Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nate Silver's Big Obama Theory

Hey, I'm a big fan of Nate Silver...I'd be a lot less happy if I didn't have my PECOTA, and I think his quantitative stuff on politics is usually excellent, too. Plenty of his political commentary, too.


Look, Barack Obama has not "left too much up to the whims of Congress." Nor has he "let" Congress drive the legislative train. Obama had no choice about leaving things to Congress; no president does. Congress is an entirely separate entity. Obama could have sent up a completely finished legislative product, and it still would have been sent to five different committees in two different Houses, and each of those committees would be entirely free to keep what they wanted, junk what they didn't, or even started over if that's what they wanted to do. Congress was going to work its will. The White House is actively involved and fighting hard. That's pretty much all Obama can do.

There's more. Silver makes much of "political capital." Should Obama chosen to preserve it by avoiding tough issues? Or to spend it "
to bludgeon the Blue Dogs and moderate Republicans, or...to quell liberal impatience."

Where to start? To begin with, there's little evidence so far that Obama's popularity was squandered on anything he could control. Most likely, his drop in approval ratings is a consequence of unemployment and the economy (which in the short run is mostly out of his control, and he's certainly trying what he thinks he can do to alleviate it in the longer run), and of Republicans who were mostly quiet between the election and January 20 or so starting to attack him. Again, that's something that Obama really had no control over.

Next, yes, Obama could have publicly attacked Blue Dogs and moderate Republicans. Does that seem as if it would be a good way to get their votes? Sure doesn't to me. Could he have figured out a way to keep liberals patient? Well, that one at least is plausible, but I think improbable; liberals are a quarrelsome bunch, and I find it hard to believe that the Kos crowd would just shut up and smile while Obama tried to find sixty votes in the Senate. I have no idea whether Obama's public sales job has been great, good, fair, or bad -- there's very little polling in general, and what we have is extremely hard to tie to Obama's specific actions. But say that it's been bad, and could have been great -- would that really change much? I think it's highly unlikely.

This gets to the final issue I have with Silver's Grand Theory, which is his analysis of the Senate. Silver makes much of insurance industry donations to moderate Democrats, and notes that "
of the Democrats who have yet to endorse the public option, about half are from states that Obama carried." Well, yes, but Senators such as Bayh and Warner aren't exactly nuts to be worried about electoral fallout. In fact, by his count, only Lieberman and Bill Nelson are real threats to vote no despite being from states that are even remotely safe for Democrats. The broader point here is that political scientists have found it very difficult to tie specific campaign donations to specific votes on the House or Senate floor, and the logic of the situation suggests that if Members of Congress can be bought, it's far more likely in low profile situations.

It's tough going for Obama right now because he's trying to do something hard. Members of Congress know that if they vote for something and it makes real changes in people's lives, some of those people -- and, for all they know, many or most of those people -- are going to dislike the disruptions it causes, even if in the long run it turns out to be good policy. They know, in this case, that they're going to take serious heat from the out party; they know that Republicans are going to be on the lookout for every kid who sits too long in an emergency room and every mom who gets misdiagnosed in summer 2010, and they're going to run ads blaming it on Obama and Senator X even if the new health law had nothing to do with it. And so Members in swing districts and states are going to be very, very wary about supporting a Democrats-only bill, and try to do everything they can to make it appear non-controversial. Obama can't wish the House Blue Dogs away. He can't wish the Senate away, or even Senate rules. He can't wish away the incentives faced by the various players in the game. And he can't wish away the economic and budget context that he's working in. All he can do is try to cut the best deals he can make, neutralize any potential opponents he can neutralize, look for ways to provide cover when it's possible. The only thing he really had a major choice about is whether to try at all, and I see no reason to think liberals would be happier with a school uniforms and Afghanistan presidency.

In a better moment, Silver says that "It's not obvious that if you put -- I don't know -- Dennis Kucinich in the Oval Office that he'd have been able to accomplish a whole heck of a lot more." That's half right; if President Kucinich had sent up a ready-to-pass single payer bill, odds are it would have been pronounced dead on arrival and the issue would be dead for another who knows how many years. Passing major bills is hard.

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