Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Well, I can't watch the ALDS tonight thanks to the rain, so I think I'll just complain about the Giants and first base again. Very longtime readers will remember that I used to be rather interested in the long string of Giants 1Bs who couldn't manage a 100 OPS+. That all ended in 2010, with Aubrey Huff putting up a very nice 141 OPS+ (385/506) for the seasons while playing 100 games at 1B. And a good thing, too, because Travis Ishikawa was the backup, and that's a 93 OPS+.

But that was then, and the 2011 Giants were right back up to their old tricks. Huff fits right in to the history of futility of the last decade, with a putrid 90 OPS+. Hey, it ranks #3 for Giants 1Bs over the last 7 years, tucked neatly between Klesko in 2007 and Snow in 2005.

The real news is that Brandon Belt rallied in the last week to reach 306/412, which baseball-reference scores as a 101 OPS+.  That was his 23 year old season...I guess we can wait and see what the projections look like, but it sure seems to me that if you liked Belt in March, you should like him about as much now. Of course, he may wind up in LF instead of 1B, but that's not exactly a negative, right? But at any rate, it's not so bad at all to enter the Hot Stove season sitting on Belt and his upcoming 24 year old season, Posey (who will be 25) and the Panda -- who is also going to be just 25. Given the pitching staff, it sure doesn't seem that it would be all that hard to put together a 95 win team from that base.

Of course, if Huff winds up the regular 1B, then the odds are good that they can manage to run the sub-100 OPS+ string to 7 of 8 years. And winning 95 with a horrible 1B isn't something I'd want to bet on.

I think I'll start thinking about the postseason by next week.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Secret Decoder Ring (Obama edition, Volume Three)

It's a yearly tradition: Barack Obama gives his back-to-school speech to the nation's schoolchildren, and I find the secret messages craftily hidden in the texts. I think this year is his most radical yet:
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) ThAnk you very muCh. EverybOdy, please have a seat. Well, Madam PResideNt, that was an outstanding introduction. (Laughter.) We are so proud of Donae for representing this school so well.
And in addition, I also want to acknowledge your outstanding principal, who has been here for 20 years - First as a teacher, nOw as an outstanding pRincipal - Anita BErger. Please giVE heR a big round of applause. (Applause.) I want to acKnowledge, as well, Mayor Gray Is here - the mayor of Washington, D.C. is here. PLease give him a big round of appLause. (Applause.) And I also want to THank somEbody who is going to go down in histoRy as one of the fInest SeCcretaries of Education tHat we’ve ever had - Arne Duncan is here. (Applause.)
Now, It is great to be here at BenjAMin BAnneker High SChooL, one of the best high schools not only in WAShington, D.C., but one of the beSt high schools in the country. (Applause.) But We’ve Also got students tuning in fRom all acRoss AmerIca. And sO I want to welcome you all to the new school yeaR, although I know that many oF you alReady have been in schOol for a while. I know that here at Banneker, you’ve been back at school for a few weeks now. So everything is starting to settle in, just like for all your peers all across the country. The fall sports season is underway. Musicals and marching band routines are starting to shape up, I believe. And your first big tests and projects are probably just around the corner.
I Know that you’ve also got a grEat deal goiNg on outside of school. Your circle of friends might be chAnging a little bit. Issues that used to stay confined to hallways or locker rooms are now finding their way onto Facebook and Twitter. (Laughter.) Some of your faMilies might also be feeling the strain of the economY. As many of you know, we’re GOing through one of the toughest economic times thAt we’ve gone through in our Lifetime - In my lifetime. Your lifetime haSn’t been that long. And so, as a consequence, you might have to pick up an after-school job to help out your family, or maybe you’RE babysitting for a younger sibling because mom or dad is working an extra shift.
So all of you have a lot on your PlAtes. You guys aRe growing up fAsTer and Interacting with a wider wOrld in a way that old folks like me, fraNkly, just didn’t have to. So today, I don’t want to be just another adult who stands up AND lectureS yOu like you’re just kids - beCause you’re not just kIds. You’re this country’s future. You’re young leaders. And whether we fALl behInd or race ahead aS a nation is going to depend in large part on you. So I want to talk to you a little bit about Meeting that responsibility.

I'd give you more, including the big reveal on who actually wrote Dreams from My Father, but I'm sort of afraid of the authorities wanting to shut me down. Or some wacko site picking it up and running with it. I'll tell you  -- I don't know why conservatives have given up on this fight; he's clearly indoctrinating the youth of America. It's like a whole generational cohort of sleeper agents for radical socialist anti-colonialism.

Democracy and Other Oddities

I haven't had a chance to talk about Peter Orszag's much-insulted TNR piece about getting beyond gridlock, but for those who really want to delve into it I'll recommend Matt Glassman's exceedingly long but mostly quite interesting discussion of democracy that's more or less a response to it.

I'll make a couple of fairly quick points...

As regular readers could guess, my favorite point Glassman makes is that "There’s an important distinction between democracy and majoritarianism." Quite true. The way that I put it is I think a bit different than how Glassman explains it, however. In my view, majoritiarianism is a type of democracy, and rarely if ever the best one; you may recall that I've frequently quoted Hannah Arendt on this:
...we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision. The latter, however, is a technical device...In America, at any rate [the Constitution was] framed with the express and conscious intention to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the procedures of majority decisions from generating into the "elective despotism" of majority rule (On Revolution, 164-165, or at least it was in the old editions).
It's probably true that when we don't use majority decision (as in, for example, filibusters in the Senate) we should have some sort of explanation for why the alternative process is more, or at least equally, democratic. But they can't rest on an assumption that majorities should inherently win in all democracies, because that's simply not so.

On the practical side of things...Orszag calls for more automatic processes, which is  really a non-issue as far as democracy is concerned. The other is for Congress to more frequently use independent boards similar to the Base Closing mechanism that was generally regarded as a success. I don't think that's problematic in terms of democracy either, but the record on this is clear: independent commissions are useful only in cases in which politicians agree on what should be done but do not want the credit for doing it. It's possible that these commissions are under-utilized by Congress right now, but mostly for relatively small and technical things. You're not going to get a Grand Bargain out of a commission unless leading politicians from both sides secretly want a Grand Bargain on similar terms in the first place, and that's not the case right now -- but if it was, I don't see that it's democratically suspect. I am, however, a whole lot less comfortable about using the Fed as a model for new policy-making bodies.

Again, I recommend Glassman's piece. I don't think I agree with all of it, but it's a good introduction to most of the relevant issues.

(Link fixed)

Judicial Nominations Update

I don't think I've written about this for month now, and guess what? Limited good news to report.

In September, the Senate managed to confirm three nominees: two district judges and one at the circuit level. Which is all well and good, except that it didn't quite keep up with the four new openings (including the one created by elevating Judge Bernice Bouie Donald). Or the five new vacancies from the Senate's August recess. All told, there are now 18 Court of Appeals vacancies and 75 (!) District Court vacancies.

However, six confirmations (including one Circuit nomination) are now scheduled for next week, and four more will be scheduled later in October. Hey, it's something! But not very much.

Barack Obama is, to his credit, continuing to do a somewhat better job of actually nominating people for all these spots (12 of 18 Appeals, and 44 of 75 District). Not great, or even good, but better than during his first two years.

But there's just been very little action from the White House, at least not visible action, to push the Senate to act. No presidential speeches, no sustained campaign, nothing. A month ago there was something on the White House home page; it's gone now.

We're coming down to the wire here. The Senate is hardly likely to be more open to confirming these people next year, with the presidential election just months away. If Obama wants the Senate to do any better than treading water, he's going to have to put some pressure on. Unfortunately, there's very little evidence that Obama considers this very important at all, and the most likely scenario is that he ends his term with more vacancies than there are now.

Housekeeping and L'Shana Tovah

L'Shana Tovah to all who are observing the holiday, beginning tonight. I'll have a regular posting schedule today (although I have kitchen responsibilities, so I'm not sure exactly what I'll get done). Then I'll go dark by sundown tonight until Friday night. Ah, the screwy life of the conservative Jew -- I won't post on Rosh Hashanah, but Shabbat isn't a problem for me. As long as my rabbi doesn't work. At least not in that sense of work.

At any rate, it's a major occasion for Plain Blog today, because the president is delivering his annual message to schoolkids, and if the White House posts the transcript promptly I'll do my best to get my traditional interpretation up before the holiday begins. In other words, I'll be observing all of my usual rituals, today and tonight and tomorrow. So once again: l'shana tovah to all.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Indie Cred 2

What if a third-party or independent candidate actually did win the White House? After all, it's highly unlikely but not entirely impossible. Could he or she govern well?

Conor Friedersdorf makes the case. Even if one concedes that an independent president would have a tough time initiating and passing major legislation:
Imagine a president who proved particularly adept at cutting waste from the bureaucracy while improving the performance of its various departments; who vetoed the most imprudent bills that the Congress passed, and signed the most carefully crafted, necessary legislation; who proved a competent steward of foreign policy, a talented diplomat, and an adept negotiator of advantageous treaties with other nations; and whose appointees to the federal bench had above average intellect, wisdom, and integrity.
Well, yes. But here's the problem: a third-party or independent president would be in a poor position to do most of those things.

Could a third-party president do a good job of managing the bureaucracy? It's highly unlikely. The modern presidency has become a partisan presidency, in which presidents rely on partisan ties to staff the White House and the upper layers of the departments and agencies. And that's a good thing! Because the truth is that presidents have a hard time finding people to trust in those positions. Partisan ties don't just depend on loyalty; they also create incentives to people to do a good job so that they can be rewarded by the party in the future, either by moving on to more important jobs in the next administration or by going to work for party-aligned groups or think tanks.

See, any time that a president appoints someone to an executive branch job, there are at least three interests involved: those of the president, the agency, and the appointee. And while presidents should certainly be aggressive about monitoring what's happening, the truth is that they must rely on others to do much of that work, and they can't necessarily rely on those others, either. Partisanship doesn't entirely solve that problem, but it at least helps to align the interests of the president and political appointees.

So you're not going to squeeze a lot of waste out of agencies if the president's appointees go native and take the side of the permanent bureaucracy. You're not going to get a lot of brilliant diplomacy out of a president if the Secretary of State has his own delusions of grandeur and won't stay on the same page as her. And that's putting aside the severe problem of getting people confirmed in the Senate, a problem that might be even worse than it is now without having a party in Congress eager to help out a new president.

Indie Cred

So apparently within seconds of when I finished my Chris Christie item, news broke that he's not running after all. Since this is about the 32nd time we've heard that news there's no way yet to know whether it will take or not, and we still have Sarah Palin to contend with, but we're only a few weeks away from ending the quadrennial "who will run for the nomination" rumors.

Which means it's time for "who will run as an independent?" speculation.

So be prepared for that. Just to put a little timeline to it -- Ross Perot's 1992 campaign was launched with a February 20, 1992 appearance on the Larry King show. My vague impression is that ballot access laws are somewhat easier to overcome now than they were than (although I'm nothing close to an expert and could be entirely wrong); certainly it is a lot easier to quickly mobilize a whole bunch of people in 2012 than it was in 1992. And John Anderson dropped out of the 1980 Republican nomination contest to run as a third-party candidate in April. So depending on laws and all that, we could see speculation from now until, say, May. If it turns out that the GOP contest is long and hard-fought, it's very possible that both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry could suffer poor approval ratings for a while, which should encourage such speculation, especially if Barack Obama's approval rating stays right around 40% or drops further.

Will it happen? Stan Greenberg recently said (in an otherwise recommended interview) that "Somebody will run as an independent in 2012. You don’t have 80 percent of voters saying we’re on the wrong track and not have an independent candidate." I think that's much too strong. The conditions are certainly in place for a third-party candidate, as they are whenever the president is beatable. But that doesn't mean someone will actually do it. For incumbent politicians and those who wish to win office in the future, it means burning the bridges to their current party, something that has potentially high costs. And for non-politicians...well, it's not clear how many of them could put up a Perot-type campaign. They either have to be rich enough (and willing to spend it) to buy themselves a serious presidential campaign, or else have some other way to get enough of the press to take them seriously that they can mobilize all those people needed to get on ballots and run a campaign.  And there are serious costs, too -- you better have paid all your taxes properly, and better not have any skeletons in your closet.

And after all, you aren't going to win, and may well make a total fool of yourself.

Which doesn't mean we won't get a non-trivial 3rd party or independent candidate in 2012; it's just that there's really no way to predict whether anyone will do it, even if the conditions are excellent for someone to get, say, 5% to 20% of the vote.

But speculation, we'll get.


My post over at Plum Line today is about why Republicans have spent the year pining for better candidates, with Chris Christie being the flavor-of-the-month right now. Basically, I say that it's structural, and not particularly about the candidates Republicans have right now.

I say over there that a Christie candidacy is unlikely, but as I always repeat: you can't get inside the mind of politicians. There's always the chance that Christie will foolishly decide to run. Remember, the people around him are certainly telling him he's a great man, and a far better politician than Mitt Romney or Rick Perry; after all, odds are they wouldn't be the people around him if they didn't believe that, and they almost certainly wouldn't be if they weren't willing to say it. That's of course not a Christie thing; I suspect dozens of GOP pols right now have people around them who tell them how well they compare to Romney and Perry, and that dozens of Democratic pols in 2008 had people around them telling them how well they compared to Clinton and Obama. And that's just the relatively sincere stuff; there are also plenty of people who would love to be on a Christie for President payroll, and you can guess what advice they're giving him. Frankly, with all of that, it's a wonder that more 2nd and 3rd tier plausible nominees don't jump in.

Anyway, if he does jump in, I continue to believe he's not a plausible nominee -- and certainly not at this point. He really isn't a movement conservative; Dan Amira (via Drum) has the goods on issues on which Christie would likely have problems with conservatives. And it really is very late in the process. Remember, by all accounts Rick Perry was actually focused on his candidacy long before formally entering this summer (after all, he wrote a campaign book last year). Unless there's a lot of unreported activity behind the scenes, Christie would be starting from scratch. That makes it hard for him to finish in the top three in Iowa, which in turn makes it hard(er) for him to beat Romney in New Hampshire, and then...well, it's just very hard for me to see a plausible path to victory for him.

I'm also a lot less convinced than some are that Republican party actors are unhappy with the Romney/Perry choice. Certainly there are some conservatives who are dubious about Romney, and I'm sure some people are questioning Perry after his debate performances, but I suspect that most of the chatter will die down soon enough. And soon after that, the talk about a "weak field" will be gone, replaced by talk of how either Romney or Perry has dramatically improved and will be a strong nominee after all.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Catch of the Day

TPM's Evan McMorris-Santoro catches Florida Governor Rick Scott making a teleprompter joke...while reading a teleprompter.

I'm fairly certain this isn't the first time, but I'm too lazy to look up others. Teleprompter jokes are wonderful, because they show exactly how little is needed to get these things started and embraced within the conservative marketplace -- in this case, essentially nothing at all. I believe that there was a news story concluding that Obama used a teleprompter one (twice? a few times?) for situations in which previous presidents might not have, but then again Obama has certainly held a fair number of press conferences, interviews, all-day health care summits, sessions with House Republicans, and other such things that he managed somehow or another to get through without a script. In other words, is based on nothing. And it certainly is a slur on his intelligence, albeit no worse than those that partisan Democrats hurled at George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Now, there's also the question of what it is about Barack Obama that attracts conservatives to this particular idea, and whether they would have used the same thing had Hillary Clinton or John Edwards or Chris Dodd been elected president in 2008. I'll withhold my speculation on that one, however.

Anyway: nice catch!

The Obamacare/ACA split

I said this Friday, but I sort of buried it in a longish post with lots of other things, so I'm glad that Scott Lemieux gives me a chance to be clearer. He's a longtime Mitt Romney pessimist who (like Jonathan Chait) realizes that Romney could very well win, and he doesn't get it:
[I]t’s still amazing that someone who lost a race against zero serious orthodox conservatives is poised to win a race with a more conservative primary electorate while in the interim his signature public policy has become absolutely toxic to said electorate.
My response to this has always been that the GOP electorate doesn't actually care about health care reform the same way it cares about, say, abortion or taxes on rich people. Or, as I'm now putting it, Republican voters strongly oppose Obamacare, but they don't care very much about the ACA. They strongly oppose the health care plan that Barack Obama and Nancy Peloci and  Harry Reid crammed through Congress against the will of the American people, and they think it's an unconstitutional power grab that amounts to a government takeover that's going to bankrupt the nation by cutting Medicare and death panels and all. But they don't know or care anything about the exchanges, or the cost-cutting efforts, or most of the rest of it.

And that being the case, the similarities between the Massachusetts plan and ACA are pretty much irrelevant -- what matters is whether the Massachusetts plan is similar to Obamacare (that is, to a government takeover supported by Barack Obama with death panels and the rest). And it's not all that hard for Romney to deflect that, at least for those who are open to his candidacy otherwise. Because, of course, Romney can claim that he's 100% against Obamacare and 100% for fully repealing it, and mumble mumble jargon jargon it's totally different from what he was up to when he was governor.

Again, it's certainly possible that Republican party actors who oppose Romney for other reasons will settle on health care as the best way to convince voters he's unreliable. And if voters hear from GOP opinion leaders that Romney supported something identical to Obamacare, then they may turn against him based on that -- not because they inherently hate Romney's health care plan, but because they trust GOP opinion leaders. But as an attack from other candidates without the support of other leading conservatives, I've never thought that it's a very strong charge, because Romney can always respond with just as much disdain as the other candidates that he strongly opposes Obamacare and would repeal it as soon as possible.

Because, after all, Mitt Romney does hate Obamacare. He just doesn't really hate the ACA, but Republicans don't much care about that.

How to Give

In other fallout from that NYT story about Obama donors I mentioned earlier, Matt Yglesias had a great item over the weekend, arguing that campaign donors who supported Barack Obama last time around but are disappointed with him actually could use their money more wisely anyway.

That's exactly right. What we know about all campaigning -- and spending money is a subset of all campaigning -- is that the more voters are already persuaded, the less campaigning matters. Obvious, right? In practical terms, that means that money matters more less* in general elections (when the strong effect of party identification is in play) than it does in primary elections. Next, money (and, again, all electioneering) is less important to the extent that voters have other sources of information. So the more news coverage that an election gets, the less campaigning matters. On top of all that, money has diminishing returns. That's because "buying" name recognition or getting people to remember one or two things is a lot easier than getting them to learn a seventh or eighth item about a candidate -- and invariably a full-strength campaign will waste money re-teaching voters things they've already learned.

So in terms of affecting the election outcome, as a donor you should prefer primaries to general elections, low-press-coverage elections over high-press-coverage elections, and underfunded candidates over well-funded candidates.

Against that are the effects of winning different types of elections. Money is more important in primaries...but if it mainly helps one candidate beat a very similar candidate, the outcome might matter less than defeating the other party's candidate in a general election. Your $100 contribution is far more likely to swing a school board election than a presidential election, but presidents are far more important than members of the school board.

So there's no mathematical equation for exactly how to spend your money, but Yglesias is certainly right: it's hard to see presidential re-election as a good use of money, no matter how important the president is (and remember: as much as I'll talk about presidential weakness around here, I've also always pointed out that the president is the single most important single elected official). My guess is that for most partisans, the best choices are open Congressional (House and Senate) primaries in party-friendly seats with retiring Members, and close Senate general elections. But then again I should mention that I tend to have a strong and probably unjustifiable bias towards national politics; it may be that state legislative races and local races are really the best bets for many people.

I should mention too that not all money donated to candidates is for the purposes of affecting election results (it's also used for lobbying, or to secure access, and in some circumstances the motives are probably more social than political), but here we're talking just about money given in hopes of changing who gets elected.

Either way, I think Yglesias has it exactly right: it's very much a good idea to participate in elections, including giving money if one can do so, but giving to an incumbent president seeking re-election is almost certainly going to be one of the worst possible choices.

*Corrected. Money matters less in general elections than in primaries.

Hey, Reporters!

Here's the thing. Barack Obama isn't as popular now as he was in January 2009. This is not exactly a little-known fact; indeed, we fortunately have some really good indicators of exactly how popular Obama is overall, and they're not all that obscure.

What this means is that sloppy journalists can get endless mileage from picking out any subgroup in the nation and finding out that, gee, Obama has lost popularity there! See, for example, a NYT story over the weekend noting that some Obama '08 donors are less enthusiastic this time around. Now, Seth Masket isn't sure that the trend in the story exists in the first place, but even if it does: of course some past Obama supporters don't like him as much now! He's less popular than he was then!

To know whether any of these stories is actually news, it's absolutely necessary to compare Obama's decline within the group in question to his overall decline. If it's more, then you have something; if it's the same or less, then you're at beset illustrating how an overall decline works within that subgroup (which might be a decent story, as long as you're clear about what you're doing). Context matters, and for changes in Obama's approval rating with any subgroup the obvious context is his overall approval ratings.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

Do you expect a government shutdown at any point this year? If so, do you expect an extended one (say, longer than three days)?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

I know I'm asking a lot of Perry/Romney questions these days, but, well, it does seem like the thing to do. So...

Do you think that as president there would be any difference at all between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney on the following issues: immigration, abortion, health care, Social Security? If so, what would it be? And what's the reason you believe (if you do) there would be a difference?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

Ah, plenty to discuss this week. Start with economic policy news: the Fed's decisions mattered, while I'm not at all convinced that Barack Obama's new long-term budget plans make any difference at all. There's also the threat of a government shutdown; I think it probably tells us something about the House and John Boehner (although not really anything we didn't know), but I don't really think it's very likely that we'l get an extended shutdown over these issues right now. Up to a 72-hour shutdown, possibly, but hard to believe we'll get more than that over the issues in play. November, however, is another story.

I've talked about the GOP debate a lot's not very likely that it mattered much. Sooner or later Rick Perry will need to have a better debate performance, but I don't see why he wouldn't be able to.

Lots of other news...Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Palestinians and Israel, Yemen...what else? I'm inclined to think that what's happening in Pakistan is fairly important. And, getting back to the first item, the European economic problems are a major continuing story, with some new developments this week.

OK, that's what I have. What am I missing? What did I get wrong? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday Baseball Post

Well, that wasn't very fun.

The Giants, I mean, for those of you who are new around here. Hey, basically it comes down to two things: Sabean was going to ride with the guys who won it for him, and the injuries really were brutal. And while some of the injuries were the natural result of having so many old guys around, some of it was probably just bad luck. I have other complaints about Sabean -- primarily going through the entire season without a plausible major league SS, and then settling with whatever was around at C after the biggest of the injuries. But it's also only fair to point out that the minor league system continues to be productive, and that's very much to his credit.

At least, that's the one-paragraph recap. I suspect I'll revisit all of this obsessively for the next few months...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Voters Ask Policy Questions

I had a column over at Salon yesterday looking into differences by network in debate questions so far this cycle. The quick conclusion was that Newt Gingrich was absolutely right in Ames when he complained that Fox was asking an unusual number of "gotcha" questions (see the link for the categories).

That changed a bit in Florida yesterday; about half of the questions were what I would call basic policy questions. And that's no surprise, because the format included "regular people" asking questions, and regular people generally ask policy questions. So in Florida, 11 of the 12 regular people questions were basic policy questions, including most famously the soldier in Iraq who asked whether the candidates would reinstate the ban on gays and lesbians in the military (this includes one question from the anti-immigration interest group FAIR, which isn't actually a regular voter, but does not include a regular person question about immigration that was hijacked by a moderator and converted into a political question).

So almost all of the voter questions were about policy -- but the moderator-initiated questions were very different, with fewer than a third basic policy questions, just edging out gotcha questions.

Of course, this could have been a strategy by the moderators. Knowing they were going to use policy questions from videos, they then used their own questions for other things. My own feeling, as I said over at Salon, is that I'd go with almost all policy questions, although moderator-written ones tend to be better than voter questions. I tend not to like gotcha questions at all, but I can understand some need for them -- but at debates, in my view they mainly serve the interests of the moderators and of reporters (and bloggers) who follow this stuff obsessively. Gotcha questions, and especially questions about politics, are mostly useless to voters, and I suspect not especially useful for most party actors.

I know others disagree with me and consider basic policy questions to be too easy. They can be easy! But that doesn't make them bad questions.

At any rate, those who want these things to be hard-hitting press conferences focused on reporters exposing candidate lies or mistakes should like the Fox debates. Me, I think that gets it all wrong, so I prefer CNN's format and methods.

Are the Debates Hurting Perry?

Charles Franklin has a chart today that's getting a ton of play which shows Rick Perry's polling numbers dropping and attributes it to his awful debate performances. I think it's clear that Perry's position vs. Romney has deteriorated since he first announced that he was in and jumped out to a lead, and that Perry's debate performance has been awful. But is that what's driving things?

I have no idea, but I'm somewhat skeptical. Matt Yglesias explains why debate performances certainly can matter during nomination contests -- basically, there is little to differentiate the candidates and so campaign effects of all sorts are likely to be important -- but that doesn't mean that the debates are driving anything right now. After all, we've seen this before more than once this year: new candidate jumps in or gets a sudden burst of publicity, and spikes up in the polls...and then falls back. I think it's very, very, likely that Perry's August lead was at least in part a bounce that was likely to dissipate regardless of what happened in September. Of course, had he generated good news over the last month, he might have been able to deflate the bubble more slowly, so in that sense, I suppose I can't disagree with Franklin.

All that said, we can conclude two things. One is that if Perry did have a chance to put this thing away quickly, as in by Halloween, that's gone now. The other is that all of this pretty much still leaves him in excellent shape. It's basically between him and a guy who a whole lot of people in the party don't trust on core Republican issues, and Perry has still survived a decade in office with surprisingly little baggage that will bring veto attempts from key GOP actors. There are some things that would make them look twice, whether it's immigration or immunization or property rights (which I assume we'll hear about soon), but really: are any people who care passionately about abortion in the GOP going to choose Romney over Perry? Nope.

I've been very hesitant to hazard a prediction between the viable candidates, and I'm not going to start now. What I'll say is that with the combined Intrade odds still scraping 70%, the combination of Romney and Perry remains massively underpriced there (although I believe some of that is the mechanics of their market). And that at this point, I'd still pay a lot more attention to public endorsements and other indications of party actor support than I would to polling of regular voters. Remember, most ordinary voters -- even those plugged in enough to vote in primaries -- aren't really paying very much attention to this yet.

"Obamacare" is More Like the Apology Tour Than ACA -- Fortunately For Mitt

Jonathan Chait has been saying for months that he just can't see how Republicans can nominate Mitt Romney, given that his signature accomplishment in his brief time in office was passing a bill that was basically identical to the core substance of Barack Obama's health care reform. After watching the the Republicans debate last night, the fog is finally beginning to lift for him:
These [audience] expressions clearly reflect the straightforward policy implications of conservative principles. At the same time, I don’t think they ought to be taken purely at face value...Yes, conservatives have developed a series of policy stances — say, that subsidizing and regulating private health insurance is the greatest threat to freedom in American history. Rather than treat this as a principled view, Romney simply treats it as an atavistic expression of hostility toward Obama. He defends his Massachusetts plan by pointing out that it involves private insurance. That makes it exactly the same as Obama’s plan, but Romney probably figures most conservative voters don’t know that, and he’s probably right. 
That's exactly right (and, really, what some of us have been emphasizing for a long time). Conservatives simply don't have a lot of hostility to the program that Mitt Romney supported in Massachusetts; what they are hostile to is "Obamacare," which functions more or less on the same level as Barack Obama's (entirely fictional) apology tour foreign policy. That there is also an actual policy -- a law -- that corresponds to "Obamacare" is more or less coincidental.

Paul Waldman makes this point really well in a post today concentrating on Herman Cain's claim that he'd be dead if Obamacare had been enacted earlier (his emphasis):
I have no doubt that the typical Republican voter actually believes that when the Affordable Care Act is implemented, every time one of the nation’s nearly one million practicing physicians wants to perform a procedure or prescribe a medicine, they’ll have to literally place a call to Washington and get permission from some stingy bureaucrat...Why do they believe that? Because people like Herman Cain keep telling them so. I don’t know whether Cain is an ignoramus or a liar, but it has to be at least one, maybe both. He stood on a stage, looked into the camera, and told people that under the ACA, doctors will have to get permission from government bureaucrats for every procedure, and treatment of illnesses will proceed not according to the recommendations of medical professionals but on “the government’s timetable.”

Now, the question I'm interested in is whether, in fact, most of the candidates on the stage last night, and most Republicans in the House and Senate, are actually on the "ignoramus" side of that. Not all -- Mitt Romney certainly knows very well what the ACA is -- but a lot of them. I'll say this: both I (in my Plum Line recap) and Andrew Sprung last night noticed that Romney had left open a huge hole in one of his health care answers, and no one up there on stage was able to take advantage of it. Of course, there are lots of reasons why that might be the case (not their strategy, didn't get called on, etc.), but it seems perfectly plausible to me that for at least some of them the problem is that they really do believe that "Obamacare" consists of some new huge government agency that is going to be making day-to-day decisions about whether people can get surgeries or not.

One more thing: I've watched seven Republican presidential debates so far, and I've yet to hear even a mild suggestion that the non-Romney candidates could describe what Obamacare actually will do.

Once again, the necessary disclaimer: I'm not saying that Romney will win the nomination; not every policy works this way for Republicans. And if GOP elites turn against him, they're apt to express it through health care. But I just don't think health care will cost him the nomination.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Catch of the Day

Here's one for CAP's Michael Linden, who takes down Heritage over some highly sketchy economic statistics about the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. The key to it all, and the reason it's a well-deserved CotD (despite of, or perhaps because of, Linden's self-nomination; hey, I'm honored that anyone would bother. Woo Plain Blog! Uh, where was I...oh:) is because Linden catches Heritage crediting economic performance in the months in 1993 and 1997 before key policies passed to the effects of those policies.

We've seen this time-travel version of cause-and-effect before, generally by Republicans about taxes, but it's always fun to see it recognized and called.

Now, one caveat and one pile-on. The caveat is that life is complicated, and the economy is very complicated, and most things should be looked at in a multivariate environment: in other words, it's certainly possible that either the bogus correlations that Heritage claims or the more accurate correlations Linden finds actually represent the true relationship between the various tax cuts discussed and economic growth.

The pile-on is that at least in my view it's entirely wrong to treat recessions as external shocks that have nothing to do with the claims about taxes. That is, with the Republican claims about taxes, which (at least when politicians and hack economists make them) are usually very strong claims indeed. After all, Republicans certainly did predict recession as a result of the 1993 Clinton budget, and that recession didn't happen -- but recessions did happen when Republicans took office and cut taxes in 1981 and 2001, and when taxes had been cut in 2007. Even if it had been the case that 2003-2007 growth was unusually high -- which as Linden point out it just wasn't -- it's extremely difficult to reconcile the Great Recession with very strong claims about the Bush tax cuts, just as it's extremely difficult to reconcile the 1990s with strong claims about the Clinton tax increases. Basically, once you concede that you're only interested in growth years because recessions are external to tax rates, then you can pretty much toss out the importance of taxes and with it the bulk of the Republican's argument.

So: nice catch!

Oy, Bai

Greg Sargent has a great item today beating up on Matt Bai, who believes that Barack Obama is making a risky move by backing tax increases for rich folks because Walter Mondale lost in 1984, or something like that.

Greg makes the excellent point that Obama ran on exactly this issue back in 2008 and seemed to do okay, really. What I'll add is that whatever Bai believes about "historical narratives left over from the 20th century," it's also the case that Bill Clinton in ran on higher taxes for rich people (and a middle class tax cut) back in 1992, and once again seemed to survive it somehow. Here's the deficit paragraph from the 1992 platform, which shouldn't seem entirely unfamiliar:
Addressing the deficit requires fair and shared sacrifice of all Americans for the common good. In 12 Republican years a national debt that took 200 years to accumulate has been quadrupled. Rising interest on that debt now swallows one tax dollar in seven. In place of the Republican supply-side disaster, the Democratic investment, economic conversion and growth strategy will generate more revenues from a growing economy. We must also tackle spending, by putting everything on the table; eliminate nonproductive programs; achieve defense savings; reform entitlement programs to control soaring health care costs; cut federal administrative costs by 3 percent annually for four years; limit increases in the "present budget" to the rate of growth in the average American's paycheck; apply a strict "pay as you go" rule to new non-investment spending; and make the rich pay their fair share in taxes. These choices will be made while protecting senior citizens and without further victimizing the poor. This deficit reduction effort will encourage private savings, eliminate the budget deficit over time, and permit fiscal policies that can restore America's economic health.
I'll also agree with Greg's's quite possible that the polling that shows tax increases on the rich isn't predictive. And I'll add that it's also certainly possible that Clinton in 1992 and Obama in 2008 would have won by even more had they only changed that particular plank. But then again one could certainly argue -- and back it up with some evidence -- that Republicans have as much of a continuing problem of being seen as the party of the rich as Democrats have with being the party of higher taxes.

The other half of this is that when we're talking budget, there are always trade-offs. Especially for politicians who have already been elected and have to submit their plans to CBO. Even if it's true that there are risks for Obama in advocating tax increases for the wealthy, if he did not do that he'd have to be behind steeper cuts to (very possibly) popular programs, or higher taxes on middle-class people, or larger deficits. Each of which, presumably, has risks as well.

GOP Party Actors and Information

Another in the great series of "Power Outsiders" surveys from Mark Blumenthal and Pollster is up today. This time, it's bad news for Michele Bachmann; seems as though Pollster's collection of various party actors in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are not exactly taken with her. You really do want to click through for the word bubble of their single-word descriptions. OK, I'll give you one tease -- my favorite is "Munchausen."

As regular readers know I'm a big fan of this project, which was inspired by the party network literature within political science (which I've contributed to, so it's of particular interest to me). Findings such as those by Cohen et al. have convinced Blumenthal that it's a good idea to find out what various party actors in early states are thinking. He's right!

So far, Pollster's surveys have quite reasonably been focused on horse race type questions. I've been wondering about what else I'd like to know, and I've thought of two overlapping concerns about information. One is where and how these party actors learn about candidates. Is it through personal contact with the candidates? With the candidates' staffs? Though word of mouth from other locals? From national contacts? From local or national officials or opinion leaders? What is the role of the neutral press and the party-aligned media in all of this? And that leads to my second set of questions: how do these active political players treat the party-aligned media? I'd guess that they virtually all watch Fox News and perhaps read conservative blogs and that they certainly don't watch MSNBC or read liberal blogs...but do they also seek out the neutral press, despite almost certainly believing that it has a strong liberal bias? How do they feel about talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh? Assuming they like Rush and many of the others: do they think of them as important and trusted sources of information, or great (but not necessarily factually reliable) entertainment?

I suppose I'm also interested in questions about "establishment" and other such things, but I'm not sure that a survey can get at it. Indeed, I'm pretty sure how such questions would turn out. More or less 100% of respondents would recognize three groups: a party establishment more interested in perks than policy and all too ready to compromise with liberals; an insurgent or anti-establishment group of strong conservatives who represent the real energy of the party and who would win all elections and govern wisely if only they could grab hold of the party; and a crazed group of wacko true believers who have gone 'round the bend. And I'm also guessing that 100% of respondents would place themselves  in the middle of those three groups. At least that's what I always hear when I listen to GOP party actors, no matter how RINO or how wacko others probably see them. So if that's all one could get, then better to track information flows, which really could I believe tell us something interesting.

Senate Leadership? Why?

The news broke yesterday that Lamar Alexander, Senator from Tennessee and formerly a gimmick-intense and therefore highly amusing presidential candidate, is voluntarily giving up his position in the Senate Republican leadership; he was the #3 guy behind Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl.

Politico's story sort of hints at what his true motivations might have been...[he's up for re-election]* his seat is up in 2014 and he's planning to run again and so being in leadership might have been a distraction, or perhaps he was concerned that he would be defeated if he tried to move up into Kyl's Whip Post, but also challenged by someone if he tried to stay put. And there's some stuff about him wanting to be open to bipartisanship in a way he couldn't be in leadership.

But I think the real story here is probably just that there's very little advantage to being in party leadership in the Senate. It is true that party polarization has increased in the Senate as it has elsewhere, but that hasn't really meant that party leaders are particularly powerful; in the Senate as always, it's individual Senators who matter. Formal position, whether it's in the leadership or on a committee, matters...but just not all that much. Obviously the status or the influence or whatever is enough that the jobs don't go unfilled, but they just aren't remotely similar to House party leadership.

*Corrected; I had this wrong originally. He's up in 2014.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Start the Shutdown Clock?

The House just voted down the CR that would have funding the government through mid-November; almost all Democrats opposed it because of the pay-fors for disaster funding, while about 50 Republicans defected because, well, they really don't like to vote for appropriations bills. Here we go again! Nicolas Mendoza suggests we should "start naming them, like hurricanes."

The story here is that they need to pass something by the end of the month, but they were about to go out for a recess after this week. So there's a lot of breathing room, except that it would require them to stick around.

It's worth noting a couple of things is that John Boehner has done a really good job up to now of winning the votes he's had to win, but it can't be easy. The second is that the Senate wasn't going to go along with the House bill anyway, so while this is certainly a setback (especially for the Members who want to get out of town on schedule), the eventual vote was going to require some combination of Democrats and non-crazy Republicans. In other words, the vote today could wind up being more about a black eye for Boehner than about a shutdown...but then again, we could still get a shutdown, although it doesn't appear to me as if the distance between them is very large at this point. I'm seeing on twitter right now suggestions that Boehner may just take out the offsets, which presumably would get him the Democrats -- but would it lose more Republicans, who just finished arguing how important they are?

I had thought over the last week that we were on course for a real showdown in November, and not this week, but I guess we'll just have to see.

The Return of Line Item Hokum

What’s the worst budget idea ever? Ah, there’s so many to choose from – but the line item veto has got to be a finalist for the honor, at the very least. And now Senators John McCain, Tom Carper, Dan Coats, and Mark Udall are pushing the Joint Select Committee to revive it, as The Hill's Vicki Needham reports. I guess that means it’s time for a reminder: the line item veto has nothing to do with cutting spending or making spending smarter; it’s just a transfer of power from Congress to the president.

Forget, for a moment, that most federal spending doesn’t actually have “lines,” and so would be immune to the line item veto. And forget too that the courts have ruled it unconstitutional (the current version is rigged up to avoid that problem). It’s the entire concept that doesn’t make any sense. Giving the president a line item veto would be just as likely to increase government spending, including wasteful or politically motivated spending, as to decrease it. That’s because the White House could – and almost certainly would – use the veto as a bargaining chip to insist that appropriators, and Congress in general, approve the president’s various spending preferences. Which might well be generous support for projects in, say, the critical electoral college states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, for starters. Nor would the president only use line item veto threats to secure appropriations; a smart president would find it easier to bully Members of Congress on any issue by threatening to use the veto selectively against their pet projects.

In other words, giving the administration a line item veto mostly just encourages the President to act as Logroller-in-Chief. Yes, if the president happens to be stingier with the federal purse than Congress, then giving him or her stronger powers would tend to cut spending – but if it’s Congress that happens to be tight-fisted, then the president will use those same powers to loosen their grip. Historically, presidents are at least as likely to want to spend as Congresses.

It’s just an awful idea. On the budget, there’s really no reason to believe that the Framers (and subsequent norms and laws) got the balance between the legislature and the executive wrong, so there’s no reason to shift power away from Capitol Hill. And make no mistake: that’s what the effects of the line item veto would be. Not changing spending. Just empowering the president at the expense of Congress.

Gary Johnson, Debater

I see that Gary Johnson is going to be invited to the next debate, this one in Florida on Thursday. Good for him, I suppose.

It occurs to me as part of my position that there's no particular reason for debate sponsors to be "fair" to candidates -- what they should be is responsive to party actors and fair, if you call it that, to party actors and party voters -- that the current use of polling to determine who is invited is pretty much a bad idea, but one that we're stuck with for understandable, even good, reasons.

What should happen is that the political parties choose who gets to be invited to the debates, using any criteria they believe is appropriate. But there's a paradox involved, because the nomination process is in part all about choosing who gets to make party decisions -- so at this point, no one really has the uncontested authority to do so. That's presumably a piece of any party nomination process, but it's especially problematic for American political parties because the formal party structure isn't necessarily central to what "the party" actually is. Nor are there formal party members, who could then elect party officials and give them some legitimacy. Instead, there's an odd situation in which formal parties set some of the ground rules, but are otherwise often unimportant to party governance, all of which makes whatever they do contested when candidates believe they have been wronged. Which also means that those formal party officials themselves are on precarious ground. All of this, of course, applies not just to relatively trivial stuff such as whether Gary Johnson gets to debate, but also to things such as the timing and rules of the various primaries and caucuses. The debates are relatively easy; turn it over to the network sponsor and hope no one makes a fuss. The schedule of primaries and caucuses is a lot harder.

At any's clearly unfair to Johnson as a fairly recent former governor that he hasn't been included in the last four of these things, but there's no reason for the party to be fair to Johnson or the rest of them.

Pressuring the Fed

Count me 100% on the side of those who support the concept of Congress attempting to pressure the Fed. Yes, the Fed is supposed to be independent -- but that hardly means that politicians should treat it as The Word From Above. Monetary policy is critically important, and politicians certainly should care about it, and advocate for their preferences. Indeed, I agree with those who say that Barack Obama's failure to do so (albeit by more conventional means, such as jawboning in private and...oh, yeah, actually making appointments to Fed vacancies) has been a huge mistake on his part. If presidents can and should urge the Fed to act, as they have for years, then I see no reason that Members of Congress shouldn't. As Annie Lowery tweeted, the Fed is well-equipped by design to ignore such things.

Granted, on the merits, I agree with David Frum that the GOP position is terrible economics best explained by a preference for recession conditions heading into the 2012 elections (calling it treason, on the other hand, is a bit much, although I suppose fair game after Rick Perry's recent comments). I don't for a minute believe that Republicans would have the same position if they held the White House right now. But that's part of the game; Democrats are welcome to exploit (and produce) headlines such as Stan Collender's "GOP To Fed: Let Economy Fail." Indeed, the GOP position that the Fed's dual mandate (inflation and employment) is a horrible mistake certainly seems to be something that could easily be exploited in 30 second ads.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Deals and Failures and Obama's New "Strategy"

All bargaining is not alike; different negotiations call for different strategies. During the debt limit debate, the default -- if nothing at all passed -- would have been a total disaster for Barack Obama and the Democrats. On both Obama's jobs bill and his new deficit reduction plan, the default -- if nothing at all passes -- is not a total disaster for Barack Obama and the Democrats. That is almost certainly what's driving what everyone perceives as a more aggressive strategy from the White House.

I said this yesterday over at Greg's place, but I don't think I wrote it very well, because Doug Mataconis read it as a claim that Obama can use his leverage here to win his jobs bill. That's not what I meant to say, particularly; it's not that I think Obama necessarily has a lot of leverage to get what he wants, but that House Republicans have much less. In other words, not that Obama should "win" this one, but that it was inevitable that he was going to "lose" the last one -- the only question was how, what, and by how much. Obama could have been as aggressive as he wanted to be over the debt limit, but eventually he needed to cut a deal with Republicans -- and most Republicans didn't feel that they needed to cut a deal with him, and they had a significant electoral incentive to feel that way. This time around, when it comes to the Joint Select Committee, there's no obvious electoral reason for either side to care whether the trigger is invoked, regardless of the substantive concerns they may have (which, as I see it, are pretty much a push anyway).

In keeping with what I was saying earlier about people not knowing their own motivations...Ezra Klein had a reported piece about how the new WH aggressive posture on the deficit is a deliberate strategy, derived from what they have learned over the course of the year and in particular from the debt limit negotiations. And I'm sure that he has it right: this is, let's say, exactly how White House staff see it. They've learned something, and they've changed their strategy accordingly. But that doesn't necessarily mean that their self-description of the causal chain here is accurate. It's perfectly possible -- and in my view, likely -- that what's really happening is that given that the bargaining context has changed, what makes sense to them has changed, and that they see that as "learning" when it's actually just holding a different hand.


Look, Barack Obama's approval ratings are not exactly secret. There are lots of places to go for them...I mostly these days just follow Gallup's daily track, which is right there on their home page, right at the top. When I want something a little more accurate for some reason, I go to the good folks at Pollster for their poll-of-poll average, which can conveniently be ordered with or without Rassmussen.

So why are so many people convinced that Obama's polling numbers -- 42% per both Gallup and Pollster today, by the way -- have been plunging? Down a tick, sure. Low enough to worry about for him as far as re-election, certainly. But he's barely below where he was last August, and perhaps 3-5 points at best below where he's been most of the year, with the brief exception of the bin Laden bump in the spring.

Perhaps it's one of my cranky days...I don't know. What set me off this time (and it's been building for a couple of weeks now, since I think Maureen Dowd took the "plunge" a while back, although I can't find it right now), was Obama fan Andrew Sullivan -- who frequently runs the Pollster numbers on his blog -- referring to events "which have taken a toll on his ratings." I just don't see it. The economy hasn't improved, unemployment stays high...and Obama is back to where he was last August, or at least close to it. It's not really Sullivan, though, because that's not all that bad; it's all those "drops" and, yes, "plunges."

I know, part of this is the insane polling convention that if you commission a poll you compare the results to the last one that you ran, even if it was months ago, and not to the current consensus. But still, it just isn't happening. What has characterized Barack Obama's approval ratings since about September 2009 has been stability with very gradual deterioration over time. Certainly not a "plunge" at any point beyond summer 2009. That summer, if I recall correctly up until mid-August, yes. Since? Nope.

Yes, it was worth noting when he slipped (in Gallup) below 40% for the first time. Yes, it's fair enough to call his ratings a problem. But there ain't no plunge here.

O'Reilly, Blowhard

I very much enjoyed yesterday's story of Bill O'Reilly threatening to stop working if his taxes went up, which I first saw in a fun item from Kevin Drum.

Perhaps it's just the almost-pennant-race season talking, but my immediate thoughts when I hear this kind of stuff isn't so much Ayn Rand as it is the somewhat related (but I'll try, I promise) predictions that free agency in baseball would lead to lots of rich ballplayers retiring early. Those predictions were common throughout the late 1970s and all through the 1980s, and I still see them every once in a while, despite 35 years of evidence to the contrary. Here's the thing: if there's one thing that a few centuries of capitalism has taught us, it's that most of us really, really, really like money, and despite its probably diminishing marginal returns in how much enjoyment we get out of our lives, very few of us behave as if it has diminishing marginal returns. That is, millionaires keep working. Some of them even work really hard (hard enough to convince themselves that those who aren't rich must be lazy, although granted many wealthy people don't have to actually work all that hard to convince themselves of that).

At any rate, after 35 years, I can only remember a handful of baseball players who retired voluntarily when they still could have collected a paycheck that would have constituted a non-trivial addition to their net worth: Will Clark, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte...I'm sure there are others. But not very many. Certainly, no one has retired in midcareer because he had enough money now.

Returning to O'Reilly, what I'd guess is that a lot of well-off people feel exactly how he (claims) to: that it wouldn't be worth it to continue working if their tax rates approach 50% (and never mind that in reality no one is talking about effective overall tax rates that high). But you know what? No matter how sincerely they think that's the case, they are probably wrong. In the event, quite a lot of them would actually react by working more, since that would be the only way to make back the money they would be losing to taxes; others would just plug on, because they had set up their lives to "need" that continued income...or just because, when it comes down to it, they prefer more money to less, and continuing to work would still be the only way to accomplish that goal.

Hmmm...this is a fluff lightweight item that's already way too long, isn't it? Sorry. The main points, just to get out of here, are (1) people like money, and (2) people are really bad at making predictions about themselves, even when they're sincere about it.

(Update: Various typos fixed)

Cheney and Presidential Weakness

Dick Cheney wasn't an incompetent vice president because he was a stupid man. He, and the president who listened to him far too much for far too long, were incompetent -- on Iraq, on detention, on other things -- because Cheney believed in a flawed theory of presidential power.

That's the takeaway from one of the best things I've read in some time, Jack Goldsmith's article in the NYT Magazine this past weekend, well-titled as "How Dick Cheney Reined in Presidential Power." Goldsmith begins by recapping the famous hospital confrontation involving John Ashcroft, James Comey, himself (of Justice's OLC), and Andy Card and Alberto Gonzalez. He goes on to quite properly set it in the context of a strategy of presidential power based on secrecy and White House dictatorial control:
Unilateralism in secret is sometimes necessary at the height of a crisis, and Cheneyism was effective in the short run. But it is disastrous over the medium and long term. The president cannot accomplish much over time without the assistance of his bureaucracy and the other institutions of government. And he cannot garner that assistance through mere commands. He must instead convince these institutions that his policies are good and lawful ones that they should support.
That's exactly the Neustadtian point that you'll hear me making over and over (full argument here): that circumventing the system is possible in the short run, but then yields entirely predictable disaster. Goldsmith continues:
Cheney...complains about pesky government lawyers, a weak-kneed Congress, activist justices and a treasonous press that exposed, rejected or changed nearly all of the Bush counter­terrorism policies. What he does not say is that his insistence on circumventing these institutions was often responsible for their blowback. The surveillance confrontation resulted when Justice Department lawyers discovered that prior legal opinions were filled with factual and legal errors caused by an absence of deliberation about the complicated program. And damaging leaks about the surveillance program resulted from the perception of illegitimacy inside the government caused by Cheney’s corner-cutting unilateralism.
You may wonder why I'm so obsessed with Watergate, but this is points to one of the main, critical, themes. I mean, Watergate is a great story with great characters and all, but it also reveals much about what presidential power really is and how it works and doesn't work. For example, what Goldsmith is talking about here is what I think of as the Hunt/Liddy problem: why were the president's men during Watergate such inept losers? Was it bad luck (that is, from Nixon's point of view)? Poor management skills? I believe it was instead something systematic. When the president wants to do something, and the system resists, and he chooses to plunge ahead anyway by doing it essentially behind the back of the system...well, then you get Hunt and Liddy, and Ollie North, and "poor legal opinions...filled with factual and legal errors caused by an absence of deliberation about the complicated programs." And: Colin Powell's speech to the UN. And: not just the illegality of torture and Gitmo, but the rank incompetence that we've seen over and over.

Dick Cheney is a good example of all of this exactly because his prior reputation would never have led people to guess that he'd make such a habit of botching things. And yet, botch things he did, over and over. Not because he didn't understand policy, but because he -- and by extension, George W. Bush -- refused to accept the limitations on the presidency imposed by the Constitutional system of institutions. And as Cheney shows and as Goldsmith says, the consequences are predictable: poor policy execution, followed by a loss of presidential power.

Just to be clear: the alternative to Cheneyism isn't passivity. Presidents should fight hard for things, and they should be held accountable when they don't -- although part of what it means to need to bargain to get things done is that some presidential preferences will no doubt fall when the president learns from institutional resistance. What they shouldn't do, however, is to react to that resistance with Constitutionally suspect end runs, whether it's to avoid Congress or to avoid legitimate portions of the executive branch. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of it all, the bottom line remains that it just doesn't work.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Catch of the Day

Well, it was yesterday, and to tell the truth he's not the first one to point it out...but I'm happy to see basic factual information prominently displayed in the NYT, and anyway I'm about to agree with Newt Gingrich on something (sorry, you'll have to wait), and so I'm even more eager than usual to reward a little Newt-bashing.

Oh, I need to actually say what it is, don't I: the catch goes to David Leonhardt, for laughing at GOP claims that Ben Bernanke has been, in Newt's words, "the most inflationary" Fed Chair ever. As Leonhardt demonstrates, that's true if you define ever as "except for all the others since Nixon."

As someone who remembers the 1970s (OK, I wasn't all that old, so  I remember the baseball parts of it a lot better than the economics parts, but still...), I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Paul Volker's reminder that inflation has a very real tendency to snowball. But that said, deflation can snowball, too, and as Matt Yglesias never hesitates to point out, actual inflation has been running below the Fed's (relatively non-controversial) target, so questions about raising that target are, for the time being at least, not really relevant. And, you know, it's possible that Bernanke has successfully prevented runaway deflation, in which case perhaps he is the "most inflationary" compared to that baseline -- in which case, he deserves credit, not blame (or do the GOP presidential candidates now support deflation? Could be!).

At any rate, nice graphic, and great catch!

One Cheer for the Electoral College

I had a piece up over the weekend at TNR talking about changes in the effects of the Electoral College over time. Short version: the electoral college used to have a major big-state bias, but recently that's dissipated quite a bit.

Still, overall there's still a slight big state bias in the EC, and there's at least some theoretical reason to believe that it would be that way. Basically, the states that matter per the EC system are those that are big and close. And that's good -- because Congress rewards small states (in the Senate) and one-party states and districts (to the extent that seniority matters). Which means that large cities, in particular, have traditionally been helped by the EC.

That is, I strongly disagree with Scott Lemieux's claim that "electoral college is a particularly egregious example of status quo bias; there’s no real defense on the merits to be made." Perhaps in the abstract there's no defense to be made -- although I'm not really sure about that. But in practice, what the EC did during the 20th century -- and still does a bit today -- is to balance out other biases in the system, and that's not nothing.

What I'd say more generally is that in my view it's a mistake to assume that there's some perfect electoral system out there that would perfectly reflect the true views of the electorate. What we know both about voters' preferences and about the math of electoral systems suggest that there is no such system. Of course, that doesn't mean that all systems are equally suspect, but it does mean that we shouldn't assume that either a simple plurality or a runoff/majority system would be some sort of obvious ideal. And the US is hardly the only democracy that uses convoluted methods to choose heads of government; after all, it's not as if the British PM is chosen by a direct popular vote.

I would say that the Electoral College would be far less justifiable if it regularly returned the "wrong" winner (if we suppose that the "correct" winner is the plurality winner), but in fact that's rare and likely to stay that way. I also do think that the EC is much less supportable if the current trend continues of big states becoming less competitive. But overall, I'm not at all convinced that moving away from the Electoral College is a good idea, at all.

Read Stuff, You Should

Straight to the good stuff:

1. I'm a big fan of Mark Blumenthal's "power outsiders" poll, here on Rick Perry and electability.

2. Do Members of Congress vote their social status? From John Sides.

3. Andrew Sullivan: "Republicanism as religion."

4. Budget caps and why they don't work, from Suzy Khimm.

5. A primer on Social Security from Glenn Kessler. Or, even more on Social Security from Karl Smith.

6. Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Somehow we got in our head that the Civil Rights movement happened because Martin Luther King was a really nice guy." On how to move ahead.

7. Harold Pollack talks to a lobbyist and learns about ACA.

8. Nate Silver's pre-mortem on the NY-7 Special holds up well still.

9. Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann on the silliness that is third-party wishful thinking.

10. Diversity, Obama, and the courts, from Jesse Holland. And Adam Serwer on Rush, Michael Moore, and Bill Maher. Also, Sides on Obama and the Jews.

11. A fun glossary of Congressspeak, from Matt Glassman. Do people really say "cats and dogs"? I've read about it several times now, but never heard anyone actually use it.

12. And I'm not sure if Philip Bump is really covering new ground in his takedown of discredited pollster Frank Luntz, but I'm always up for rehashing his credits.

Friday Baseball Post

Yes, I'm late. But this time, with sort of good reason. I was all ready to put aside some time to write a eulogy for the Giants 2011 season, but then they (and the Braves and DBacks) didn't quite cooperate. So I can't quite do that.

Instead, I'll just think about what it's been like for Giants fans -- and Rays fans, and Angels fans, and Cardinals fans -- this September. Odds are, none of the chasers are going to catch anyone. I haven't even bothered checking Clay Davenport's playoffs odds for a while; it just seems too improbable. And yet, it's nice to sort of play meaningful games in September, even if you can't really believe that it's at all realistic to hope for a happy ending. Or at least you keep trying to tell yourself that it's not realistic, and you should absolutely not use up any of your scarce supply of hope. And you know that's true, but you also know all about the 1964 Cardinals and the 1987 Tigers and, certainly, the 1951 Giants, and all the others.

See, the real secret of baseball, the thing that Bud Selig just doesn't seem to understand, is that pennant races work really, really well. There's nothing like it in the other sports. The baseball calendar just works incredibly well: the spring start, with all the hopes and silliness of what two or even six weeks means, and then the long summer months where the teams and players sort themselves out, and some seasons fall to injuries or aging or whatever, and it just goes on forever...and then suddenly in September five games out might as well be fifty, except it's really not because if and if and if and if.

The day-to-dayness of it all means so many different things, too. In April and May (and March), it's all about getting used to the team, and the rest of the division, and the rest of the league and the other league (and, for many of us, our new roto team, which has its own rhythms to learn). In July and August, the games all bleed together, sometimes. And then in September, if it's one of those years, it's just always there, every day, every game just killing you. Kruk & Kuip were right, but not just for this team. It's always torture.

Oh, the postseason is great too, in its own way, but baseball, to me, the real essence of baseball, is pennant races. It's the one thing that baseball has that the other sports don't have. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why MLB doesn't promote the hell out of September baseball, and revise the sport to make sure that it works as well as it can.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

So how are you feeling now about the ACA? We're about eighteen months in now, although of course much of it, including the most important parts (the exchanges/subsidies) still haven't been implemented. So what's your assessment at this point: Major accomplishment? Disappointment? Too soon to know? Good, but overrated?

How, if any, has your sense of it changed since it was passed in March 2010?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Do you have a good sense of the differences, if any, between what Rick Perry and Mitt Romney would do as president on foreign policy?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

You know, there was a lot of churning this week, but I'm not sure what I have for this item. I guess the reauthorizations that went through mattered, more or less...we're still waiting to see what happens with appropriations extensions. Lots of talk around the jobs bill, but I'm not sure there's anything there. The Republicans debated, but nothing really happened with WH 2012, either. I'm stumped. What am I missing? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, September 16, 2011


I recommend two very interesting posts, one by Bruce Bartlett arguing that Barack Obama made a major mistake by shifting his energy to health care and away from the economy after the stimulus passed, and one by Kevn Drum disputing that it mattered. Drum:
I have to confess that this line of criticism has always perplexed me. What does it mean to "single-mindedly" keep his attention on the economy? I just don't understand how that translates into concrete action. I think Obama got briefed plenty to understand the trajectory of the economy (you really don't need eight hours a day to figure that out) and I have a hard time thinking that it's a good use of presidential time to insert himself into the details of the appropriation process. I also doubt that Obama really had much influence over Ben Bernanke.
I don't think moving on health care was a mistake -- without it, I think Obama would have been clobbered by liberals -- but I think Drum is wrong about this. Could Obama have influenced Bernanke? Sure -- either by not re-appointing him, or by appointing him only after getting assurances of what kind of policy Bernanke would pursue. He could have influence Bernanke by appointing people to fill the other Fed openings as soon as possible, and then pushing the Senate hard to confirm them. He could have made it clear that monetary policy leading to economic growth was a high priority of the WH, both publicly and privately. Now, other than appointing someone else instead of Bernanke none of those is guaranteed to work, but put them all together and there's a very good chance they have some effect (although note: my general impression is that liberal Fed watchers tend to be somewhat pessimistic about the Fed, and perhaps oversell the idea that the Fed is being run by inflation other words, I'm not entirely convinced that Obama hasn't pushed the Fed a long ways towards what liberals would want).

Beyond that, there's the failure in 2009 to move aggressively on state & local governments, and who knows how many things that could have been done administratively. No single one was a magic bullet, but I don't think that Drum believes that the administration used all it had on housing, for example. And I didn't get many responses to my questions for economists earlier this week, but I still believe that a fully engaged administration could have done at least something to help the Eurozone situation.

It's not that Obama needed to spend hours studying what was happening in the economy or what needed to be done; it's that all presidents need to be aggressive about making sure that executive branch departments and agencies are giving them all the plausible options before decisions are made, and then carrying out policies once they are passed into law or put in place via executive order or otherwise chosen. And they have to be monitored to find out if they're working or not, and what the people actually carrying them out are learning and how that should be incorporated into new policies. Now, I have no idea to what extent Obama was doing all of that or not on economic policy, but he certainly should have been.

Catch of the Day

I'm somewhat ambivalent about fact-checking as a journalism genre...I'm sometimes concerned that there's a inherent bias in favor of discussing those things that are most easily shown to literally untrue, regardless of how substantively important they might be.

However, the WaPo's Glenn Kessler has a real doozy today: Speaker Boehner's claim that there are 219 pending regulations which will each cost the economy at least $100M. It turns out this is wrong in one relatively minor way -- the number of qualifying regulations is nowhere close to accurate -- but that's not the big deal. The real problem here is that while the government is required to identify all regulations that could have a $100M effect, it turns out that effect could be in either direction. In other words, they include those regulations that the government estimates will help the economy by at least $100M, in addition to those that are projected to hurt it. Indeed, if I understand this correctly, the procedure is to identify all effects of over $100M (in either direction), not all regulations that have a large net effect -- so as Kessler says, many of these may have net effects that are small or positive.

My general feeling is that if a politician says he has a list of 219 of something it's not going to surprise anyone if it turns out that there's only 150 (or that there are 500). But it's sort of a big deal if it turns out that a significant chunk of the 219 are examples of exactly the opposite of the point that the pol was trying to make. And this isn't just an incidental point; it's the big evidence Boehner has in support of the biggest initiative that his House Republicans are busy with this fall.

Now that Kessler has done such a good job of debunking it, you can be sure that Republicans will drop this in favor of more accurate figures and examples. Right?

Great catch.

Ignoring Presidential Instructions

I have no idea how well the reporting in Ron Suskind's new book about Barack Obama's economic team will hold up, but stories that Tim Geithner didn't carry out presidential directives on Citibank give me an excuse to re-tell one of my favorite presidential anecdotes, brought to us by Richard Neutsadt, who quotes what "a former Roosevelt aid once wrote of cabinet officers:
Half of a President's suggestions, which theoretically carry the weight of orders, can be safely forgotten by a Cabinet member. And if the President asks about a suggestion a second time, he can be told that it is being investigated. If he asks a third time, a wise Cabinet officer will give him at least part of what he suggests. But only occasionally, except about the most important matters, do Presidents ever get around to asking three times.
For those of you who have been following my Watergate posts, you've read how many times Richard Nixon had to repeat various directives (breaking into Brookings, getting the IRS to persecute rich Jews who supported the Democrats, selectively declassifying documents to hurt the Kennedys and other Dems), and as we know some of those things never did happen.

One of the outcomes, by the way, of the breakdown in the executive branch nomination process is that it puts presidents in an even worse position as he tries to get cabinet secretaries and others to do what he wants. One of the president's weapons in such fights (albeit one that can only be used infrequently even in the best of times) is to threaten to fire someone who doesn't follow administration policy. But if the Senate is unlikely to confirm anyone, then that threat isn't credible. And if they can't be fired, then why should they do what the president wants?

All of which is just a reminder that Barack Obama's greatest mistake has been letting the executive branch nominations process deteriorate without any kind of sustained fight. Yes, Republican obstruction is unprecedented, but Obama hasn't really even tried to contest it, and has never signaled to anyone, including Senate Democrats, that executive branch nominations are even a moderate priority. The result hasn't just been a bureaucracy that doesn't work as well as it should, but one that is a lot less responsive to Barack Obama than it might be.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Catch of the Day

It goes to Alex Pareene, for an excellent takedown of a WSJ op-ed that complains about "blue state bailouts." I think Pareene is correct that this is a talking point we're going to hear plenty of in the future.

Of course, in the world of GOP rhetoric it's all about throwing benefits at Democratic-aligned interest groups, but for those who care about unemployment and economic growth, it just seems nuts to be me to laying off government workers left and right (and blue and red; as Pareene points out, it's not actually a "blue state" bailout at all. Regular readers know my view on this: finding a way to keep state and local governments from undermining anticyclical federal measures is a really big deal, and failure to have initiated a program to make such measures automatic, especially when they had the votes to pass it, is one of the big failures of the Obama Administration.

The problem, again, is that regardless of the long-term fiscal responsibility of state and local governments, they all have an inherent problem when revenues collapse and their responsibilities expand during recessions. Since states don't (exactly) run deficits, the only choices they have are to slash spending and/or raise taxes, in both cases at exactly the wrong time. Of course, if you believe on principle that in a recession it's good for government to maximize unemployment, you might not want automatic stabilizers...

At any rate, great catch!
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