been violated on and off for years). I do think that Drum's example of judicial nomination shenanigans isn't trivial at all, but as I said above I think this is a case of both parties gradually breaking down norms, with overall responsibility murky.

On executive branch nominees, however, I do think -- despite the Democrats' responsibility for starting the ball rolling with the John Tower nomination in 1989 -- that Republican actions in the last few years are really norm-shattering and clearly qualify. It's one thing to go after individual nominees for whatever reasons; it's another to make normal policy deals in exchange for freeing a nominee; but what Tom Mann calls the new nullification, in which the minority party in the Senate attempts to stop an agency from functioning through the nomination process is something altogether different.

I did forget one other significant DeLay-era example, however, and it's an important one -- the threat of using the Florida legislature to overturn the results of the 2000 presidential election. I do not believe that any of the legal actions taken by either campaign or any of the courts, including the final SCOTUS decision, count. Taking the other side to court after an election didn't begin in 2000, nor was that year the first one to feature partisan decisions by judges or Justices. In my view, in the event, Bush stole the election fair-and-square (that is, I believe the evidence shows that Al Gore received more votes in Florida than George W. Bush, had the votes been counted properly under the relevant laws -- but the relevant laws also allow for legal action, and partisan decisions, even ones that are difficult to defend). However, the threatened intervention of the Florida legislature was entirely norm-shattering, and to me at least highly disturbing.

OK, those are the examples. Can I tease out a principle here? I guess I can better just work out some qualifications. To count, an action has to violate a clearly established norm. That's why I don't count Democratic filibusters of Bush-appointed judges (Mark Tushnet counts both the filibusters and, to a lesser extent, the GOP "nuclear option" threat), because I think that the norm against routine filibusters was shattered earlier, in 1993-1994. It must also be substantively important, generally dealing with large, "who governs" types of things. The other hallmark of the cases I'm including -- untimely redistricting, the changes in filibusters after the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, recall elections and impeachment without significant cause -- is that they are shifts from one set of neutral rules to another. Take redistricting: neither the old system of drawing new lines every ten years, or the DeLay system of drawing new lines whenever the majority feels like it, is inherently more fair or just. Neither is either system inherently better for the Republicans or the Democrats. What's problematic is only shifting the rules in midstream.

Again: all parties and politicians attempt to use innovation to gain advantage, and there's neither anything wrong or unusual about that -- as long as it's within the bounds of where innovation and fighting about the margins of the rules is clearly expected.

OK, that's the case I want to make, at least tentatively, for now. I'm not sure I have this quite right, so comments are very much welcome.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Complexities of GOP Etiquette

OK, perhaps it's a cheap shot, but I sort of have to write this one. Yesterday, I ranted:
Ryan is apparently still upset, or still pretending to be upset, that the president attacked his budget a few months ago with Ryan present, which is apparently some sort of new ultimate sin against the politeness gods. Whatever; I'm sure that had Ryan not been present, then that would have been the new ultimate sin.
Followed by today's flap, courtesy of GOP Rep Allen West:
You are the most vile, unprofessional ,and despicable member of the US House of Representatives. If you have something to say to me, stop being a coward and say it to my face, otherwise, shut the heck up.
That would be my emphasis added.

(TPM has the original floor statement by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and her response).

"Running For President Is Hard"

That's the correct conclusion Greg Sargent draws from his reporting on Michele Bachmann's tough day -- which started out with what appeared, to me at least, to be a very weakly supported story about her health and medication regimen in the often-unreliable Daily Caller, which of course meant lots of questions on the campaign trail, which unfortunately for her wound up with a couple of her campaign staffers roughing up a reporter.

(The DC story is here; I agree with what Dana Goldstein said).

There are a number of reasons why Members of the House, especially junior Members, don't compete seriously for presidential nominations. One of them -- not the only one, but one of them -- is that most of them have virtually no experience at all in contested elections with an attentive press. The skills needed to handle a bunch of reporters asking hostile questions are just different from, say, the skills needed to spar with a host on a cable show that no one watches, or the skills needed to deliver a speech to a supportive audience. Indeed, most presidential candidates who have had experience at the statewide level show a need to get up to speed when they move up to the presidential campaign trail, but at least they've probably had some similar experiences.

And of course one thing that Bachmann hasn't had to deal with before this are the interactions of disgruntled former staffers with attentive reporters.

I'll put it another way: you know what successful House candidates have virtually no experience with? Unfair stories about them in the press. That's because most Members of the House get virtually no media attention. At best, they get regular gigs on cable news shows, but in that capacity their job is just to repeat party talking points; they aren't being pressed in the way that a candidate in a competitive election is being pressed (and if they say something foolish, they have the luxury of just disappearing for a few weeks until everyone forgets about it).

More broadly: Getting nominated is usually about building coalitions among party-aligned groups and organizations, and it helps a lot to enter the campaign with strong relationships with as many groups as possible. Statewide campaigns -- and actually participating in governing -- are good ways to construct those relationships. Indeed, they're good ways to learn how to construct those relationships. That's an important resource that Michele Bachmann didn't really have, most likely, at the start of her campaign. It's certainly possible to overcome such things, but at least in my view not very likely at all.

Obligatory Balance Budget Amendment Post

If I had to pick one thing everyone should know about Balanced Budget Amendments in general, it's that they're all frauds -- none of them, and certainly not the half-assed one that Republicans are pushing this time around, would actually balance the budget.

If you want more...I'd recommend Bruce Bartlett and/or Stan Collender on what a scam this thing is, Robert Greeenstein for the actual likely effects if the GOP plan was enacted, which of course it won't be, and Doug Kendall and Dahlia Lithwick on the BBA and the Framers. Oh, and I talked about it in some detail a while back, when I was in a less cranky (although hardly any more forgiving) mood.

Of course, I'm not exactly a proponent of the underlying idea, anyway. But to put my cards on the table: 1. I think the idea that the federal government's budget has to be balanced over the long run is wrong; 2. I think that the idea that it should be balanced every year is wrong and somewhat nutty; 3. Even if you disagree and believe it should be balanced every year, a constitutional amendment is the wrong way to go about it; 4. This particular proposed amendment is amateurish nonsense.

Catch of the Day

Scott Lemieux notes that opponents of same-sex marriage have, in New York, suddenly discovered a heretofore unknown right of citizens to direct democracy in certain cases, which apparently trumps the previous argument (used in other states) that judicial solutions that bypass the legislature are undemocratic:
The "right" of the people of New York to determine the rights of minorities through plebiscites is non-existent, but never mind. The key here is the denigration of a state using traditional democratic procedures. The mistake that some people who believe that judicial decisions granting same-sex marriage rights is that they take the procedural rhetoric of critics ("we don't mind same-sex marriage, we just don't like activist judges ramming it down our throats!") at face value. The problem is that the criticisms of "activist judges" can easily be turned into criticisms of those "out-of-touch elitist legislators in the state capital." And they will be. If New York had granted same-sex marriage rights through a referendum, we'd be hearing about how our sacred Founding Fathers wanted the United States to have a representative rather than direct democracy.
My broader point would be that in most circumstances it's a waste of time trying to modify proposals or procedures because the other side "won't" be able to continue making their arguments if only your side does this or that, or even more pathetically says this or that. You can't stop the other side from making arguments. If you think the arguments are good ones -- that is, if you agree with them -- then you should consider incorporating them in what you're doing (depending on whether it's practical or not in the circumstances). You also may be able, in some circumstances, to anticipate the opponent's argument and change what you're doing or saying to better win over the small segment of voters who are really open to different arguments.

But what never works is the theory that if we only do this, they won't be able to say that. Politicians and parties are always perfectly free (at least in a proper democracy!) to make whatever arguments they want, regardless of how rational they are -- and partisans are almost always going to swallow those arguments whole, regardless of their strength.

Nice catch! I'll give him the last word:
Opposition to same-sex marriage is, at bottom, substantive, not procedural. And hence supporters of same-sex marriage should be willing to use any tool of the American democratic process -- legislation, litigation, or initiative -- that might work.

Nullification and Democratic Norms

Tom Mann, who I generally figure is right about everything -- and who in general is not given to exaggeration or sensationalism -- tells Jonathan Cohn that the current GOP practice of undermined laws by blocking confirmation is a modern-day form of nullification:
In the case of the Consumer Protection Board, Senate Republicans have said they would not confirm anyone who does not agree to restructure the leadership of the agency from a single person to a multi-member body. They insist that a legitimately passed law be changed before allowing it to function with a director – a modern-day form of nullification. Same with the director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. There is nothing normal or routine about this. The Senate policing of non-cabinet appointments is sometimes more aggressive but the current practice goes well beyond that, more like pre-Civil War days than 20th century practice.
I'd put this in a bit of a broader context, too. What I'd say is that this is consistent with previous examples of something I've written about before, and which Mark Tushnet calls "Constitutional hardball." The GOP practice, for the last twenty years or so, has been to play the "game" of politics in part by looking through the rule book for strategies that go beyond the norms of politics but are allowed under the literal reading of the rules. Examples include mid-decade redistricting, the recall of a California governor for no particular reason, and impeaching Bill Clinton. And, most notably, filibusters in the Senate as a routine measure. The idea is that in a normal, healthy, political system there's always going to be some gap between the written Constitutional and statutory rules on the one hand, and norms and practices on the other. A clever political party can gain occasional short-term advantages through exploiting that difference. Hmmm...19th century baseball: I seem to recall a story that someone (perhaps King Kelly?) was sitting on the bench when a pop foul came near him. Springing into action, he announced "Kelly in at catcher for Smith" and caught the ball for an out, pointing out after the fact to the umpire that nowhere in the rules did it say that substitutions couldn't take place in mid-play.*

How do you fight back? Well, one can adjust the rule book to prevent future advantage, although that tends to be a lot harder in politics than it is in sports. Mostly, however, the other side can just threaten to fight fire with fire. In the case of nominations, that means recess appointments even in questionable circumstances, or action by the Senate to eliminate or curtail filibusters by majority rule. At the very least, Barack Obama and the Democrats should be threatening such action, and if necessary they should act.

I suppose I should also mention that Constitutional hardball is a destructive practice that places short-term partisan gains over the stable functioning of democracy, and that people shouldn't do that sort of thing. But once one side begins, there's really no good option other than fighting back.

*Someone, I hope, will correct my memory on this one, which I didn't look up, but there are many such stories about 19th century baseball, most of them surrounding the old Orioles, and there's every possibility that some of them are true.
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