Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Worst Excuse Ever For Opposing Buffett Rule

Is the Buffett Rule -- that rich folks should pay at least as much in taxes as the middle class -- a good idea? I'm sure there are reasonable arguments pro and con. But you won't find any good ones in Douglas Holtz-Eakin's Bloomberg column today; it's an advanced class in hackery (via Wonkbook).

I'll start right off with a brilliant piece of misdirection Holtz-Eakin puts at the center of his case against the Buffett rule: that comprehensive tax reform is better. This is, even if you accept every benefit that he claims for tax reform, about the worst excuse I've ever heard for opposing a tax change. Here's the thing: comprehensive tax reform is really, really hard to get done. Impossible? No; after all, we do have one case of it happening, although that was 25 years ago and most of it unraveled rather quickly, which is why it's supposedly needed again. That's because comprehensive tax reform eliminates lots and lots...and lots and lots and lots of particular benefits in favor of general benefits. And that's something that a Madisonian political system doesn't do very well (nor, for that matter, do other democratic systems, but the US is perhaps especially prone to that one). So "comprehensive tax reform would be better" is a dodge. You don't get that choice.

And at any rate, the Buffett rule is hardly something that would make future tax reform more difficult. The essence of bipartisan-style tax reform is to eliminate deductions and lower rates. The Buffett rule doesn't exactly do that (and it's not revenue neutral), but it is, essentially, anti-deduction, isn't it?

So what else does Holtz-Eakin have? Well, he claims the problem "doesn't exist" because the millionaires are already paying, on average, a 30% rate. That, of course, hardly shows that the fundamental unfairness (as Barack Obama argues, at any rate) of some millionaires paying low rates doesn't exist; it just means that not all millionaires do so. So nothing there.

He also notes that the Buffett rule would be, in effect, a new Alternative Minimum Tax, and that the AMT we have has been a constant source of trouble because it's not indexed for inflation. True! Solution: index the Buffett rule for inflation. That wasn't tough! And again, he throws the "comprehensive tax reform would be better" attack at a permanent AMT fix. Now, it's true that an AMT fix would be heavy lifting and would be a waste of energy if comprehensive tax reform was on the menu, but the AMT fix is heavy lifting only because it's a revenue loser (at least the way CBO scores these things). The Buffett Rule, on the other hand, is a revenue raiser, so it doesn't have that problem at all.

Which brings us to yet another specious argument: that the Buffett Rule wouldn't balance the budget. Holtz-Eakin complains that it would only bring in $35B a year, which is, he points out, under 3% of recent deficits. Of course, the answer here is: so what? Again, he's trying to frame the question as either-or (that is, either the Buffett Rule or comprehensive tax reform), but there's just no good reason to believe that tax reform is going to happen anytime soon, or that passing the Buffett Rule this year would delay it in any way. Beyond that, saying that something wouldn't eliminate the deficit is hardly a reason to oppose it.

And then, finally, Holtz-Eakin argues that cutting entitlement spending for rich people would be better than the Buffett Rule. Perhaps so: but it's hard to see why the one would rule out the other. We should cut spending isn't an argument against the fairness claim that Buffett, and Barack Obama, are making.

Again, I'm not arguing here for or against the Buffett Rule. But if that's the best the opponents have, I'm guessing the case really boils down to Rich People Want Money, and that's not much of a case at all.

Catch of the Day

While I'm not a fan of the 60 vote Senate, I generally can't fault Mitch McConnell for doing what he can to gum up the works in that chamber. It's true that the minority party has a choice to make between all-out obstruction versus cooperation, and that the latter has a lot of real advantages (basically, that their constituencies can be considered in policy-making), but at least in my view the choice was made for McConnell by the overwhelming preference of his conference, and he's just been carrying out what they want over the last few years.

Whatever you think of McConnell and the GOP strategy, however, it's certainly clear that he and the Republicans have successfully implemented the 60 vote Senate on all bills and nominations, something that never existed before (and only began to be a real possibility in 1993, the last time before 2009 that Democrats won unified control of both branches). This is a real accomplishment for McConnell, and one he can brag about.

Or pretend that it never happened, as Sahil Kapur notes over at TPM: "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has embraced the argument that President Obama was able to pass every bit of his legislative agenda in his first two years thanks to large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. " Or, as McConnell puts it: Obama "got everything he wanted from a completely compliant Congress for two of those three years."

Yikes! Kapur lists several of the items which Obama wanted but were blocked by the 60 vote Senate, including climate change legislation, the public option on health care (at least a weak form would have had 50 votes), the DREAM Act, the elimination of Bush-era tax cuts on upper income taxpayers, and more. The stimulus almost certainly would have been larger. Moreover, the odds are good that a simple-majority Senate would have passed significant follow-up aid to the states, not to mention more timely unemployment insurance extensions. Now, it's worth remembering that the historic 111th Congress did pass a whole lot of legislation, including a whole lot of what Obama wanted, but "every bit of his legislative agenda" isn't a stretch; it's a flat-out lie.

Oh, and: Nice catch!

But If We Did Have A Deadlocked Convention...

It's not going to happen this year, but it could happen sometime: a deadlocked convention. Or, an open convention. Or, an undecided convention. I'm pushing deadlocked, but any of those are fine. And I have no problem talking about it as long as we don't pretend that it's likely this time around...there are good reasons to believe it's highly unlikely, but it isn't impossible at all.

Rachel Weiner over at WaPo wrote a good piece about what would happen should we ever reach a point in which no candidate has half the delegates after the last primary or caucus; she talked to me and to Josh Putnam, and I think she did a good job. I'd emphasize, however, that there's considerable uncertainty about what would actually happen if we really had an unknown nominee when the convention opened.

For example, consider this comment from Solracer to a previous item of mine about deadlocked conventions:
I was a Dean delegate at the 2004 DNC and in that case Howard Dean asked us to vote for Kerry in a sign of unity which most all of us did. So there is still an ability for candidates to deliver their delegates. The big wild card this time however is time itself. In the old days the delegates were party insiders who could afford to take weeks to come to a conclusion. Today the delegates are likely common people with real jobs who are paying their own hotel bills and who have non-refundable tickets to fly home. So either everyone will vote for a single candidate at the last minute just to be able to go home or even worse they will leave anyway and there won't be enough delegates left to put anyone over the top. IMHO the latter is the real disaster scenario and I really don't know what could be done in that situation.
I'm certainly not a historian of 19th century conventions, but my memory is that this was in fact an issue at times: who is actually in the room may well have a major effect on who wins. Whatever is true about then, it's an excellent point about what would happen now. Of course, it's quite possible that things would get resolved before the delegates actually met. After all, communications are somewhat more reliable now than when the Whigs were doing the nominating.

Just to remind everyone: if we really got as far as the first day of the convention without resolving the nomination, there's a good chance for major chaos. Everything, from which delegates are seated to the procedures under which the nomination is considered, would be up for grabs. Delegates, and party factions generally, are unlikely to trust anyone to be a neutral referee. Party politicians and others with a major stake in the November election results will have a powerful incentive to keep things looking happy, but the candidates and many party factions may not. Of course, all of this is one reason why the system has been designed to reach a resolution in spring, and I believe that the parties have done a reasonably good job in doing so. But if it every fails...well, it certainly would be fun for political junkies, but it could easily get very ugly for the party.

Whither Santorum? And Other Florida Questions

Florida primary day. I wrote something over at Plum Line arguing that it matters whether Romney wins by a narrow margin or by a landslide because it will influence how he behaves over the next five weeks, through Super Tuesday.

The other question, I suppose, is whether this is the end of the line for Rick Santorum. I think so, although as usual I'll remind everyone not to trust immediate candidate reactions. After South Carolina, I thought that it made sense for Santorum to stay in for a week because of the possibility of a third-candidate effect: I thought that it was possible that with Mitt and Newt attacking each other full force, it was possible that Santorum might benefit even if he didn't have the money to run much of a campaign of his own. It appears that it didn't pan out, and I can't see any point in Santorum continuing on.

So why did Santorum fizzle after Iowa? That he did well there was, I still think, somewhat of a low-probability fluke. But once he emerged as a potentially viable conservative opponent to Romney, why didn't he do better? I guess I have four theories I can think of. One is that Iowa is no longer very important. Or, more likely: that Iowa has produced a sufficiently long string of social conservative surprises (Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee) that the press heavily discounts any social conservative who does well there. That's silly; Iowa is not, in fact, a social conservative outlier within the GOP. But it might be true anyway. The second theory is a press bias in favor of Newt Gingrich. He's easy to write about, and many members of the elite press have always been easy marks for the snake oil that he peddles. So instead of writing him off after his lousy finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the press continued to treat him as a top-tier candidate, thus taking time away from Santorum. So I have two press-centric theories, and I'll add one voter theory: Santorum doesn't seem to do resentment particularly well; the best he can manage is a sort of whine, such as when he wasn't being called on enough in early debates.

And then there's theory four, which is party-based. It appeared, through Iowa, that party actors were willing to accept Romney but were not sold, which meant there was room for a non-Romney to emerge. It's certainly possible, however, that either party actors don't much like Santorum for whatever reason -- or, more likely, that they really were a lot happier with the Mittster than they let on. If that's the case, the nomination was probably a done deal well before Iowa, even though on the surface (compared to, say, 2000 in both parties) there seemed to be reason for uncertainty.

I have no idea which, if any, of those theories explains it, but I do think it needs a bit of explaining.

Read Stuff, You Should

Lots of good stuff today, so getting right to it:

1. Very interesting study from Lynn Vavreck and Ryan D. Enos about how candidates can affect voters' perceptions of reality, centered on Newt's rhetoric about food stamps. A point off, however, for beginning the last paragraph with "In what is sure to be a close contest."

2. Fun from Nate Silver: the Reagan count. Also, Tim Murphy reviews the actual history of Newt and Reagan. Conor Friedersdorf collects some of his recent unorthodox positions. And John Pitney thinks Newt would lose if he debated Barack Obama.

3. Moving on to Romney...Sarah Posner was watching when Romney talked religion at the last debate; and, yes, Romney lies a lot, says Jonathan Chait.

4. Joshua Huder had a very nice post, sort of pegged to Santorum, about "insiders" and "outsiders" and reform. Hint: Richard Bolling is mentioned.

5. How's that austerity working out for you? David Leonhardt has a chart.

6. Here comes the 2012 edition of the Wesleyan Media Project. Bookmark, now.

7. Sarah Binder is doing some Fed -- and Congress -- watching.

8. Are liberals using anti-Semetic language to talk about (very legitimate) policy positions on Israel? Spencer Ackerman makes the case.

9. Stan Collender argues that OMB director is a good path to the Oval Office -- but only for one side of the big desk.

10. Adam Serwer, very good as always, this time on Leon Panetta's account of extrajudicial executions of American citizens accused of terrorism.

11. And Alyssa Rosenberg on Spike Lee, George Lucas, and Hollywood.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Unleash Chiang/Chang/Shang!!!

By far the funniest thing of the day is the revelation that, through the Bush family, Chiang Kai-shek has morphed into "a mythical conservative warrior." That's a link to Dan Larison's fine discussion, which will also link you way back to Brad DeLong's original catch on this from way back in 2005. There's some question as to whether Jeb Bush knew the origin of the phrase "unleashing Chiang" or not, with Tim Noah believing that Jeb did but Marco Rubio didn't. Click over and read the whole, wonderful, story.

All I can say is: Shaka, when the walls fell.

I'll also add, for whatever it's worth, that Li Shang is a hero in the excellent 1998 Disney movie "Mulan." He's not exactly a mythical conservative warrior, but he is a warrior, and it is a myth, although Jeb's kids were a bit too old to have gone with him to see it. Despite singing like Donny Osmond.  Could Disney's Shang have somehow combined with G.H.W. Bush's Chiang? I sure am curious.

Less relevantly, I see that Grandmother Fa in that movie was voiced by June Foray and sung by Marni Nixon. Wow! You're not going to get better than that...my sense is that Mulan hasn't quite been as successful as some of the others of that era, but in my view it's right in the first tier with Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid.

Plum Line: Nominations (plus some Housekeeping)

Over at Plum Line today: an update on the next steps with exec branch and judicial nominations, in light of Senator Mike Lee's threat to put holds on everything.

Meanwhile: it's a record-breaking month for traffic here at Plain Blog, and I want thank each and every one of you. Also, thanks to everyone for links and tweets, and to those readers who use the "share" button. Thank you!

With traffic up, I'm thinking of switching to short daily links posts, instead of the once-a-week or so with an irregular schedule that I've always done. I might try it out for a while and see if it takes...among other things, I've recently switched over to doing a morning school drop-off for one of my kids, and I've noticed that I'm finding it hard to get a first substantive post up early, so that might work. I might also fold in links to new stuff that I've written elsewhere...I'm not really sure. Anyway, I'm happy to take suggestions about any of this if you have them. I might even come up with a different title for my links posts, but I am sort of fond of my traditional one, so I'm not sure about that yet.

Final Word (I Hope!) on Late Entrant

The final word, I hope, on the impossibility of a late entrant into the GOP nomination battle at this point goes to Josh Putnam, who has a data-filled post detailing all the filing deadlines and other technical problems with a new candidacy at this point.

The only think I want to add to this, other than you should definitely use his info and not the stuff that I've been citing in previous posts, is that there's a danger here of getting too caught up in the technicalities of all of this. I know -- I've been contributing to this a bit. And it's worth knowing the technical stuff, to be sure.

But step back, and you'll realize that it's been too late for months. When I was talking about this in 2010 and 2011, I speculated that the real window closed for most candidates in spring 2011, and for the most well-positioned candidate on the sideline -- presumably Jeb Bush -- sometime in the summer or late summer. Oh, a candidate certainly could have technically entered the race in September 2011. But a true new entrant at that point would be starting with an enormous disadvantage in resources, whether we're talking money, or organization, or candidate experience on the campaign trail. We saw some of that with Rick Perry, who wasn't really a complete new entrant (remember, he had already published a campaign book before he got in, and certainly had been prepping for the race for some time). It would have been that much worse for a real new entrant.

One of the reasons Mitt Romney has done so well this cycle is precisely because he's been running for president nonstop for about seven years. You don't have to do it that way; Barack Obama really did enter fairly late in the process, as far as I know. It sure helps, though.

Is Florida About Money or the Party?

One of the things that you're going to hear a lot of is that Mitt Romney's big win in Florida tomorrow -- and per the polling, it looks certain -- wasn't caused by debates or Newt's crazy moon rhetoric or the support of party leaders, but by Romney's money advantage. Jonathan Chait, for example:
Mitt Romney is pulling away in Florida, which has less to do with a “more focused message” or increased “swagger,” or any other narrative the press reads into it, than a simple ability to spend Newt Gingrich into the ground. (The television ad disparity has been about four to one.)
I agree with this to some extent, but there's another major factor involved, which is the spin control exercised by party leaders.

It's not just that a significant number of GOP opinion leaders were bashing Newt. What's probably more important is that as far as I can see absolutely no one -- with the exception of Sarah Palin, I guess -- hit Romney for running a vicious attack campaign against a fellow Republican. Meanwhile, Newt was severely disciplined by those same opinion leaders when he (and Rick Perry) attacked Romney's business practices.

Imagine, for example, if Rick Perry had done well and it was a Romney/Perry race, with party leaders splitting between them but believing both were acceptable. I strongly suspect that if Romney went all scorched earth against Perry in that scenario that many neutral party leaders would start talking about how Ronald Reagan never ran a negative ad in his life (doesn't matter if it's true or not) and about how Romney should dial it back some. They might also quietly warn Romney that if he didn't cut back that he'd feel the consequences in fundraising and other resources. Meanwhile, Perry would have plenty of surrogates to go on every Fox News program to knock the ads down, and those surrogates would have a very sympathetic hearing much of the time.

Remember, we're talking here about GOP primary voters. That's a relatively high-information group. Virtually all of them, I'd guess, watch Fox News instead of CNN (or, obviously, MSNBC). Quite a few of them listen to Rush Limbaugh or other conservative talk radio hosts, and some of them read conservative blogs. Remember too that most of them are inclined to like all of the candidates: after all, they're all on Team GOP. So they may tend to resist stuff they're hearing in ads if they also hear evidence to the contrary from their favorite talk radio show. After all, we expect each and every one of them to completely discount the attacks they'll be seeing from Barack Obama in a few months. But if party leaders are inviting Romney to continue, even if that's just by staying quiet, well, that's going to make a difference.

It's also worth mentioning that fundraising is connected to party support, so the fact that Romney has such a large lead is at least to some extent a function of party choice, and not Romney's abilities.

On the whole, then, I suspect that what's happening in Florida is very much a party story, and even less of a candidate story than one might think.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Question for Liberals

Same question that I asked of conservatives. With the debates winding down for this cycle, what lessons if any should Democrats learn for 2016 about the way they were organized? What worked? What didn't?

Of course, the incentives of individual candidates and of the potential sponsors of debates may well differ from those of the party as a whole. But to the extent that the party could change things, what should be changed and what should be retained?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

We may be done with the debates, so it's perhaps a good time to look back: what about the debates worked? What didn't work? What should Republicans, as a party, attempt to do differently next time around?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Mattered This Week?

Seemed like an eventful week to me in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan...that's a lot.

The 4th amendment case decided this week, US v. Jones, seemed important to me.

I don't really think there's much left of importance in the nomination fight. Romney moved ahead of Newt in Florida, but that just means (assuming it holds up) that there will be less irrelevant hype after Tuesday. Romney is going to have to pretend it's a contest through Super Tuesday at this point no matter what happens in Florida. Watch to see if Rick Santorum has a late surge into second place, but so far it's not happening. There were also some new unflattering details about Romney's finances and background; not a plus for him, but unlikely to matter much.

What else? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday Baseball Post

Grumble grumble Sabean grumble grumble.

There's no shortstop. There's really no LF. I've been reading all winter about how Aubrey Huff is in terrific shape and all, but we all know that guys who are 35 and coming off a terrible year and have only been good two of the last five years aren't going to return to peak, and are probably going to be awful, no matter what they say in January.

Sabean has some real strengths as a GM, but there's really no reason for this team to not be gearing up for a serious pennant run this year, and as of now he's just not doing it. You just don't want to waste peak years of major stars because you leave massive holes in your lineup.

One of the things that Sabean has always been terrible at is figuring out when there are windows of opportunity and acting on them (or, on the other hand, realizing that it's not the right year and using the time to improve for the future. I hate to just complain about the guy -- again, he has some serious strengths. But it sure is frustrating rooting for his teams.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Andrew Sullivan took aim earlier this week at the notion that there's any "Republican establishment" out there to stand up to Newt Gingrich:
I'm not sure what this phrase means or represents any more - the Chamber of Commerce? John Boehner? The Bush family? But the concept of a responsible, sane, pragmatic party leadership able to corral or coax or manage a party's base is, it seems to me, a preposterous fiction on its face, as we are seeing. The Republican Establishment is Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin.
Andrew Sprung called this "a crowbar to the political scientists' notion of a Republican 'party establishment.'" I should take a minute to explain where I stand on this.

I try very hard not to use the word "establishment," precisely because I have no idea what it means. Nor do I think that "insider" vs. "outsider" is usually a useful category. In normal politics, people use those labels as part of the rhetoric of intraparty (and interparty for that matter) competition, which is interesting in terms of political culture and public opinion but tells us little about influence within parties. What I talk about are party actors, and (less often and more problematically) party leaders. I can't speak for all political scientists on this one, but that's who we should be talking about, in my view. These party actors include a lot of people: politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists, formal party officials and staff, leaders of party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan press.

Some of those may be in the working majority of the party; some may not be. There's no theoretical reason to believe that everyone within any category will agree on anything, nor that people will agree across categories. That is, a party may have a situation in which the activists lean one way and the Washington-based politicians and others lean the other, but it's equally possible that activists will be split, or campaign professionals will be split, etc. Nor is there any theoretical expectation, in my view -- and here I differ from others who think about parties, I believe -- that one or another of these groups will be the most influential. In other words, I don't think that parties are "really" their politicians, or "really" the interest group which align with them, or "really" their formal organizations. Instead, I believe that any of those are possible, and that it's an empirical question which portion of the party is most influential in any particular time and place.

With me so far? What I'm saying is that influence within political parties is at least potentially contested, and nominations -- especially for the highest office -- are where those fights, fights which define what the party is, take place. Of course, sometimes there's no fight because everyone, or most everyone, agrees. When that's the case, it's very hard for us to see who is actually more influential. At other times, there are fights, and then we can get a better sense of who wields influence, but it can be extremely hard to study this stuff, because it's not a simple matter of casting votes or other easily counted indicators. Some party actors give money. Others make public endorsements. But some exert their influence in less visible ways, such as by spreading overall impressions of candidates within the party network. That's the kind of thing that's hard to get at without a lot of careful work. Remember, even the people involved may have inaccurate perceptions of who has the most influence.

Now, back to "Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin." Are they the most powerful players in the Republican Party? We don't know! We certainly know that if the GOP-aligned partisan press is united against a candidate in a nomination fight, that candidate will lose; after all, most GOP primary voters get most of their information from the partisan press, and believe what they hear. But that's not enough to tell us that Rush and Ailes are the critical players here. We don't know how much autonomy any individual talk show host, or even the head of Fox News, has, and it's very difficult at best to figure it out. I'm certain that they're not all-powerful, that there are at powerful constraints preventing them from just choosing on their own. After all, there's a death sentence that the party can pronounce on any of them: Not Conservative. RINO. But of course that's begging the question: who gets to declare someone else Not Conservative? Who can do it and have it stick?

So: certainly, Rush and Fox News are highly visible actors within the GOP, and certainly, they do a lot to originate or spread the ways that Republicans talk about things. Who exactly has the most influence within the party, however, is a much more complicated question. It's not best answered, in my view, by focusing only on the most visible actors, nor by positing that there's an "establishment/insurgent" split -- the latter just doesn't seem to fit very well.

When it comes to claims from me and others that (as Cohen et al. put it) The Party Decides, what we're saying -- at least what I'm saying -- is not that a party establishment trumps other party actors. It's that party actors are more important than the other players in the process: the (neutral) press; rank-and-file voters; and the candidates themselves, at least thought of as individual actors outside of the party (one way that the party controls things is through the transformation of self-interested candidates into party-oriented candidacies). That wasn't especially true for a variety of reasons, in my view, in the immediate post-reform era, at least on the Democratic side (that is, in the 1972 and 1976 cycles), which among other things reminds us that it doesn't always have to work that way. But by the 1984 cycle and going forward, it seems to be the case. It just isn't plausible these days for a candidate who is opposed by a sufficient number of sufficiently important party actors, whether individuals or groups, to get a nomination, no matter how able that candidate is at appealing to voters. The party, collectively, just controls too many resources that are needed to win nominations, whether it's money, or positive publicity, or personnel.

Again, that doesn't preclude intraparty fights, or predict who will win those fights. And it doesn't mean that the views of rank-and-file voters are irrelevant: those voters are often the constituents of party actors, who therefore care what they want (they also are used by party actors as clues to a candidate's electibility, for better or worse). Recall, too, that parties are permeable; it's generally very easy for rank-and-file voters to become party actors, although of course how influential they'll be depends on lots of things.  But when we try to figure out what's up in these contests, the place to start is by thinking about where the party is. Not the mythical "establishment," whatever that is, but all of the party -- that is, all party actors. That's going to get us a lot farther down the road than any other form of analysis.

Catch of the Day

To Ed Kilgore over at Washington Monthly, who read the WSJ editorial page, and so he deserves some sort of compensation. In this case, it was the WSJ's crazed support for the idea that the only reason anyone is concerned about climate change is immediate self-interest. As Kilgore says:
Gee, you’d think in all this tough-minded truth-telling about those with a financial stake in the climate change debate the Journal might have noted in passing that the most powerful economic interests on the planet have an interest in doing nothing about it.
Oh well. Kevin Drum piles on:
Climate change isn't merely wrong — that would be boring — it's an immense conspiracy being waged by a group of nerdy scientists (who want funding) and tree huggers (who are desperate to control everyone else's lives). And it's a damn successful conspiracy, too. Despite the fact that it requires thousands and thousands of participants from nearly every country in the world, with new collaborators earning PhDs every month, not a single one of them has broken the climate omerta yet and blown the whole thing open. But someone will, any day now. Just you wait.
Just to try to add a bit of value of my own here...while Drum, I think correctly, talks about long-term conspiracy theorizing on the right, I would add that a lot of the way conservatives talk now is very much driven by embarrassing presidential candidate and failed and disgraced Speaker Newt Gingrich. The other thing I'll say, and I should mention that this is purely speculative, is that in my view this kind of rhetoric is utterly ineffective at persuading anyone, and if anything tends to hurt with undecideds; what it's mainly good for is manipulating people who are already inclined to agree with you. Which is great if your goal is to squeeze more money out of your marks, but not particularly useful if you actually want to achieve policy goals.

Hey, Reporters! (Debate Edition)

I've seen a few commenters (see for example here) treat the Florida debate audience last night as autonomous actors, neutral (between candidates) partisans who were honestly reacting to what they heard from the stage. I also read my brother the expert Romney-watcher's tweet during the action:
Strange that it took the Romney campaign 19 takes to realize that they should pack the debate hall.
I'm inclined to believe that it was a packed hall, and not spontaneous reactions -- but I don't know! Hey, reporters: first of all, we really should know whether Romney packed the hall or not last night. Second, and more basically: the audiences at GOP debates this year were a big story, and one that was underreported throughout. I know a lot of reporters are at this things live; who is packing the audience and how effectively should be a standard part of every debate story.

Pundits watching: be careful. And, I guess, I have to recommend this of all things: be more cynical. Please don't assume that debate audiences are a random cross-section of party voters. It's possible -- but campaigns rarely leave to chance those things that they can control, and if you don't know, it's safest to assume that an enthusiastic crowd is that way for a reason.

Plum Line: General Election Reset

With new GDP numbers out and Mitt Romney in command of the nomination, my Plum Line post today looks ahead to the general election. Key point: Mitt Romney is shaping up to very much be a generic Republican candidate, and the out-party candidate just doesn't matter all that much against an incumbent president.

That said, I think there are two things I'd add. One is that I'd recommend forgetting all about Romney's weaknesses within the GOP. Once he clinches, I don't see anything that would keep the party from rallying around him. His weak polling numbers now just don't matter much. On the other hand, it's worth noting that "generic Republican" these days includes some fairly unpopular positions on public policy. Romney has endorsed the House (Ryan) budget from last year and taken other ideologically driven positions (and that's before we get to the party platform, which is sure to offer the Democrats more ammunition). We do know that perceived ideological extremism is a general election negative, and Obama should be able to push public perceptions of Romney's positioning, even if it won't be as effective as it would have been against Rick Perry, or for that matter Michele Bachmann.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Florida CNN Debate

My debate wrap is up over at Plum Line. Short version: Newt got clobbered.

Here's your question for the night. Going in, Nate Silver's model (which is a weighted average over recent polls, with current momentum projected out to election day) says Florida is Mitt 40%, Newt 36%, Santorum 12%, Paul 10%. Newt was awful tonight, and I'll be shocked if it isn't spun that way within the GOP partisan press, since so many people have it in for the former Speaker. He also has Romney throwing a massive wall of attack ads at him on Florida TV. Santorum had a very solid night, and as far as I know he isn't being targeted on TV, at least not heavily. So: what are the odds that Santorum surges and clears, say, 20%? 25%? 30%?

Of course, I've pretty much always thought that Santorum was a bigger threat to Romney than Newt was -- even after South Carolina. Also, and I apologize for the self-congratulation but I'm sort of proud of this one: I pointed out last week that Newt's debate reputation was a fraud. Anyway, what probably happens now is that Romney wins Florida easily, but there's still time for that to go awry. What's not going to happen is Newt Gingrich becoming the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

Oh Those Debates

I have a new column over at Salon talking about the debates as a (not very reliable) form of vetting the candidates.

The history of this is important, I think. I tend to believe that media vetting as a consequence of the sequential nomination process is a reasonably effective solution to a real problem, which has to do (as I talk about in that piece) with the tremendous expansion of the number of legitimate party actors. I'll be interested in whether the more historically-minded commenters here agree with my reading of that. The problem, however, is that substituting a string of a dozen or two dozen debates for the sequential system is unlikely to work as well. That's not entirely what Republicans have done, but one could argue that they're going down that path.

At any rate, one more debate tonight, and then it's almost over: nothing scheduled for a few weeks, and only a handful of scheduled debates remaining, with no guarantee that any more will actually take place if Romney wins big on Tuesday in Florida. You can be sure that CNN will do what they can to bring on the fireworks tonight...I'll be tweeting as usual, and then I'll post a wrap over at Greg's place, and perhaps more here if there's something to add.

Picking VPs

There's a hit piece up on Reuters today attacking logical GOP vice presidential choice Marco Rubio, hitting him on everything from his personal finances to his (supposed) lack of appeal to non-Cuban Hispanics. Among other things, it has him voting against Sonia Sotomayor, which is flat-out wrong (she was confirmed in 2009 and he didn't arrive in the Senate until 2011), so I have no idea how accurate the rest of the stuff that's being thrown at him might be.

Will Rubio be the VP choice? I don't think anyone can predict it; these choices are highly idiosyncratic. As far as I know, all we can say is that sometimes the nomination runner-up gets the pick (Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, John Edwards), and sometimes it's someone else. But Rubio would seem to be logical in some senses, what with being from a large swing state and presumably appealing to a large, important demographic group, whatever Reuters wants to tell us.

Logical, except as the article reminds us, for one thing: he hasn't been vetted by a presidential nomination campaign. As I've said, that's really the thing that's separated the awful selections (Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Tom Eagleton, Gerry Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin) from everyone else. In which "awful selection" means that they either were significant campaign problems or, if elected, resigned to avoid jail time. There's simply no better vetting process than a presidential campaign. Of those who went through one, only John Edwards really turned out to be a serious problem, and that was years later; he was fine during 2004. VP candidates Jack Kemp, George H.W. Bush, Joe Biden, and Al Gore all were just fine (as were Lloyd Bentsen and Walter Mondale, each of whom had previously sort-of run, although I wouldn't count those races for this exercise.

The problem, for the Republicans, assuming Mitt Romney is the nominee, is that they're not doing a great job of producing a pool of presidential candidates who have been vetted by a campaign while also holding orthodox views on policy positions the party cares about and having conventional credentials. This round, we have Rick Perry, who was vetted but found wanting; he seems an unlikely pick. Tim Pawlenty diminished himself with his run, and at any rate really didn't stay in long enough to have received the press attention that vetting requires, although it's probably better than nothing. Maybe Rick Santorum? He doesn't really have conventional credentials, since those usually don't include an electoral drubbing, but maybe.

OK, last time around. Fred Thompson is old and hasn't been in office for almost a decade; nope. Rudy Giuliani? Obviously not. Not the fringe candidates, or the ones who dropped out very early (Sam Brownback ran? Oh yeah). There is one, though: Mike Huckabee.

If you go back to 2000, you could add Lamar Alexander, except that he's even older than Fred Thompson, and you could also perhaps add John Kasich.

If Romney asked me for advice, I'd probably say that the do-no-harm list is Pawlenty and Huckabee, and I'd be very much leaning towards the Huck. But the other part of this is that if for whatever reason Romney or important GOP groups find both of them unacceptable, then Romney will wind up with someone who hasn't been through the process. And while that certainly can work, it's a risky move with very little upside.

Replace Update -- Now With (Perhaps) News!

Sarah Kliff reported yesterday something that this blog has an obligation to note, which is that House Republicans, in particular Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chair Joe Pitts, are making noises about producing a "replace" bill this spring as part of their long-promised "repeal and replace" pledge. Since I had a running item for the first half of 2011 focusing on how phony the "replace" portion of that appeared to be, and then gave up on the item since they weren't even bothering to pretend that they were going to move on "replace", I certainly need to pay attention.

And, if they do move a bill, I'll be impressed. But we're not actually there yet. As Kliff reports,the best Pitts can do now is the same rhetorical pieces that Republicans have been touting since 2008. They haven't become a bill and passed the House yet probably  because those things don't really add up to a bill, at least not one that would accomplish the two things they'll probably want to do: match the popular features of ACA, and get a decent score from CBO. At least without including the bits of ACA that people don't like.

So: Pitts claims that a "replace" bill will be introduced "shortly after the Supreme Court rules on the health reform law." We'll see, and we'll see if the bill really does move through the House. I'll give them credit for keeping their promise if it happens. I'm not especially optimistic I'll have to do that.

Why All the Surges? We Don't Know, Yet

The Hotline's Tim Alberta tweeted something yesterday that I think a lot of people have been thinking, and not just because various pundits have been saying it:
Polls this cycle have been all over the place, yet they consistently show how momentum is derived largely from debate performances
Caution, everyone. All of us who are following the election closely are very much aware of the debates. But that's simply not the only thing going on. Since December, there are ad wars in all of the early primary states, with saturation levels of TV ads, presumably accompanied by other forms of advertising. There are also candidate appearances and local news hits. Each early state has its own local conservative talk radio hosts. And then there's the various nationally syndicated radio hosts, plus Fox News. On top of all that, there's straight news coverage, including on those local news shows and within the GOP-aligned partisan press, of campaign developments including not only debates but also polls and primary results. All of these may produce direct and indirect effects, including pure "momentum" effects when inattentive voters who like all the candidates simply tell pollsters they support the candidate they most recently heard something good about. And of course saying that "debate performances" moved polling numbers is also dicey just by itself; impressions of those performances can be unmediated for those who watch the debates in full and nothing else, or mediated by the press and party actors for those who learn (or remember) what happened from news recaps, sound bites, and whatever pundits and talk show hosts choose to talk about.

Getting back to debates vs. everything else: most of that, to most of us who are not in the state that's preparing for a primary this week, is mostly or entirely invisible. The debates, on the other hand, are extremely visible. Later on, with any luck we'll get some good analysis that can attempt to sort out all these effects. Including why we're getting all these large swings (Nate Silver today suggested the old Mickey Kaus effect; I'm sticking with the "no heavyweight" theory). But for now we should all be very cautious, in my view, about leaping to the conclusion that the most visible thing to us is the one that's pushing all the polling.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Plum Line: Nominations Reform

Up over at Plum Line, my reaction to Barack Obama's SOTU proposal that all executive branch and judicial nominations get a "simple or down vote" within 90 days.

Generally, I'm not a huge fan of that specific plan -- I think it goes too far in weakening the Senate's role and the role of individual Senators -- but I think it's very good that Obama is at least getting engaged in the fight. Just to recap my reform preferences...on exec branch nominations, I'm for simple majority confirmation, but preserving if possible individual or small-group holds for the purposes of negotiating some specific district issue (with the Majority Leader, as he is now, empowered to decide which holds to respect). On judges, I like the guaranteed 90 day vote, but I'm OK with filibusters, especially at the appellate level, although I'm open to changing the exact supermajority needed. So: protect intense individual-Senator minorities on exec branch nominees, and intense partisan or ideological majorities on judges. On top of that, I suppose a major effort to streamline executive branch vetting.

Catch of the Day

Goes to Jared Bernstein (no relation!), who spotted a complete travesty by Politifact:

OMG…this is beyond preposterous.
“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.”
This is not half true or two-thirds true.  It is just true.
Politifact—the self-anointed fact checkers—grade this statement from the President speech tonight as “half-true:”
As he explains, Politifact's problem with the statement is that in their view, since the president said it, he must be taking credit for the job gains despite not actually being legitimately responsible for them. Note that the president didn't actually say that he was responsible. In other words, they're grading the president as a almost-liar because of the implication that they read into a simple factual statement.

Jared Bernstein gets results! Lots of bloggers have picked up on this, and lo and behold Politifact has actually backed off...a bit. It's now "mostly true." With the same explanation, only now they concede that, well, Obama didn't actually say that he was responsible for those jobs.

It's still, even with the correction, properly described as "beyond preposterous."

And it's not just that particular fact. Politifact also went after "Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years" on the same basis, giving it a "Mostly True." Here's how that one went. First, they devoted 500 words to showing that the specific words they were examining were, in fact, true. They then conclude:

We think Obama’s phrasing suggests that he thinks the administration’s policies have played a role, saying, for instance, that "over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration." But we also think he does so cautiously.
Our ruling
Obama was correct when he said that "right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years." We think he may have overstated his administration’s role in achieving that, but not wildly so. We rate the claim Mostly True. 
 Huh? Here's the quote from the president:
Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right – eight years. Not only that – last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years.
There is no claim here to check! Obama simply did not say that his administration caused more oil production. He didn't say they caused a little of it, a lot of it, or all of it. How can you fact check this non-claim?

Does Politifact believe that politicians should never present absolutely true factual information without disclosing that, in fact, they are not responsible? Mitch Daniels, in his SOTU response, voiced " admiration for the strong family commitment that he and the First Lady have displayed to a nation sorely needing such examples." Should Politifact downgrade that one to "Mostly True" because Daniels isn't actually responsible for the Obamas' marriage?

Sorry for the length of this, but there's more! Politifact rated "General Motors is back on top as the world’s No. 1 automaker" as "Half-True." This one hasn't been updated, at least not yet, and it's just as bad. Politifact, again, downgrades the statement because "crediting the bailout with GM's No. 1 spot is a stretch." But here, the case is pretty clear; the bailout may not have been sufficient for the recovery of GM, but it certainly was necessary. And once again, Politifact apparently has no problem at all with the specific steps Obama claims his administration took, or the claims he makes about where GM is now. Indeed, they don't even dispute the claim, which I think it's fair to say that Obama does make here, that the two are connected. Their only problem, which is enough to downgrade the whole statement, is that an entirely unstated claim that Obama deserves full credit would be wrong.

Oh, Politifact did have one other problem with the GM claim: Apparently industry watchers believe there was luck involved in GM happening to be on top just now. Which they cited, apparently in all seriousness, as a problem with the claim that GM is #1. I suppose I should also never mention the Giants 2010 World Series win without mentioning that the 2010 version of Edgar Renteria wasn't all that likely to hit two home runs in five games. Yikes!

Look: I didn't participate in the Politifact-bashing after their both-sides-do-it lie of the year fiasco, but this is just terrible stuff. The only real reason to do fact checking is to provide some incentives for politicians to stick to at least the literal truth. Obama did it in all three of these cases -- by Politifact's own research -- and yet they aren't rewarding him for it. Awful.

And: nice catch!

Gabby Giffords

Gabby Giffords, Member of the House from Arizona, resigned today in a tear-filled ceremony on the House floor, after showing up for Barack Obama's State of the Union last night. She says she'll be back; I wouldn't bet against her.

I think the thing to remember about Giffords is that before she was shot she was widely regarded as having a huge future. Of course, one can never tell how these things will play out, but she certainly would have been on the short list of Democrats to run for the open Arizona Senate seat this year; her mentions for that after Jon Kyl announced he was retiring may have been unrealistic during her recovery, but she was very much a rising star in Democratic politics, and my guess is that without the assassination attempt she would have run, won the nomination, and had a very solid shot at winning in November. And if that happened? With four years in the Senate, a presumably moderately liberal voting record, and a great personal story, she would certainly have been at least mentioned for Vice President in 2016. And after that? Who knows?

Now, of course you could probably say similar things about a few dozen Members of the House...but that leaves a few hundred who have no such potential. With any luck, Giffords will have as full a recovery as possible, and go on to whatever accomplishments she wants, whether in politics or not. It's great to see how far she's already come. But for now at least, the people of Arizona and the US House have really lost a good one.


I just now finished watching Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. A bit on the late side. Certainly a different experience for me than most recent such events, since I taped it and then watched without the benefit, or distraction, of following along on twitter. So outside of the NYT headline, I haven't seen any reactions at all.

Now, as usual, this is more theater review than anything else; as regular readers know, I don't think the rhetorical flourishes or anything else about the style of the speech make much of a difference to anything. Still, he is the president, and there's nothing wrong with talking about how he did, as long as no one makes any claims about what effect it's going to have. I should say to that the substance can matter -- initiatives he mentioned tonight have a greater chance of action this year than those he ignored, and even if they don't get through Congress this year it still almost certainly boosts their long-term prospects. But I don't have much to say about that sort of substance, other than I thought he was more hawkish than he needed to be on Iran -- and that I'm glad he at least nodded in the direction of nomination reform, which I'll have more to say about in the future.

As far as style...well, it was better than last year, when I thought the writing was seriously off. This year, they mostly dropped rhetorical flourishes, fortunately, outside of a relatively lame (but presumably politically canny)  frame about how America should work together just like the troops did when they killed bin Laden. In case, that is, anyone forgot who was president when that happened. Because it was Obama, you know. In case you forgot. So there was that at the beginning and the end, and in between? It was fine. It was okay. It was, as Bill McNeill would have said, full of adequasivity. Not a single memorable phrase, other than a truly unfortunate joke about spilling milk. On the other hand, not a single memorable phrase. The thing was very much structured as a campaign document, which is no surprise, with plenty of campaign themes telegraphed and plenty of inoculation against attacks the White House expects are coming. Most of that, again with the exception of the hawkish Iran stuff, seemed harmless to me. At this point, it probably makes sense to talk up the economic recovery; if people feel that he's out of touch by doing so, he's probably toast anyway, so might as well make with the happy talk and try to build on improvements in economic confidence, even if they are so far at very low levels.

As for the delivery. Three years in, Obama still hasn't found a way to make the setting work for him -- which isn't unusual; the only one I remember who did was Bill Clinton, although Ronald Reagan wasn't bad. Clinton, at least in my memory, treated the people in the room as people, not as props, and that seemed to work. Obama seems to go back and forth between speaking to the room and speaking over their heads to us. To me, I don't feel that he winds up connecting with either (and, again, just to be clear, I'm talking about how he delivers Joint Session speeches and not claiming that it Means Anything or will affect anything).

Oh, I watched Mitch Daniels, too. Again, I haven't read any reviews, but all I could think of is that whoever gave him this thankless task surely wasn't trying to boost his presidential chances, whether (implausibly) for this year or for the future. It's an impossible task, and one which he did about as well as anyone else: in other words, it was terrible.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Exec Branch Appointments Update

Suzy Khimm has some good reporting on the current state of executive branch appointments. As she says, it's a bit of a muddle right now, with some hints that Republicans will retaliate for Barack Obama's recent recess appointments, and some hints that it's the GOP that will back down.

Here's my prediction: for the most part, Republicans will mostly keep their current obstruction level the same. They'll still insist on 60 votes on most nominations, and still use holds to slow many nominations, but they'll still cut deals to allow some appointments to get to final votes.

Why? Khimm has some of the reasons -- in part, it's because Obama has already been compromising by selecting people who Republicans actually want for some positions. It's also true that if Republicans believe that they will capture the White House and the Senate next year, they might want to avoid setting an even worse precedent than they already have (yes, I know a lot of people believe that Republicans will simply eliminate the filibuster in that case, but for individual Senators that's not an ideal solution, and it's not at all clear it would happen -- after all, it didn't during George W. Bush's presidency).

The other way to look at it, however, it that the situation just hasn't changed much, and if it has it's in the White House's favor. After all, Republicans presumably didn't increase their obstruction last year because it wasn't in their interest to do so, for whatever reasons. It wasn't because they were being nice, or because they hadn't yet decided that Obama was a Kenyan socialist who had to be stopped. Nothing, then, has changed that calculus. Moreover, if part of the reason for their restraint (such as it is, which of course wasn't much) was presumably fear that if they pushed too hard, he would negate that obstruction with recess appointments. That's still the case! After all, Obama so far has only used extraordinary recess appointments in extraordinary cases (the so-called nullification cases). He could easily extend that to lots of other offices, however, and having done it once there's a lot less constraint on him doing so.

Granted, people don't always do what's in their best interests, and so a bit of a tantrum for a while isn't surprising. But soon enough, Republicans are likely to realize that they now have more of an incentive to cut deals, not less.

Deadlocked, Not Brokered (Is the Kind of Convention We Won't Be Having)

I know: there's just no way I can hope to get people from speculating about a convention in which no candidate enters with 50% plus one of the delegates. And, you know, there's nothing theoretically impossible about it. It could have happened in 1984, if Jesse Jackson had been a bit stronger. It's possible to imagine a left-libertarian candidate running on a platform similar to Gary Johnson's managing to force it in 2008 on the Democratic side. There's good reason why it doesn't happen (the logic of winnowing), and I'm confident that it won't happen this time, but it could.

But please: if you want to speculate about this (and I'm looking at you, Nate Silver), please, please, call it a deadlocked convention. Not a brokered convention. One more time: there are no brokers. Delegates are generally slated by the candidates, and while they are likely to be loyal to those candidates in terms of continuing to support them while they are in the race, there's no particular reason to think that Newt Gingrich, say, could deliver his delegates to another candidate. Nor are there any other organized groups within the party who have that sort of relationship with delegates.

"Brokered" conventions evoke thoughts of the pre-reformed process, when delegate chairs absolutely could deliver their entire delegation; that's because most delegates were selected by and represented state or local formal party organizations. Those formal party organizations in turn might have standing arrangements with party-aligned organized interest groups. The idea was that in general what was important wasn't the individual delegates, but the organized groups which controlled blocks of delegates. Really controlled: in most cases, the delegates were bound by prior arrangement to do whatever the delegation boss wanted. At any rate, again in most cases, bucking the boss would have real consequences within the formal party organization.

That simply isn't the case any more. At best, I suspect that Ron Paul's delegates are probably sufficiently dedicated to him that they would do whatever he asks, but even then I'm not sure...and more to the point, each one would be free to choose whatever he or she wanted to do. No one who is in Tampa for the GOP convention this summer is going to lose their job if they defy the state delegation chair, or in most cases suffer any consequences at all for candidate choice in the (extremely unlikely) even that the convention is thrown open. Other, that is, from whatever consequences come from failing to support the winner, especially if that candidate reaches the White House.

Because of all that, if there ever is a convention in which no candidate enters with 50% plus one of the delegates, the outcome would be not only unpredictable, but presumably quite chaotic. Now, it's possible that some set of party leaders (who? who would accept them as leaders?) could sit down and work out a deal in which they all support a compromise candidate, and it's possible that delegates might choose to accept that conclusion. If so, it would be an individual decision by each delegate. It's also possible that full chaos could break out, with no established procedure for pushing delegates to a consensus, and no one with the authority to force delegates to accept a newly-drafted procedure. Really bad results for the party -- a deadlock lasting weeks, the convention splitting in two with each nominating a different candidate and then fighting over ballot slots, all sorts of ugliness -- would all be very possible. We're also talking about 4000 obscure people (more, in the Democrats' case) who would suddenly be reality TV stars. You want to bet that none of them turn out to be deeply embarrassing to the party?

Anyway, back to the main point. If you really have to speculate about this stuff, and I certainly understand the temptation to do so: it's a deadlocked convention, not a brokered convention. There are no brokers. You can't have a brokered convention without brokers. Deadlocked convention. That's the term you want to use.

Read Stuff, You Should

Sorry for the slow blogging today around here. Part of that is that I have a new column over at TNR talking about the State of the Union speech, in which I say more or less what Ezra Klein said in Wonkbook this morning. And today's Plum Line post was about economic confidence and the 2012 election.  But after you get to those, more good stuff:

1. Speaking of the SOTU, Matt Glassman has a nice essay up about the importance of the ceremonial aspects of the address. Well worth reading. I've been lucky enough to have attended one Joint Session presidential address, and I agree with Glassman: rituals of democracy are important.

2. And Politico has an incredibly cool word-graph of SOTU history. Fun.

2. Noah Smith reviews the GOP's version of economic history.

3. Gaffes, from Brendan Nyhan. No, he didn't commit a gaffe. He's explaining about them.

4. Oh, how about some Newt-bashing for a change. Ta-Nehisi Coates on Newt and race; Sarah Posner on Newt and religion;  Ginger Gibson on Newt and the press; and an interview with Newt's old department chair on Newt as an academic. Common theme: Newt's a fraud! Ah, but you knew that, didn't you?

5. David Dayen has a smart piece in which he points out that a big part of why people are using SNAP (food stamps) is because of...what Newt and the Republicans did when he was Speaker.

6. Smart, too: Andrew Sprung on Obama's foreign policy.

7. Mark Schmidt is absolutely right that liberals would be foolish to focus on a Constitutional amendment to "fix" Citizens United. Of course, regular readers will know that I'm for lots of money in elections -- I'm for partial public financing plus disclosure, or floors, not ceilings. But either way, the Constitutional amendment path isn't going to do anyone any good.

8. Sarah Kliff has a highly useful update on ACA implementation.

9. What Americans get wrong about taxes, from David Leonhardt.

10. What political big shots make on the lecture circuit. Hey, bookers: I'm way cheaper!

11. And an awesome "It Gets Better," but also a sad day: the demise of Lookout Records. This ain't no Mecca, indeed.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Florida Debate

I have a debate wrap over at Plum Line, mainly pushing the point I've made before that Newt's debate skills are something of a fraud. I thought he did quite poorly tonight.

A couple of other points. Of all the whoppers I've ever heard, Newt's claim that he left the House...I don't have the transcript yet, but as the NYT put it "Mr. Gingrich made it sound as if he left the speakership out of a simple desire to do something else." As I was saying, of all the whoppers I've ever heard, that sure is one. Not that I expect him to say: "well, it was a combination of the ethics charges against me, the open secret that I was carrying on an affair with a member of my staff while impeaching the president for infidelity, and that pretty much everyone in the conference was fed up with my shoddy management skills and dictatorial tendencies." But there are some more plausible sounding answers than the one he gave, surely.

The other point is about the debate. During the first half hour, all of us on the twitter machine were bashing Brian Williams for asking only political and gotcha questions, which he did to the extent of twice interrupting a Newt/Mitt policy discussion to urge them to return to personal attacks (yes, really). Then they went to a break, and came back focused almost exclusively on policy questions until the end, when Williams asked an open-ended question that allowed everyone to make a final statement. About 15 minutes or so into the policy portion, the reporters and others I follow on twitter started complaining how boring it all was. My feeling? I'm for the policy questions. Sure, they're dull for those of us who have watched over a dozen debates, plus stump speeches and TV hits and the rest of it. But part of the point of having debates, presumably, is for regular citizens, and while most of them probably changed the channel after the fireworks, a good number of them presumably stuck around and heard all that stuff for the first time from this field.

Indeed, while I'd be fine with leaving the political and gotcha questions out altogether (the candidates will find ways to get their prepared attacks in regardless of what the moderators do), I'm mostly fine with the way that NBC handled their job tonight.

And that's all until the next debate, on Thursday. Yikes!

Catch of the Day

Here's one for Daniel Larison, who ridicules Ross Douthat's foolish albeit somewhat tentative embrace of the Late Entrant fantasy. Good fun.

Douthat's post, and one from Aaron Blake here also claiming that Mitch Daniels would have been a strong candidate, just make no sense to me at all. The candidates who could have saved the GOP from their current situation would hardly be those, as Blake touts Daniels as being, who can be "the adult in the room." C'mon, folks, you can do better than that. If Republicans were looking for an adult in the room type, they would be perfectly happy with Mitt Romney right now. Don't think the Mittster looks like a grown up these days? Of course not; no candidate ever does when brutally attacked by politicians from his or her party, and losing primaries.

What Republicans could have used both this cycle and last is a candidate who raised no suspicion from any important party faction and also had conventional credentials. Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, and perhaps Fred Thompson all came close, but none of them really achieved that. Given the GOP's wild pivots on so many issues over the last decade, perhaps no one can, and someone like Romney -- who holds orthodox views on all issues right now, but hasn't for long enough to build long-term trust -- is the best they can do. But at any rate, it's hard to see Daniels (or Christie, or Ryan) fitting the bill. He's just not different enough from Romney. Might have been a better candidate, but he wouldn't square the circle.

Anyway: nice catch!

Plum Line: Looking to Florida

Over at Plum Line, I talk about the factors to look for in Florida. I'll just underline one, perhaps less obvious one, over here...I'm not making any predictions, but it among the possibilities that wouldn't really surprise me would be Santorum winding up benefiting from a Newt/Mitt slugfest. We've seen this happen before -- two heavyweights run a vicious negative campaign against each other, and a third candidate goes positive and winds up defeating both of them. If I was advising the Santorum campaign, that's what I'd urge him to do in the debates tonight and Thursday -- and indeed, he seems to be moving in that direction.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Santorum's candidacy even makes it to next Tuesday. As I ask over there, it's not clear whether anti-Newt party actors would prefer that Santorum drop and endorse Romney (which would presumably tend to help Mitt among social conservatives who haven't trusted him) or, on the other hand, stay in to give the party an emergency candidate to turn to if Romney melts down entirely in Florida. Nor do we know how open Santorum might be to listening to them; in particular, it's not clear he'd want to line up behind Romney if he did drop out. At any rate, that's one of the big things I'm looking for in the debate tonight.

Newt and the Nomination Process

I recommend excellent posts from both Seth Masket and Nate Sliver over the weekend asking whether a Newt Gingrich nomination would shake the scholarly understanding of presidential nominations. I agree with them (and with John Sides, who has an excellent overview post up today): it would.

We have to be careful with this. Silver goes to far when he says that if Newt continues with "a win in Florida, it would suggest that we had been weighing the evidence incorrectly all along." That's too strong. No political scientist argues that the party consensus candidate will win every single primary; indeed, I don't think there's really an argument out there that the party consensus candidate should win the nomination easily. And Mitt Romney, while certainly a solid leader by every measure of party actors that we have, isn't (as Seth points out) nearly as dominant by measures of party actor support as some previous frontrunners have been. So for Romney to have to struggle some is no big deal at all. Even if Florida turns out to be just like South Carolina (solid win for Newt, with Romney a solid second place) I would think that Romney will still be the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. The next month is on much more favorable turf for the Mittster, giving him -- and party actors who strongly prefer him over Gingrich -- plenty of time to retool and kill Newt's campaign off again by the time we get to Super Tuesday in early March.

I'll also point you to a good Hans Noel comment to John's post. Hans notes:
The trouble with “this time it’s different” is that, even if the basic mechanisms are the same, sometimes it’s different. In a probabilistic world, one case is just one case, and should be treated as such...If [party leaders] lose (and I don’t think they will), that’s not proof that they don’t generally control their nomination. It’s evidence that even though they have a lot of influence, sometimes they lose. I think we’d need several contests to go to a Gingrich (or to a Carter) before we’d conclude that everything had changed.
Hans is certainly right in general, but I think in this particular case I'd disagree. Newt Gingrich, from what we know, isn't really similar to a Carter 1976, Hart 1984, or Huckabee 2008. He's more like Hart 1988 or Giuliani 2008 -- someone who party actors, or at least one group of important party actors, strongly oppose. For Rick Santorum to beat Mitt Romney would be one thing; for Newt to do it would be a very strong signal that the way we understand these things -- certainly the way I understand these things -- is wrong.

Now, the question is whether our understanding would be wrong because it was always wrong -- party actors were never as important as we thought -- or because something has changed now about the process. I should add one more possibility: our understanding of the process is correct, but the party itself changed so much that standard measures of accounting for the influence of key party actors don't work any more.

For now, however, the best bet is still that Mitt Romney wins the nomination, and we'll look back and realize that he won it fairly easily -- and especially that we'll look back and agree that Newt Gingrich never had a realistic chance of being nominated. That's still my analysis for now, and probably will be almost regardless of what happens in Florida. I do want to be open to evidence that "this time is different," but so far at least I'm not really seeing any.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Question for Liberals

What issue do you want Barack Obama to mention in the State of the Union speech? I'm not talking about broad themes here or rhetoric, but specific public policy positions that would imply action by the administration. In particular, I'm looking for things that the administration supports, or at least presumably supports, but may or may not take action on -- one of the big functions of the SOTU is to force the WH to choose its priorities.

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Newt? Really? Y'all know that he's not, you know, a reliable conservative, right?

(I don't mean that he's not a Burkean conservative, which he obviously isn't, but that's not relevant here; I mean he's not a reliable conservative by current movement conservative standards).

What Mattered This Week?

I'm a bit behind, but it's not too late for What Mattered This Week?

Start with Syria, still.  What about the government developments in Pakistan?

I suppose I should include the South Carolina primary. Talked about that one already.

In policy, we had the demise of SOPA/PIPA.  I'm inclined to believe that the hype about the future of lobbying and all that is dramatically overdone, but that the policy decision is important. Open to arguments to the contrary on either. Also, the Keystone decision, for now at least, and the contraceptive coverage decision.

What else? What do you think mattered this week?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Plum Line: South Carolina Wrap

My South Carolina wrap is up at Plum Line -- as you might guess, I don't think Newt is going to be the nominee.

Not much else to add here right now. I suppose I can add that if I'm wrong (and of course that's always very possible), we'll see Republicans who savaged him in December keep quiet this time, and perhaps at least a handful of heavyweight endorsements. My guess is we won't see that, however. It's not just that they don't want him as their nominee, although that's true too most likely; it's also that they don't believe he can win it when Mitt Romney unloads on him. The expectation is that he'll collapse, just as he did when Romney (and Ron Paul, and the rest) unloaded on him in Iowa. Seriously, it's just really hard to grasp how many vulnerabilities he has, on both issues and personal stuff.

By the way, as long as I'm here..."What Matters" will be up tomorrow, a bit late, but before Sunday questions. Sorry about that; the day got away from me a bit.

South Carolina Primary Day

Election day!

While some caution is always in order, it sure looks as if it'll be a good day for Newt Gingrich. Which would have consequences: Mitt Romney won't be able to act as if he's the nominee for some time now, probably not until after Super Tuesday in March.

But there's a lot of overreaction going on, too. As Nate Silver noted on twitter (sorry, didn't save the link), Romney's InTrade odds have dropped dramatically this week, from over 90% to a current 68%. That's almost certainly far too low, but it's also not unusual at all for conventional wisdom to fall into a panic whenever an almost-certain nominee loses a primary. Most of the time, however, it doesn't mean anything. Here's a little review for you:

In 2008, John McCain lost 19 states.

In 2000, George W. Bush lost 7 states.

In 1996, Bob Dole lost 6 states.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush lost 9 states.

And in 1980, Ronald Reagan lost 6 states.

Of course, none of this means that Romney will win (all of the losers those years lost lots of primaries, too!). It's just that losing a couple of states, in and of itself, doesn't mean that he's not going to get the nomination, doesn't mean that it will be seen after the fact as a particularly difficult struggle for the nomination, and certainly doesn't mean that he'll be a weak nominee if he does win. And, yes, people had just as large overreactions when Reagan and George H. W. Bush lost Iowa and when W. lost New Hampshire (although the 1988 race was in fact probably still very much up in the air at that point). My own sense at the beginning of the week was that a Mitt/Newt race is pretty much a lock for Romney, and I don't see any reason to change my mind about that after a very good week for Gingrich.

Friday Baseball Post

So we're in this weird pause for starting pitchers and career wins, with the top active pitcher having only 200 wins (that's Tim Wakefield, who isn't going to add to that very much). I haven't seen it, but I'm sure there are plenty of people saying that the 300 game winner is extinct.

Here's the funny part. 200 wins is, it turns out, the lowest ever for an active leader in wins. Any guesses about what year had the previous record? Turns out it's 1968. Don Drysdale, with 204. It's a serious dry spell; from 1967 through 1977, the leading guy never got past 253. And yet we completely think of that era as a good one for 300 game winners: Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, and Seaver were all pitching then. People have been saying that 300 game winners were going extinct as long as I remember, and yet it still hasn't happened, and I'm confident that it still isn't happening (okay, sorry for being lazy

Roy Halliday is 112 games away, and just finished his 34 year old season. Let's see...he gets 15 a year for four more years and he'll be 52 away through age 38, which would leave him in excellent shape, although of course with pitches...well, at any rate, there's a Favorite Toy calculator over at ESPN, and it gives Halliday a 17% shot. Tim Hudson has a bit more to do and one fewer year...tough, but not impossible. CC Sabathia is in as good shape as you can be at this point, with the Favorite Toy saying 45%. Even someone such as Josh Beckett (125 wins, was 31) isn't as far off the mark as you might thing. Of course, most similar guys don't come close and he probably won't, but would it really shock you if Beckett averaged 18 wins over the next three years? If he does that, he's all of a sudden just a bit behind where Halliday is now.

My guess is that there are three to five active pitchers who will hit 300 wins, and I'll be shocked if there isn't at least one.

...and looking around before I finished this, I came across a John Dewan article from November making basically the same point, except for the Drysdale thing, but with much better calculations on the Favorite Toy. So ignore my calculations above (sorry, too lazy to remove them), and look at his table.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Catch of the Day

One great sequence of last night's highly entertaining debate was the effort by Rick Santorum to bash Mitt Romney's health care initiative in Massachusetts -- and Romney's defense.

Santorum's attack:
When he was governor of Massachusetts, he put forth Romneycare, which was not a bottom-up free market system. It was a government-run health care system that was the basis of Obamacare, and it has been an abject failure. And he has stood by it. 
And Romney's defense:
First of all, the system and my state is not a government-run system. Ninety-two percent of the people had their own insurance before the system was put in place and nothing changed for them. They still had the same private insurance. And the 8 percent of the uninsured, they brought private insurance, not government insurance.
Which, as Adam Serwer points out, is absolutely true -- but of course all of what Romney said is also true for ACA, as well. As Serwer says, "If Obamacare is socialism, then so is Romneycare. And if Romneycare is the distilled essence of free market capitalism, then Obamacare is, too."

He goes on to make some very good points about Republican commitment to markets, or lack thereof. Excellent post.

What I'd add are two things. One is that this is further evidence for my old point that Republican hate Obamacare but don't particularly have any problem with the ACA. That is, they hate whatever they think the Democrats passed last year, but don't in fact have anything against the particular programs that are in the actual law.

The other is that by fully committing to the Ryan budget, Romney was also endorsed the Medicare cuts that are his main point of attack against "Obamacare," since those cuts were in the Ryan budget. Not to mention, as many have pointed out, plenty of other cuts to Medicare and elsewhere that Romney might not want to defend against Barack Obama.

Getting back to Serwer's point: Great catch!

One More Time: It's Way Too Late for "Someone Else"

Oh, c'mon already! NBC's First Read (via Political Wire):
Romney’s fundamental problem is this: He’s been unable so far to win over conservatives in a conservative state. And if he’s unable to beat Gingrich and Rick Santorum in South Carolina -- both of whom have their shortcomings -- it would send a flashing warning signal to party leaders. What’s more, it would produce chatter, fair or not, that the party needs to find someone else, just as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is set to deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night.
Someone else? Ron Fournier started up with this today, too. I guess I need to remind everyone that as of now, filing deadlines have already passed for primaries in states that have about 885 delegates, which is just a bit shy of 40% of all delegates (I think there have been a few changes since the article I was relying on for these numbers was written, but not enough to matter, and they could be in either direction). And counting: another 100 delegates will pass the filing deadline by the end of the month.

It's all just silly. The idea that the frontrunner has to win every single state just doesn't correspond to the 40-year history of the process, and the idea that a couple of good or lousy days in the polls means anything beyond that has been disproved more times than I can count over the last ten months. But, you know, if you think Newt Gingrich can win the nomination, make your case: as little a chance as I think he has, it certainly must be better than anyone who isn't in the fight as of now.

Built For Speed

Joshua Tucker looks at insta-YouTube videos posted immediately after debates and asks:
It seems to me that there are a number of good papers waiting to be written on these sort of rapid response ads. Most basically, I wonder how many people see them? More generally, though, I wonder how much potential they have to drive media coverage of the event, and to frame the take away point from the debate. (e.g., I found this add through the Politico website in a story on the debate in, actually, a blog entry as opposed to even a featured article.) Can they exacerbate already existing problems for candidates? Finally, I wonder if these rapid response adds posted on YouTube could function as a laboratory to test out which adds are most effective. So you run a bunch of rapid response ads on the internet, see which ones generate the most traction, and then decide which ones to spend your money on in a TV buy. Obviously, there is a much larger question out there about whether ads matter at all , but for now I’m just focusing on the more specific question of the effects of rapid response ads.
I think the proper framework for this is (as Tucker says) how these videos affect the press, and the way to think of them is that they are a major improvement over the old "spin room," in which the candidates' campaigns would interact with the reporters covering the events. But the real innovation here isn't the videos; it's Twitter. The idea of reporters, pundits, and operatives all discussing (if that's the right word) the debate as it's going on, and not just in a press room at the site but around the country, is certainly something new and different.

Here's my question: does this produce more or less pack journalism than the older coverage, which was (presumably) more dependent on that spin room process?

Generally, I'd be interested in knowing how differences in how mainstream conventional wisdom have evolved over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s (and before, but there were fewer televised nomination debates) it seems to me that post-debate analysis on TV, and especially on CNN, was probably a big factor. In the last decade, presumably instantly published blog posts started becoming more influential. Today, you have that, and the in-debate twitter traffic. Can we see different outcomes over these different eras? Are on-the-scene reporters less influential now? Do we get more, or less, of a consensus on who "won" or lost these things, and on what the big moments were (of course, that's where those videos come in, too)?  What differences emerge in how all of this plays out in the old neutral press compared to the growing partisan press on both sides?

I agree with Tucker: with any luck, we'll get some very interesting findings about all of this soon. Given that there's a very good chance that the nomination debates had at least significant short-term effects, figuring out how they work seems to be a worthwhile place to do some work.

Will Santorum Drop After South Carolina?

Right now, Rick Santorum is running fourth in South Carolina as seen by Nate Silver's projection system. It certainly wouldn't be surprising to see a late surge, although I don't see any particular reason to expect one. Would a fourth place finish knock him out? What about third?

In some ways, Santorum has done well since New Hampshire. He's picked up some social conservative endorsements, and had the fun of being declared the official winner of Iowa yesterday, for whatever that's worth. Mitt Romney has had some rough times over the last couple of weeks and may well lose tomorrow. And while Newt Gingrich has very much had an up week, it's pretty limited: he still shows all the vulnerabilities that destroyed his last two surges.

On the other hand...if he finishes dead last in South Carolina after also getting clobbered in New Hampshire, are any potential donors going to be willing to invest in the slim chances that he finds some way to revive his Iowa momentum? It seems unlikely. The problem from Santorum's point of view -- and the reason that winnowing works so efficiently -- is that it very much becomes a self-fulfilling logic, in which Santorum has no chance in Florida because no one thinks he has a chance in Florida and so Santorum is left without anyone willing to supply the resources it would take to win in Florida. Which is why, by the way, speculation about deadlocked conventions is so silly; once we're down to two candidates plus Ron Paul, you then need a virtual tie between the top two to get to deadlock.

Would a solid third be enough to break that logic? Probably not. Although as we get closer to the marginal cases, what matter is how much of a solid constituency Santorum has (not much of a base, as far as I can see) and also just how much Republicans who control resources dislike each of the other three candidates (ah, there's his opportunity).

So the better he does, and the more the contest overall seems up in the air, the better the chances that he'll stick through Florida. But he almost certainly has to beat his current poll numbers, and probably has to beat them solidly.
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