Sunday, January 31, 2010

Messages, Narratives...Whatever

Everything that Seth Masket says here about E.J. Dionne and David Brooks and the battle over message...just double it and apply it to Richard W. Stevenson's useless analysis in today's NYT of Barack Obama and the battle over narrative.

Ten percent unemployment, up sharply from a year ago.  That's what's going on here.  If the recent GDP numbers are an indication that there's a strong recovery beginning, with jobs just lagging behind as they do, then Obama isn't going to have any trouble with narratives and messages and all the rest of that.  If it's a blip on the way to a double-dip recession, all the press agents and pollsters in the world aren't going to make any difference.

As Seth says:
It's quite possible that Democrats have the right message right now and Republicans have the wrong one, but it's hard to tell because the economy speaks so loudly.  
Stuff such as narratives and messages and all that matter at the margins, as independent influences.  Mostly, they are effects, not causes: Bush's narrative in 2002 was different than Bush's narrative in 2006 because the world changed, not because Karl Rove's abilities changed.  The press (collectively -- there are exceptions!) pay far too much attention to that kind of thing, and far too little to policy.  

That is all.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Neil Sinhababu wrote a comment here, after I argued that the House is wrong to wait for the Senate and that therefore supporters of health care reform should target the House, not the Senate:
I agree. But is there any meaningful way to apply pressure to the White House as well?
Good question!  I agree that White House support would be helpful, and so health care supporters would be wise to place pressure there (House, then White House, then Senate -- how's that for a priority list).

As far as how...well, those who support health care reform and have the attention of the public should keep plugging away, and not let any possible White House preference for the bill to fade away to take hold.  For everyone else, I'm not an expert at how two-way the Obama grass roots organization might be, but I'd suggest that this is a good time to find out.   Presumably, part of the point of having such an organization would be for the White House to know what Obama's supporters want...hey, Obama supporters!  Let him know!

(Update: Link to Donkeylicious fixed.  Well worth reading, by the way).

Read Drum on Health Care Reform

Kevin Drum has an absolutely terrific piece about health care reform out today.  I highly recommend the whole thing, but especially the second half of it.  He makes the point, which I think is correct, that health care reform wasn't hurt by poor messaging, and that most of the choices that hurt it were good, responsible choices. 

This stuff is hard, folks. 

Again, I recommend reading the whole post.

I do have two slight dissents.  First of all, he's taking to talking about health care reform as dead, past tense.  I think that's wrong.  Health care reform supporters should not give up.  Even if the administration has decided to jettison it (and the reporting I read doesn't make that clear, partially because the administration isn't ever going to say so even if they do make that decision), health care reform still needs only one vote in the House of Representatives to become law.  I find it possible to believe that the Obama Administration would lean on Speaker Pelosi not to bring the Senate-passed bill to the floor, but they can't control that, and if she did so the White House would have no choice but to lobby in favor of passage (and obviously the president would sign the bill).  I continue to believe that as Jonathan Chait predicted the House will come to realize that their political interest lies in passing a bill, and I think they will also eventually realize the point I've been making, which is that they stand an excellent chance of getting the patch through if they just go ahead and pass the Senate bill.

My second dissent is on the timeline.  I still think that the Baucus Gang of Six strategy was a worthwhile tactic to provide cover for marginal Democrats.  One can't prove these things one way or another, but it did turn out that the process netted the Democrats unanimity.  Where I think they went wrong was after the Gang of Six ended; the Democrats knew that their supermajority was fragile, and in particular knew for some time the date of the Massachusetts special, and they chose to move fairly slowly anyway.  As Drum notes, it appears that they were only two weeks away from passing the thing as it was; surely they could have saved two weeks between the end of August, when the Gang of Six process ended, and the beginning of January.  Harry Reid and the White House deserve criticism for that delay, which was as far as I can see nothing but carelessness.

Otherwise, however, it's an excellent post.  Must-read.

The "Live" Filibuster, One More Time

I guess we're just never going to kill off the supposed virtues of the "live" filibuster for the majority, but I'll give it one more try, since Time's Karen Tumulty is hawking the idea regularly, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ed Rendell both spoke in favor of it this week.  So, once more....

There is simply no way, under Senate rules, for the majority to prevail over a determined filibuster conducted by multiple Senators and supported by at least forty-one Senators.

Tumulty is correct that there is nothing in the current Senate rules to keep Harry Reid and the Democrats from forcing a live filibuster.  They have every right to do so.  What they don't have is any reason to do so, because it won't work.

I think some of the confusion here is between delaying tactics in general, and the filibuster per se in particular.  I'll start with the latter.  As I said, there is simply no way, under Senate rules, for the majority to prevail over a determined filibuster conducted by multiple Senators and supported by at least forty-one Senators.  No way.  Can't be done.  If the majority forced a live filibuster -- forced the minority to talk indefinitely -- then, well, they would talk. Forever.  Until, eventually, the majority, which has other responsibilities (appropriations bills, other must-pass bills) admitted a humiliating defeat, and moved on.

Tumulty quotes Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wants to see "Republicans, trying not to go to the bathroom."  Well, sure, who wouldn't, but a filibuster isn't going to achieve that.  Doris Kearns Goodwin also spoke (on the Daily Show) about how Strom Thurmand's record filibuster was broken by attrition.  However, that was not a cloture-proof filibuster.  To the contrary: that was a lone filibuster, against a mild Civil Rights bill that the Dixiecrats had decided to accept.  It has nothing to do with cloture-proof filibusters.  Overall, her discussion with Jon Stewart, unfortunately, proved only that she doesn't know what she's talking about.

In real life, if the Democrats forced them to talk, Republicans would simply carve up the time in half hour or hour long intervals, something like that, speak their piece, and yield to the next in line.  It wouldn't be dramatic at all (unless some of the GOP Senators have a flair for that sort of is possible that they would get giddy at 3:00 AM and say something goofy, the way that Jerry Lewis used to on Labor Day, but I'm not seeing a whole lot of potential for that among our current set of Republican Senators).   As I've said, Republicans wouldn't fill the time reading recipes or from the phone book  They have large staffs, and an nation full of professional and amateur conservative wordsmiths.  They would have plenty of material to use.  (There's some question about whether the minority would actually have to talk at all, or whether they could simply conduct endless quorum calls.  It doesn't matter: there wouldn't be any shortage of Senators eager to make a name for themselves by talking.  What is true about the quorum rules is that they are more onerous on the majority than on the minority, but that's not the reason that the majority would fold first; it's because they are the ones with other responsibilities and other agenda items).

Now, it is true that if the minority couldn't keep forty-one Senators on board that they could be defeated.  However, that seems highly unlikely in general, and certainly not for a high-profile item such as health care reform.  Republicans have already proven that they're willing to delay appropriations for troops on the battlefield, and they've already proven that they're willing  to engage in pure, pointless obstruction, when they forced the reading of an amendment during Christmas week even though there was actually nothing at stake in moving the final vote back a few hours.  An actual filibuster, with Republicans talking for the CSPAN2 cameras, wouldn't be a problem at all for them -- unless, of course, the item they were blocking was popular among their constituents.  But if that was the case, they wouldn't be blocking it in the first place! 

So, I'll repeat: there is simply no way, under Senate rules, for the majority to prevail over a determined filibuster conducted by multiple Senators and supported by at least forty-one Senators.

Now, Greg Koger did talk, in his excellent series over at the Monkey Cage, about Senators' choices about how to spend their time, and the pressure that puts on using the Senate floor efficiently. This, however, is really about a slightly different topic, which is how Senators can use delay as a weapon even if they don't have forty-one votes.  I think that's been most visible in this Congress in the terrible difficulties the Senate is having in confirming President Obama's appointments.  As many have noted, those appointments that have finally reached a vote often win by very large majorities.  It affects bills, too, however.  And here I think the critics have a good point: Harry Reid could get more done if he expanded the amount of floor time, and showed less respect for holds when there's an available supermajority.  Republicans could fight back with delaying tactics (such as forcing the clerk to read bills in their entirety, forcing multiple cloture votes when that's an option, and using every minute of pre- and post-cloture debate time), and ultimately the number of hours is capped, but nevertheless I think the Democrats should have been, and should still be, far more aggressive about those items for which they do have sixty votes.   

One last time: if the majority has the votes for cloture and allows obstruction to kill a bill or a nomination, one can fairly criticize the majority for caring more about other things than for the failed measure.  If, however, the majority does not have the votes for cloture, and there is minority determined to conduct a filibuster, then forcing the minority to actually hold the floor cannot -- will not -- break the filibuster.  Claims otherwise are just not correct.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

I'm trying to figure out how to do this without being a total cornball about it, there anything, anywhere, on any part of these here internets as wonderful and glorious as

I'm not quite old enough to remember a world without a baseball encyclopedia.  Big Mac, as the first one was called (it was published by MacMillon), debuted in 1969.  Before that, the statistical history of baseball was catch-as-catch can; one of the things to remember about Hall of Fame balloting up to that point is that the voters had no easy way of actually knowing the basic facts of many players' careers.

The next era, for thirty years, featured books.  Big, thick, books.  The books got better over the years; there were two or three competing publishers.  They didn't publish them every year; I have a few of these, including the 7th edition Big Mac, which was current through the 1987 season.  Total Baseball for a while published updates between editions, which I know because I own the 1990 update. 

And then, on February 1, 2000, Sean Forman brought baseball-reference online, and books were instantly obsolete. Well, that was bound to happen...but it didn't have to be amazing.  It didn't have to be awesome.  It didn't have to keep getting better and better. 

It is, though.  There are a lot of reasons why this is a great time to be a baseball fan, but if I had to narrow it down I'd go with radio broadcasts available through, and the amazing baseball-reference pages.  The truth is I could go on for hours writing about all the terrific things available over there, but as I said, I'm trying to avoid being overly cornball.  Can't do it though: it's just that good.

Thanks, Sean. 

Walk Right Through

Jonathan clubbers Chait and Cohn, as well as non-Jonathan Ezra Klein, and I'm sure lots of other heath care reform supporters are all upset at Rahm Emanuel because he's suggesting that Congress consider the jobs bill and the bank tax, and then watch the Super Bowl, and enjoy the Winter Olympics, and then hold off because it's an election year, and better check to make sure that that Mayan 2012 thing doesn't really happen, and wait for Haiti to fully recover and the Arabs and Israelis to reconcile, before finishing health care reform.  Fine; they're right that the White House isn't being very helpful.  That said...

The proper place to apply pressure remains the House of Representatives, which could pass health care reform this coming week if Democrats there are willing to do it, regardless of what the Senate or the White House say or do (and then, after pass, patch).  I'll repeat what I said earlier.  Nancy Pelosi says:

I've said to my colleagues, go in the door. The door's locked? Go to the gate. The gate's locked? Climb over the fence. It's too high? Pole vault in. That doesn't work? Parachute in. We have to get this done for the American people one way or another.
Speaker Pelosi, the front door is wide open.  Just get 218 of your friends together, and walk right through.


Discredited GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who Barack Obama called out to at his "Question Time" appearance with House Republicans today, is out with a new book, which promptly received an excellent review by TNR's Michelle Cottle.  She and Matt Yglesias both make excellent points about Luntzism, which mostly consists of finding words that test well and then recommending that Republicans use those words in pitching their policies.  Yglesias stretches his philosophy muscles to point out that whatever Luntz is peddling, it certainly isn't what (as the book title promises) "What Americans Really Want."  Both pieces (but surely not Luntz's book!) are well worth reading.

What I want to add is: Republicans -- why are you still listening to this guy?  Luntz's great claim to fame was his work on the Contract with America, but if I recall correctly (and I do, but can't find an easy citation) he ran into trouble with Republicans when they discovered that in several cases policies he had assured them were popular were in fact not popular.  Without explaining it to them, he wasn't testing policies, but only manipulating wording to find combinations that produced positive poll numbers.  Rank-and-file Republicans were understandably upset to discover that they had committed to ideas that were a lot less popular than they were told. 

And yet, they can't quit the guy. 

Hey, Republicans: this kind of minor manipulation wasn't what won for you in 1994 (that would be Clinton's unpopularity, some of which had to do with actually unpopular policies, and some of which had to do with the slow recovery from the Bush recession -- and Dole's use of the filibuster in the Senate).  If you do win, it won't help you to govern -- listening to Luntz helped Republicans get to their government shutdown disaster in 1995-1996.  What you need are actual policies that will work and that people like.  Knowing that the word "medications" polls better than the word "medicine" is only going to make it harder for you to figure out which things that you believe are popular and which are not.  It's already hard enough to do that when you and all your activists live in a Fox News bubble, and Luntz is only making it harder.

House or Senate?

One of the questions for supporters of health care reform right now is where to apply pressure: to the House, or to the Senate?

Both chambers have been blaming each other in the last couple of weeks.  There's a spin war, aimed at liberal opinion shapers, and the impression I'm getting is that the House is winning.  That's not surprising; liberal opinion leaders are naturally more sympathetic to the more liberal House, and while they don't like the Blue Dogs, I don't think too many bloggers actually know very much about their individual stories.  Liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman (and with good reason).  Over on the Senate side, liberals have never been all that thrilled with Harry Reid to begin with, or to other major players such as Max Baucus or Chris Dodd, and liberals know all about the Benator and Holy Joe, and have cast them as villains long ago.  So when the finger pointing starts, liberals are apt to side with the House.

Understandable, but dead wrong.

As I've been arguing, the House appears to be so focused on how the Senate always betrays them that they've missed the ways in which this situation is different: they can just turn the tables on the Senate by passing the Senate bill, and then send over the reconciliation patch.  Remember, the patch is (or at least can be) filled with mainly politically appealing items: repealing the Nelson deal, shifting from Cadillac tax to taxing rich folks, and eliminating lifetime caps.*  Perhaps Republicans would try to block it anyway, but as I've said, that's much better ground for the Democrats to contest than the original complex bill.

And the worst-case scenario for reforms supporters if the Senate bill passes the House is...the Senate bill, which everyone who supports any of the plausible outcomes agrees is better than nothing. 

What the House proposes instead is to wait until the Senate acts on reconciliation, or at least until they get an ironclad guarantee of such action.  The former could take months**, and may never happen; the latter is never going to pass the House's skepticism about the other body.  Instead of trying to figure out a way to get the Senate to assure that House that they'll act, what the House should do if they want reform is to give the Senate incentives to act.  Pass and patch does that if the House passes the Senate bill now.

And liberals shouldn't let the House off the hook.  Nancy Pelosi was widely quoted yesterday:
I've said to my colleagues, go in the door. The door's locked? Go to the gate. The gate's locked? Climb over the fence. It's too high? Pole vault in. That doesn't work? Parachute in. We have to get this done for the American people one way or another.
What health care supporters need to say isn't what Ezra Klein says in response (which is to compare her tough words to various Senators' foot-dragging words) but to say:

Speaker Pelosi, the front door is wide open.  Just get 218 of your friends together, and walk right through.

*Lifetime caps might not survive reconciliation, but I'd think that's a vote that Democrats would be glad to take -- I'm not even sure that Republicans would object to such a feel-good item.

**Jeff Davis has a long piece up at TNR explaining all (some?) of the ways that reconciliation could be slowed, even if all Senate Democrats are on board.  On one issue, it's possible he's overstating things -- as Sarah Binder said in response to my question, it's not clear that the bill would actually have to go through the committee process.  However, everyone agrees that reconciliation is a difficult and complex process.

Worst Advice Ever

David Brooks has a great plan for the president: give up all the things you campaigned on  -- things that real Americans actually care about, such as jobs and health care and education and energy -- and spend the year babbling about an issue that mostly no one understands or cares about.  Oh yeah -- the budget deficit.

Oh, and the substance of what the president will be saying, apparently, is that everyone's taxes should go up, and their benefits should be cut.

This would be a great idea if the goal is to see if it's really possible for a president to fall below a 20% approval rating.  My guess?  Yup.  Followed by record Congressional losses, and revving up of Democratic campaigns in Iowa.  Really, if he follows the Brooks plan, I'd give Barack Obama very little chance of renomination.

The best part?  Brooks seems to believe that the president could somehow achieve a (presumably bipartisan) budget deal out of that strategy.  Hey, David Brooks: Republican politicians don't want deficit reduction.  That's why they voted against legislative PAYGO.  That's why they opposed Medicare savings in the health care bill.  You know, the bill that will actually cut the deficit.  The bill that you want the president to abandon, so that he can go around the country complaining about the deficit. 

All of which is something that anyone who cares about the deficit in the real world would know.  But Brooks isn't interested in that.  For him, "The deficits...symbolize Washington’s institutional dysfunction"  So treating the budget as a means to goals such as full employment, economic growth, stable prices, or other things that actual people actually care about is silly, because it doesn't deal with the deficit as a symbol of all sort of bad things.  Nor does actually, you know, cutting the budget deficit help, since (once again) the deficit isn't about anything as mundane as the gap between government expenditures and revenues, but it's about things such as the "tyranny of the news cycle." 

(Yes, some people claim to care about the budget deficit.  Ask them what it means, and you'll get all kinds of odd gibberish.  Ask them if they want to raise taxes and cut benefits to solve it, and they'll look at you as if you're nuts -- that's why Ross Perot opposed all the real deficit reduction plans.  Deficit concern runs, very predictably, not in a cycle with actual deficits, but correlated to things like unemployment, falling GDP, or rising inflation.  No one really cares about the actual, as opposed to the symbolic, budget deficit).

Worst advice ever?  Worst column ever.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chris Matthews, Goofball

I'm sure you've seen the story by now.  I sort of agree with Josh Marshall, I think, about how Matthews' penchant for saying whatever nutty thing is on his mind makes him a good entertainer...I also agree with Seth Masket that it makes Matthews (at least appear to be) a weird man.  The reason I'm commenting is only because (as a once-upon-a-time flack) I find it hard to reconcile the Matthews who blurts out stuff with his history as a press secretary.  What makes someone good at talking to the press in general, but especially on behalf of someone else, is extraordinary discipline: one has to say exactly what one wants, and refrain from saying whatever it is that the reporters want you to say.  And yet on his TV show, Matthews appears to have little if any of that kind of discipline.  Perhaps it's an act (who better than an experience pro could make blurting stuff out seem spontaneous); perhaps it's the result of having to defer to others in his earlier career...perhaps Seth's right, and he's just weird. One way or another, it does, sometimes, make for great TV.

The best serious commentary is (natch) going to be this from TNC, so go there if you want to learn something.

What Commissions Can Do

I have a few items to catch up on, and one of them is this post by Stan Collender, which he titles "The Greenspan Commission Failed."  The story he relates, however, doesn't match the header.  What we learn is that the Greenspan Commission (on "fixing" Social Security in the 19080s) didn't actually come up with anything; what actually happened is that Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan
neither of who were members of the commission, privately agreed to a deal.  The Greenspan Commission was pushed to take credit for it so that it looked more bipartisan-partisan and less of a backroom deal that was really the case.
Seems to me that the commission worked!  Oh, it didn't resolve a problem that was otherwise unresolvable; commissions can't do that.  What they can do, however, is to deflect responsibility in cases in which elected officials want to do something without taking the credit or blame for it.  That's the case for the base-closing commission, and it seems that's the story with the Greenspan Commission as well. 

Of course, there's a second thing that commissions can do, the mirror image of that function: in cases in which politicians don't want to do something (and don't want the credit or blame for not doing something), then appointing a commission is a way to substitute the appearance of action for real action.

On the deficit, my guess is that many but not all Democrats want a solution (higher taxes, Medicare savings, Pentagon reform and savings) but aren't willing to take the "credit" for it -- so they want a solution commission.  The Republicans, however value lower taxes over deficit reduction and aren't really in favor of steeper spending cuts, so they want a kick the can commission.  Unless those things change, there's no chance of a bipartisan commission that will actually produce solutions.

Fewer Elections? Yup

I tend to disagree with Matt Yglesias on lots of things when it comes to democracy and political reform, so I want to jump in and second him on something on which we mostly agree:
A big country like the United States is never going to have public officials who are as well-monitored as the ones in a place like Denmark. But we make the situation much, much worse by proliferating the quantity of elected officials to the point where most people have no idea what’s happening. How many people can name their state senator? How many people know what things their school board has authority over and what things their mayor decides? And this is all without considering the absolutely insane practice of electing judges.
I love elections, and I'm in favor of  meaningful government at multiple levels.  I definitely like the idea of transformative legislatures, fully separated from their corresponding executive branch, and I like the idea that individual legislators, and not just legislative parties, can be influential.

But I've never seen a good defense for separately electing members of the same executive branch, as is done (to greater or lesser extremes) in the states, but not in the federal government.  No one thinks that Barack Obama should have to work with an attorney general, an EPA administrator, or a Secretary of State elected independently of him, but governors have to do that all the time. I once lived in a county that held elections for auditor...I have no idea what makes a good auditor, and damned if I'm going to find out (and then learn whether the candidates have whatever that is) just so I can cast an informed vote.  Let the county executive (whatever the office is called) select the auditor, if he or she picks a crook (or a bigot of a sheriff, or an incompetent coroner), we'll be glad to bounce the executive in the next election.

If they put me in charge, I'd probably get limit the number of executive branch elected positions for each state and city government to one; get rid of judicial elections; get rid of initiatives; try to do something about consolidating some of the more obscure (but often important) governments -- the various boards and authorities -- and, last but not least, get rid of nonpartisan elections.  Americans would still have far more choices to make at the ballot box than citizens of other democracies, and still have lots of governments with confusing overlapping jurisdictions, both of which I consider features, not bugs.  But the reforms I listed would at least it would give voters a fighting chance to know what they're doing. 

By the way, according to a student I had last year, at least one town does actually elect a dog catcher.

Public Opinion and the Treasury

Ezra Klein has what I consider a fairly odd argument up this morning, sort of calling for the head of Tim Geithner:
What I don't understand -- forgive me, Brad DeLong -- is the argument for keeping Geithner much beyond this point. It's true that whoever served in that chair during the worst of the banking crisis is going to be a compromised figure. That makes the public service they provided all the more laudable, and all the more valuable. History will likely judge Geithner very well. But he's a less effective official today because he has so little public credibility. Just as you needed someone who was willing to be unpopular to do the unpopular things, you might well need someone popular who can manage the transition to doing the popular things.
Really?  I can't find any direct questions about Geithner's popularity or lack thereof, but my guess is that few Americans have any idea who Tim Geithner is, let alone dislike him.  Now, it's true that Americans will report a negative feeling about "bailouts," but I'd be surprised if very many people associate bailouts with Geithner in particular. 

Now, high-information, very attentive Americans certainly know who Geithner is.  Only a minority of them are relevant to the question of Geithner's compromised popularity, however.  Republicans, remember, are going to oppose any Obama Treasury Secretary, while moderate Democrats and blind Obama supporters are probably happy with Geithner right now.  That leaves one group, the critical left.  They don't like Geithner...but are they really likely to support any plausible replacement?

More to the point: does it really matter if people don't like the Treasury Secretary?  I don't think so.  It does matter if elites (on Wall Streat, at the Fed, in Congress) trust the Secretary of the Treasury.  If he loses their confidence, then he would have to go.  But even there, I don't think they need to like him. And of course it matters a lot if Obama himself loses confidence in Geithner, but that's not what Ezra is talking about.

On the more broad question of whether letting Geithner go would help or hurt Obama's popularity, to the extent that it would matter at all I think it would hurt.  Even if it's true that some of the things that Obama did in his first year on the economy are to remain unpopular, it seems to me that it would not be in Obama's interest to portray those things as mistakes.  Keeping the team that put the plan together sends the message that what he did was unpopular but necessary; letting them go implies that he was going in the wrong direction.  Again, I don't think this sort of thing has nearly as much importance as, well, whether the policies actually work or not, but to the extent it matters for public relations purposes, I'd say the thing to do is to keep the economic team intact.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


He did fine.  Of course he did; the State of the Union and other speeches to a Congressional Joint Session are among the easiest things that presidents ever do.  They have the wonderful setting; the built-in enthusiastic live audience; the poor opposition party, either going along (good for the president!) or looking churlish and partisan (good for the president!).  The SOTU does have the disadvantage of (by tradition) giving the laundry list of the president's agenda, which is, for ordinary Americans, presumably snooze city...but it has the advantage of being at a predictable fixed time, allowing the president's speechwriters the chance to work on it far in advance, and the president's political people to poll and focus-group test anything they're considering including.  Consequently, almost all presidents do well almost all of the time in their State of the Union speeches.  Hey, Woodrow Wilson (the guy who started the modern tradition of live SOTU speeches) may have been a moral monster, but he wasn't stupid.

On style points, I thought Obama was much better at the Joint Session format this time than in his previous two attempts.  I saw a lot of Clinton in him, this time, in his informal breaks in which he acted...don't know how to put on the joke, perhaps?  As I tweeted earlier, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that he watched one of Clinton's performances.

The newsiest bit to me -- and I watched it on CSPAN-2, and haven't seen anything other than a few people who were live tweeting -- was the prominent placement of DADT repeal.  Not exactly a surprise, since he's been leading up to it for a year now, but it was a clear signal that MA Senate isn't going to slow this one down.  I'm not quite there in predicting that DADT repeal will happen this year -- I have no idea where the votes are -- but I do think that it's on the agenda, so we're going to find out. 

On the rest, he did what he had to do on health care reform.  My guess is that the budget stuff was essentially unchanged by MA Senate; the White House has been talking about it for months, and really none of the proposals that dribbled out this week are very dramatic.  It was interesting that he endorsed legislative PAYGO, which was (presumably) purely for wonks and actual deficit hawks.  Other than that, I don't think there was a whole lot of news to be had.  On energy, he certainly threw plenty of bones to Republicans and dirty-fuel-state Democrats; if there's any hope for that one moving this year, it's going to have to be bipartisan, so he did what he needed to do.  Hey, policy people: is the GOP nuclear power fetish pretty much the equivalent of their missile defense fetish -- a totally useless policy that they've latched on to because it tests well in polls and delivers goodies to a GOP-aligned interest group? 

So, easy test, easily passed.  Now, back to the hard work portion of the presidency.

House Dems, Leap! You Have Hand This Time

Jonathan Chait is back, and he has a good post on reconciliation...except for one important point:

The Democrats aren't going to pass health care through reconciliation.

They are going to pass health care through a regular bill, the bill that passed the Senate with 60 votes.

What they are going to do next is improve health care with a reconciliation bill: pass-and-patch.  As I said yesterday, however, if House Democrats are smart they'll get the first bill passed as soon as possible.  Yes, House Dems feel that they've been screwed over by the Senate numerous times, whether it was the BTU tax way back in 1993 or cap-and-trade in 2009.  They're understandably gun-shy. 

But the parliamentary situation this time around is different, and they need to see that.  Ben Nelson has given them, as George Costanza would say, hand.  I talked about this yesterday, but I want to reemphasize how important it is to realize how much it changes the game once the (Senate) bill is signed into law.  All of a sudden, the Senate Democrats are stuck with a law they supported, complete with Nelson's deal and all the rest of it.

And then -- here comes the House with a new bill -- not a bill to set up a new health care system, but a patch on a system that's already the law of the land.  A bill that does lots and lots of popular things (taxes on the rich, get rid of lifetime caps, repeal the Nelson deal), and few if any unpopular things.  Republicans can filibuster it all they want.  They'll be the ones protecting the Nelson deal, the excise tax, lifetime caps and the other things that the patch will change.  True, they may do that anyway; they certainly would complain about the procedure.  But that should be a fight that even moderate Senate Democrats would be glad to take on.  They wouldn't be defending the (old) bill they already passed; they would be fixing it! 

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that passing the Senate bill is the game-changer.  Now, granted, that vote is a tricky one, especially for any House Dem who previously opposed the House version of the bill.  But for anyone who is already on the hook for health care reform (because they voted for the House bill), and for anyone who just wants the thing to get done, the best move is to just go ahead and pass the bill, then send a reconciliation bill to the Senate and watch what happens.  I said yesterday that it was going to take a leap of faith by the House, but the more I think about it it's not much of a leap at all. 


1.  I'm going to try live-tweeting the SOTU.  Can't vouch for whether it will be worth following or not, but why not give it a try?  Follow me @jbplainblog.

2.  I've been tweeting for a while now, but it's almost always just automated notices that a new post is up here.  Not sure whether I'll start doing more, but the exceptions so far are baseball comments, and I expect I might increase that as the season comes around.  Maybe some politics too...I'm not sure if it's a good format for what I do or not.  I am feeling that my feed is a little on the pathetic side, though, so today's goal is to reach...a dozen followers.  C'mon, whose going to be #12?

3.  Today is the six month anniversary of Plain Blog.  Woo Hoo!  Happy Birthday to Me!  Thanks to everyone for reading,  thanks to commenters, thanks to those who have linked, and especially thanks to bloggers who have answered my dumb questions about how to go about doing this. 

Norms and Rules (and Holds and Filibusters)

I want to start right out by saying that this is speculative.  That said...

Matt Yglesias once again highlights what he sees as a disfunctional aspect of the US governing system, in this case all those unconfirmed political appointees.  He's certainly correct to point to the problem; it's a disgrace, and one that I think Reid and Obama should have been more aggressive about (especially in fall 2009, when the Dems had 60 votes in the Senate.

Yglesias, true to his Europhile heart, believes that the real solution is to convert a lot of what are currently political appointees into civil servants.  I disagree.  I think the American system of a relatively weak bureaucracy that is responsive to both the president and Congress is an excellent democratic institution, especially fitting for such a large and diverse nation.  It's a really good thing that a Senator from the Dakotas, or from Georgia, or from Oregon, can find ways to get the attention of government agencies for particular, perhaps narrow, needs of her constituency.  The confirmation process (along with oversight hearings, and the budget process) is a useful part of that.

Or at least it was.  Because here we get into the main topic of this post.  It seems to me...and I do want to point out that this is speculative, but I do think it's true...that the real disfunction that's going on is that the Gingrich-DeLay Republicans discovered a ways back that a lot of the ways that the American system of government rest on norms that everyone follows, and that by exploiting the actual underlying rules players can do all sorts of disruptive things.  For example, it's been the norm for almost a century that states do redistricting every ten years, after the census.  Tom DeLay realized that there was no such rule -- and had the Texas GOP do an extra redistricting as soon as the balance of power in the legislature changed, without waiting for the next census.  There are several other examples (using the moribund recall provision to knock out a governor in California, for example), but the big one has to do with governing the Senate.  Senators learned long ago that a multiperson filibuster was essentially unbeatable as long as the filibustering Senators wanted to keep it going.  And there's a very good defense of that practice grounded in democratic theory, having to do with the issue of intensity: as Robert Dahl discussed long ago, in cases in which an indifferent majority opposes an intense minority, it is unlikely that the correct democratic outcome is a simple majority vote.  Filibusters, used by intense minorities, are probably a good democratic practice. 

But Bob Dole in 1993 realized that there was nothing in the rules preventing the minority party, if it chose to do so, to filibuster every major initiative.  And Republicans in 2009 took that one step farther, filibustering (including the use of holds) even measures and nominees they supported, just to put the president on the defensive. 

In sports, if one side finds a loophole in the rules, they get a temporary advantage as a reward for their ingenuity -- and then both sides have the same advantage, and then the rules committee goes about rewording things so that the intent of the original rules is restored.  Unfortunately, in politics, that sort of thing is often impossible.  It turns out that a lot of political regulation has to be done through norms, not formal rules; the game is too complex, and the rules too difficult to pass, to do anything else.  Moreover, because the rule-makers are also the majority party, we really don't want the rule-makers to constantly be changing the rules (because they'll do it unfairly, to their own advantage). 

I don't think there's much of a solution to this.  I happen to believe that the short-term gains Gingrichism sometimes gives the GOP are illusions, but they firmly believe that it worked in 1993-1994, and that it's working now, and so it's just going to get worse.  Newt Gingrich in the 1980s believed in destroying the House of Representatives in order to take it over; Republicans now appear comfortable extending that to the Senate and the executive branch of government.  It's a bad business.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Winning Arguments

About that spending freeze...

On the policy merits, I think it's pretty clear that this is a small-bore gimmick that's unlikely to make much of a difference either way. 

On political grounds, I suspect the whole thing blows over pretty quickly, whether it's a marginal plus or minus.  Seth Masket is right that there aren't all that many real deficit hawks within Congress (I'd add Kent Conrad -- he would protect ag subsidies, but otherwise I'm confident he'd support real deficit reduction).  However, there is a real constituency in the Congress for the appearance of deficit reduction.  And Seth is right that "there are no real deficit hawks among the population at large."  But, again, there are a lot of people who think that they're deficit hawks, and they might react positively towards a deficit-reduction gimmick (whereas they wouldn't react positively to real tax increases or spending cuts).  Against that are elite liberals who won't like it, and rank-and-file liberals who follow them.  I don't know if that adds up to a net plus or minus, but either way it's pretty minor.  At any rate, I disagree with Seth's headline: I do think there's a spending freeze constituency, even if there are no real deficit hawks.

More interesting to me is Ezra Klein's claim that this constitutes an admission that Obama has lost "the argument" on deficits, spending, the stimulus, and the deficit side of health care.  Here's John Judis making a similar point:
[T]he administration’s announcement is an admission of abject failure. Obama was, after all, a professor, as were two of his main economic advisors, Larry Summers and Christina Romer, but in the past year, they have failed utterly to explain to Americans (let alone the bond traders) how deficits function in recessions. Yes, it is hard to do so, but no harder than it was for Ronald Reagan to explain to middle class Americans how regressive tax cuts would actually benefit them.  For better or worse--and mostly the latter--Reagan actually tried to explain to Americans what his policies were about. The Obama administration has abdicated...Or the need for financial regulation. Obama turns out to be a wonderful orator, but, to date, a lousy professor.
I certainly agree that Obama has not convinced the American people of the folly of their thinking about the deficit.  I disagree, however, that it's his job to do so. 

Here's how it really works.  Barack Obama will get the credit if the economy rebounds, and he'll get the blame if it stays in the tank.  Regardless of whether they wind up trusting and liking Obama or not, the American people will continue to believe a hodgepodge of trite slogans and incompatible nostrums when it comes to macroeconomic policy.  It's not within the capacity of presidents to change that.  Reagan didn't convince people that the minimum wage is bad or that free trade is good or, for that matter, that rich people should pay less in taxes; however, when times were good, people thought Reagan was doing a good job despite his inability to win those arguments. 

To my memory, the most important argument any president ever tried to win of this type was FDR's attempt to convince the nation that Hitler was a threat.  He mostly failed, despite all the ammunition that a popular president could bring, and despite the rather obvious fact repeated daily in all the newspapers that Hitler really wasn't a very swell, trustworthy, peaceful kind of guy.  It still took Pearl Harbor and a German declaration of war to get what FDR wanted.  It doesn't matter how good a professor the president is; his class is just not going to be attentive enough to give him a chance.

What presidents can do (what Richard Neustadt called "teaching") works around the margins, and is more about managing expectations.  Obama did a very good job last winter in telling everyone that things were going to get worse before they got better; I think he probably helped lower expectations, as can be seen by polling that shows most Americans still blame Bush, and not Obama, for the state of the economy (the famous graph showing that unemployment would peak at 8%, on the other hand, was a teaching mistake).  George W. Bush did a great job in his post-September 11 speech, in which he told the American people that the fight against terrorism would be long.  He blundered terribly, of course, with "Mission Accomplished." 

But that's about the limit of what presidents can do.  It's not that the American people aren't smart; it's just that they don't care very much, especially since they don't expect to have much use for macroeconomic (or geopolitical) expertise.  I mean, I'd rather not have a president talk a lot of nonsense, but on balance it just isn't going to matter a lot.

So I wouldn't worry a whole lot about winning arguments over policy.  And I don't think that the actual policy implications of this freeze are very important, although of course the details may matter.  No, what this one comes down to is the (short-term, marginal-effect) politics of it.  Either way, it's not likely to be very important. 

The Logic of Pass-and-Patch Continued

I just finished writing about the problems for Republicans in trying to block a reconciliation fix if the House has already passed health care reform, when I see this item from TPM:
Three Democratic senators, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have declared that they won't support a plan to have the House pass the Senate health care bill whole, then pass fixes to the bill through the reconciliation process.
Well, the first obvious point is that the Democrats have several votes to spare on reconciliation, so the fix can survive losing the most conservative Democrats.  It's no surprise that Bayh, Nelson, and Lincoln would want to hold this position, and I expect that Lieberman, Webb, and a couple of others will as well.

But: the even more obvious point is that they don't get a vote on whether the House approves the Senate bill (at least, not in a formal sense).  In other words, should the plan (that Bayh, Nelson, and Lincoln won't support) be pass-and-patch, then the only vote that they'll get on the Senate floor is whether or not to support the patch.  Health care reform would already be the law of the land; the only question for them is whether the reconciliation patch improves the bill or not. 

I'm not sure whether the patch will look good to marginal Democrats in the Senate, but I suspect it will.  My guess is that if it comes to it they will choose to rail against the procedure...and then most of them, perhaps all, will vote for the patch.

Of course, in order to get there, the House has to take the plunge and approve the Senate bill. 

What Exactly Are You Blocking?

More on pass-and-patch.

House Democrats, understandably, are wary of passing the Senate bill with only promises that the Senate will then take up and pass a reconciliation fix.

Republicans are fueling their fears, by threatening to do whatever it takes to stop the reconciliation patch from passing.  As Greg Sargent reports, that includes offering endless amendments.

However, this is where it gets tricky for the Republicans.  It's one thing to prevent health care reform from passing.  It's quite another to prevent improvements to a health care law from passing.  What will the patch contain?  First of all, it will repeal the (supposedly) noxious deal with Ben Nelson on Nebraska and Medicaid.  Second, it will reduce the excise tax.  Third, it will presumably remove lifetime caps.  Beyond that...well, if the Democrats are reasonably intelligent, they'll cram the patch with as many goodies as possible.  The biggest one, in my view, would be a straightforward appeal to seniors.  I believe that the Senate bill partially eliminates the doughnut hole; the patch should finish the job.  Granted, the patch may have other things in it that are less clearly popular (for example, shifting the exchanges from the Senate to the House version, assuming that would get Senate approval and survive the Byrd rule).  But the biggest vulnerabilities, such as the individual mandate, would already be law.

If Republicans want to delay a bill which lowers the excise tax, removes the Nelson thing, eliminates lifetime caps, and closes the doughnut seems to me that Democrats would be more than happy to take on that debate.  Republicans can cry all they want about a government takeover of health care, but the "takeover" won't be in the bill on the Senate floor.  It will already be law.

What's difficult for House Democrats, however, is that this strategy only works if they take a leap of faith and pass the Senate bill first.  If they hold it hostage to the Senate, than Senate Republicans can hold the reconciliation bill hostage as well.  If, however, health care reform is already the law of the land, the Senate Democrats will have far more leverage.  After all, they can always threaten that if Republicans won't allow them to act, they'll just drop the bill and allow the law to stay in effect.  Not take effect, but stay in effect. 

(Of course, this strategy works a lot better if Dems can keep unpopular items out of the bill.  For what it's worth, however, Senate Democrats have already proven that they can stick together to defeat GOP feel-good amendments, so there's some hope that they could do so again).

For what it's worth, the House could pass the reconciliation patch the same day that they pass the Senate bill, allowing them to at least claim that they voted for the things they want to run on.  Overall, however, it seems to me that the logic of the situation calls for Democrats to take the leap of faith, pass the bill, and then trust the Senate to pass the patch.

Reconciliation and Fairness

Should Democrats be wary of using the pass-and-patch option for health care reform (that's what it should be called, by the way) because it's somehow unfair or illegitimate?

I'm probably as resistant to pure majoritarian democracy as anyone you're going to find, but the answer is:

It is totally and completely legitimate to use reconciliation as a vehicle for passing health care reform.   Conservative claims that reconciliation shouldn't be used should be given about as much weight as complaints about White House czars: in other words, none at all.  There's nothing in the law or the precedents of reconciliation that would even hint that it shouldn't be used for something like this.  It is not, as the NYT claims Republicans will cry, "parliamentary trickery."  It is part of the standard rules and procedures of Congress.  Objecting to the use of reconciliation is basically similar to stalling a vote all day and then complaining that the vote was taken in the dead of night; it might con a few especially dimwitted rubes, but it's not a serious argument about fairness or democracy.

Of course, that's a totally separate question from questions about the technical difficulties of using reconciliation.  And there's a real political problem: if reconciliation was used for the main bill, it's not at all clear that the Democrats could get 50 votes, because marginal Democrats don't want to vote for something that only has the support of liberals.  Those were good reasons for the Dems not to use reconciliation as the primary method of passing health care reform.  But on grounds of fairness or democracy?  I've been unkind to Kent Conrad lately, but no one is going to top this:
As for the Republican criticisms of the tactic, Conrad said that "they are going to say that, whatever."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Filibusters on NPR

For those who are interested in filibusters -- and who isn't these days! -- Greg Koger was definitely worth listening to on NPR today.  You can hear to it here.  And as long as I'm linking, here's the index to Greg's guest blogging at the Monkey Cage, and here's his interview with Ezra Klein.  Good stuff.

Might as well's my post on why "live" filibusters don't happen (Greg's version on NPR has better stories).  

More on the Press and Goo Goo Values

Following up on my comments earlier, Greg Marx makes the good point that in Obama's case, the press had him not only on goo goo grounds, but also on hypocrisy. 

I tend to think that a simple focus on hypocrisy is actually part of goo goo values, but Obama did make himself vulnerable on the related, but slightly different, grounds of breaking promises.  Hypocrisy is about exposing the differences between actions and true beliefs.  As such, it is a dangerous game to get into -- democracy does not thrive when people are constantly questioning motives.  Broken promises, a far more objective topic, are certainly fair game for reporters, even if it's true that goo goo reporters might be drawn to that particular subject because they care far more than they should about hypocrisy. 

Breaking promises isn't actually bad because it reveals that politicians aren't what they claim to be; it's bad because it tends to harm the representational relationship between constituents and their elected officials.

Promises, Promises

Kevin Drum asks:
Has increased polarization forced presidents to be more proactive setting the legislative agenda — or, at the very least, forced presidents to take a public stand on more issues?
I'd be willing to bet that the answer here is no -- that the culprit in any increase over time would be the modern presidential nominations system, not  polarization.  Pre-1972, candidates could campaign for the nomination without necessarily having to give a whole lot of targeted stump speeches to a wide variety of differing audiences, or to appear in a series of pre-nomination debates.  Even those candidates who did contest primaries, such as John Kennedy in 1960, only entered a handful of those races.  In the other states (and in some primary states as well) the campaign for the nomination was not fought mainly over delegate selection; it was a fight over convincing already-chosen delegates, many of whom were supporters of a fairly small number of delegation leaders, to convince those delegates to give their support to a candidate. 

Both systems require plenty of promises and back-room deals, but the current system forces a good deal of those promises and deals to become part of the public record.  I'd be surprised if this doesn't lead to a lot more detailed promises during the campaign, which in turn leads to more of an incentive to act in the Oval Office.

The argument on polarization would presumably be that given the lack of internal differences within parties, it's less risky for a candidate for the nomination to stake out positions.  But that presumes that nomination battles are public contests in the first place -- which gets back to McGovern-Fraser (that is, reforms of the nomination process before 1972).

However, I don't recall seeing any study on the issue, so it's mostly speculation on my part. 

Goo Goos and Actually Getting Things Done

Ezra Klein had three excellent items this morning; I want to add them up and reach a conclusion.

1.  Citing Frances Lee, Ezra notes that the president's opponents are going to oppose whatever legislation he proposes; that's the nature of partisan politics these days.

2.  Ezra cites a reader on the 1977 Clear Act Amendments to make the point that dealmaking and logrolling is SOP when it comes to legislating.

3. And Ezra reads Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, who find that Americans tend to want Good Government procedures -- in particular, Americans don't like self-interest.

What do we have here?  Regardless of how Obama and the Democrats proceeded, it's very likely that Republicans would oppose them.  In order to pass anything, a certain amount of dealmaking was inevitable.  People who looked at the dealmaking wouldn't like it.  And lo and behold, that's the story of both the stimulus bill and the health care bill.

The only way Obama could have prevented that reaction, then would have been to not proceed at all.  But that would have been a more more significant political error.  On the stimulus (and don't forget -- Obama's approval ratings fell at least as much during the time that the stimulus was the big item in the news; he's been almost totally stable since mid or early August), Obama and his economic team clearly believed that the bill was important for the economy, and if they were right the effects were far more important for Obama's eventual popularity than any short-term hits while passing it.  On the health care bill, Obama's hand was forced by his campaign, which certainly had placed health care reform front-and-center on his agenda; that in turn was forced by nomination politics, because Democrats in general consider health care to be front-and-center on their agenda (health care also has the advantage of unanimity among Democratic-friendly groups, unlike such issues as energy/climate, or immigration.  Not all Dems and not all Democratic interest groups want the same things on health care, but all of them want some form of a bill.  Not so with energy, or immigration).  In other words, taking the hits from legislating was the least-bad course of action for Barack Obama this year, and would have been so far any Democrat who could have been nominated for president, given the circumstances.

I should add one thing.  If Americans in general don't like dealmaking and self-interest, I think it's fair to say that journalists double down on that.  Goo Goo bias is far more pervasive -- and, more importantly, far more the basis for action -- than is any other type of ideological bias, because Goo Goo (Good Government) bias is far closer to the core mission of journalists, as they see themselves.  Post-Watergate, people have become reporters so that they, too, could uncover nefarious plots and hidden, backroom deals.  The idea that backroom deals could be benign just wouldn't occur to most (not all, but most) reporters.  And while most liberal reporters for mainstream news outlets believe that doing their job well requires them to put aside their positions on public policy issues such as tax rates, abortion, or gun control, they do not believe that they should put aside their sense that acting on the basis of self-interest is a bad thing when done by politicians or interest groups.  At least, that's been the view of virtually all the reporters I've ever talked to, and all the reporters I've read who talk about their views on such things.

Of course, all of this puts a tremendous strain on anyone who wants to get anything done in the American political system, which is structured to give incentives to everyone involved to cut the best deal they can.  The important thing for such people to keep in mind is that at the end of the day, no one is going to hate the health care bill because of how it was passed; six months from now, if the Democrats manage to get the bill done, all anyone is going to care about is whether it actually helps them or not, and that's certainly going to be true farther down the road.  As much as they hate back-room deals, no reporter feels it necessary to remind us of them once a bill gets to the implementation stage.  So, for politicians, the hits they're going to take at this stage are both unavoidable and no reason to avoid getting things done, as long as the things being done are really worth doing.

Good News (Reporting), Bad News (Analysis)

Kudos to the New York Times and David D. Kirkpatrick for this excellent article about the effects of reform in light of last week's Supreme Court case about money in politics.  The studies on campaign financing have probably yielded some of the least intuitive findings of any studies of American politics, and while they are not the last word on the subject (and Kirkpatrick doesn't give scholars the only say), anyone who wants to make sense of money in politics should know that the people who have studied these things tend, overall, to think that the Court's decision will be a lot less important than people think (see also John Sides here, and note that he promises more on campaign finance in the Monkey Cage this week).  I'm going to talk more about this later as well, but for now I do want to highlight the quote Kirkpatrick runs from Fred Wertheimer:
For five elections beginning in 1976, the presidential candidates of both major parties took public financing and did not receive private campaign contributions. “You can’t prove a negative,” Mr. Wertheimer said, “but in the Carter and Reagan presidencies there were no news stories about campaign contributions influencing presidential decisions.”
I think that takes the cake for damning with faint praise.  If it's true that the best one can say about restrictions about campaign finance is that they prevented the Regan administration from being overly solicitous to business interests, then I might wish that the Court had just struck out the whole body of law entirely.  But good work from Krikpatrick (including the silly Wetheimer quotation; he's part of the conversation, and his views should be part of the story).

Alas, not all was good in the Sunday Times this week.  Academicphobe Matt Bai has a new theory to peddle: we're all independents now, and so long-term changes in American politics are no longer possible.  Oddly enough, Bai's intuition about realignment is something that has a lot of support within the political science literature.  But what one can learn there (from David Mayhew, for example) is that realignment was never a particularly useful or accurate theory to begin with, not that it has lost its punch only recently.  Moreover, it isn't true, as John Sides explained here, that the political system is overrun by independents.  As far as we can tell, the electorate is just as partisan these days as it has ever been.

Bai winds up concluding that we're never going to see another Ted Kennedy, Strom Thurmond, or Robert Byrd in the Senate...despite the obvious fact that all of those are recent (or current!) Senators, and that the current Senate is actually the oldest ever.  In fact, there's no evidence at all that incumbency is any less important now than it was earlier. 

The tip-off, by the way, is Bai's analogy to the Conan/Leno wars.  Bai says:
Forget the staying power of an institution like Johnny Carson; when Jay Leno starts to feels a little stale, he is shifted to prime time, then shifted back to late night. It was probably never very realistic for modern political thinkers of either party to dream of a 50-year reign. This century’s tectonic realignment is more likely to last 50 months or maybe 50 weeks, depending on how long it takes voters to seek out the latest offer or the newest best deal.
Yeah, except: one could just as easily argue that what's really going on here is that viewers weren't willing to change, and that the real lesson of Leno/Conan is stagnation, not change.  After all, Jay Leno (even without the interruption) lasted far longer than Steve Allen and Jack Paar combined, and it sure looks now is if Leno has a good shot of matching Johnny's thirty-year run.  And that's not all: Johnny devoured his opponents, but nowadays they just stay on -- David Letterman's run on CBS dwarfs those of, say, Joey Bishop or Dick Cavett, and Dave's overall latenight run as our TV Friend is now only two years shy of Johnny's.  Bai apparently missed the Simpsons Anniversary Special, too.

General warning: whenever a pundit uses the latest cultural fluff, whatever it is, to try to make a point, the best bet is to run the other way. 

Attack Politics, Frank Rich Version

Here's what I was talking about:
Ask yourself this: All these months later, do you yet know what the health care plan means for your family’s bottom line, your taxes, your insurance? It’s this nebulousness, magnified by endless Senate versus House squabbling, that has allowed reform to be caricatured by its foes as an impenetrable Rube Goldberg monstrosity, a parody of deficit-ridden big government. Since most voters are understandably confused about what the bills contain, the opponents have been able to attribute any evil they want to Obamacare, from death panels to the death of Medicare, without fear of contradiction.
That's Frank Rich in his column yesterday (my emphasis), making a fundamental mistake about how attack politics works.  Once again: opponents of the president do not, in fact, need permission to caricature the majority party's ideas, nor are there ground rules that detail in which cases opponents of the president are allowed to make stuff up about legislation the majority supports.  Certainly, politics is not some sort of carefully adjudicated debating society, where repeating a claim that's been discredited gets points deducted, or a rhetorical version of a western showdown in which the White Hats can defeat the Black Hats with their communications skill and agility, leaving the other side sputtering.  (Without fear of contradiction?  Only on outlets in which they control who gets to speak.  On regular news shows, those sorts of things are contradicted all the time).

Here are the real ground rules.  Whatever Obama and the Democrats do, Republicans are going to oppose them.  Republicans will say whatever they think will poll well; Rush and Beck and friends will say whatever they think will help their ratings; Sarah Palin will say whatever odd thing pops into her head.  Then, a quarter of the nation is going to believe those things, because they get their political information from sources that present those views, and only those views, as fact. 

And for everyone else...sure, Obama should complement policy with his best rhetoric.  It can't hurt.  The bottom line, however, is that the economy bounces back, Obama's popularity will rebound; if there's a double-dip recession, people will desert him.  Meanwhile, what Obama should continue doing is to try to pass what he can of his agenda, working (as Richard Neustadt recommended) to keep his influence as strong as he can make it.   How much time and energy should he devote to preventing Republicans from attacking him and smearing his ideas?  Approximately none.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Man on the Street

Seen from the outside, one of the toughest jobs in political reporting must be matching up the qualitative with the quantitative -- that is, filling in the abstractions of poll numbers by reporting on how individual voters talk about politics.  I suppose there are probably some people who think it's all a waste of time, that there's no way that a reporter covering, say, the MA Senate race can possibly speak to enough people that she can really know with any certainty what "the voters" are thinking.  I don't agree with that point of view.  Good person-on-the-street reporting, such as the "hanging out at the coffee shop" or "hanging out at the barber shop" piece, can definitely, in my view, tell us things that we can't quite get from the polls.  Not to mention that lots of people find that sort of thing more interesting than numbers, and I don't begrudge the press their efforts to appeal to readers.  But I imagine they're hard to do.  Walk into the wrong coffee shop at the wrong time, and you can get a totally warped view of what "people" are thinking. I assume that good reporters who learn how to do these stories have all kinds of methods they use to separate a couple of yahoos they run into from the "people" who we want to hear about.

Kevin Drum, however, points out that some of the traditional methods may now be dated.  He reads this Karen Tumulty post, in which the reporter -- and I do think she's an excellent reporter -- was shocked at how many voters in Massachusetts knew all about about the deal that Ben Nelson struck on behalf of Nebraska.  But as Drum points out,
Did people bring up Ben Nelson's deal unbidden? Sure. Because Fox News and talk radio have been screaming about it nonstop. Ditto for the union deal. The people who brought it up were almost certainly primarily conservatives who listen to conservative media and have been getting an earful of these outrages on an hourly basis for weeks. Again: this isn't a sign of a huge new tsunami of resentment against healthcare reform. These are mostly the same people who have been opposed to it from the start.
Tumulty says that "[t]he deal now known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" may have been one of the biggest blunders in modern political history."  What that misses is that if it wasn't Nelson's deal that the talk radio yakkers were gabbing about, it would have been the deal with Louisiana, or if not that then perhaps it would be death panels, or something else. 

Here's the point: Politics, in one respect, has really changed over the last two decades.  Both parties, but especially the Republicans, now have highly efficient ways to get their talking points out to the rank-and-file, without confusing things by also informing them of the larger context.  That's really different than things were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Back then, politically attentive people would watch the network news and the local news and look at the occasional newspaper, and maybe Time or Newsweek, and on top of that they would also be exposed to party talking points.  Now, to a great extent, people's only exposure to the news may consist of the party's talking points (again, especially on the Republican side).  So the old job of finding out how well those talking points are resonating by hearing whether ordinary folks use them to talk about politics is no longer a useful task.  Increasingly, the only language to which people -- once again, especially Republicans -- are exposed is those talking points.  For a Rush/Beck listener, there isn't another language available to discuss the health care bill.

In other words, the old rules don't apply, and the kind of preparation that reporters would have learned up through the 1980s (and even beyond; a lot of this is just 10-15 years old) might no longer work. 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Majority Rule

Matt Yglesias says:
I think the way voting should happen in the Senate is when there’s a question to be decided you ask who votes “yes” and who votes “no” and whichever side has more people on it wins. It works for the House of Representatives...
Well, sort of.

That whole "when there's a question to be decided" hides a lot of the process.  Questions need to be decided when the majority party say they need to be decided.  A lot of things go into that.  Supermajorities help; that's why a good deal of the House's business is conducted under the suspension procedure (which actually needs two-thirds of the votes, not a simple majority).  Intensity on the part of the majority helps -- that's why they were willing to bring up the health care bill and climate change, both of which passed by only narrow margins.  It also helps if the majority of the majority party, or the leadership of the majority party, favors something.  If the leadership opposes a bill or an amendment, it's usually not going to get a vote at all, even if a clear majority of the House favors it. 

In other words, the majority party governs in the House by dictating which issues have to be decided.

As I've said before, this isn't majority rule; it's majority party rule.  It's only somewhat connected to actual majorities within the chamber.  And that, in turn, is only tenuously connected to majorities across the nation.  The Democrats get to be in control of the House for many reasons, chief among them being Katrina, the imploding economy in 2007-2008, and the disastrous course of the Iraq war in 2005-2006.  Health care?  Climate change?  Most voters who want liberal solutions to those problems supported the Democrats in 2006 and 2008...and also in 2002 and 2004.  There's very little evidence that underlying attitudes on those types of issues jumps around as the fortunes of political parties wax and wane.  So majority party rules in government wind up changing policy as party control changes even though there's been no change on many issues among the voters.

All of which can, in fact, be justified.  All parliamentary bodies need some kind of structure; otherwise, the result could easily be chaos (indeed, John Aldrich argues in his classic book Why Parties? that American parties originated as a solution to that chaos -- although see a somewhat different view from Seth Masket, looking at the California case).  In particular, I think it's almost impossible to imagine a complex bill such as health care reform surviving a true majority-rules process, in which anyone who had an amendment could get a simple majority vote on it.  Whether strict party control is the best kind of structure is a matter for debate.  But it isn't a simple majority-rules system.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Time for some quick Giants posting.  Brian Sabean has been busy, and let's see how he's done...I'll list the regulars as it looks right now, with their 2009 OPS+

1B Huff          81
2B Sanchez    96
SS Renteria    66
3B Sandoval 142
LF DeRosa    99
CF Rowand   90
RF S'holtz      81
C  Molina      86

I'm detecting a pattern here, for all the people who aren't Sandoval.  It really isn't necessary to comment further...just look at the team that Sabean has assembled, and think about it for a while. 

Attack Politics

The silliest reasons I've heard for the Democrats to avoid passing the Senate health care bill is that the Nebraska medicaid thing makes the whole bill toxic.  If that is indeed what is motivating Democrats to find convoluted alternatives to pass-and-patch (that is, pass the Senate bill, and then pass a reconciliation bill to patch pieces that they don't like), then they're making a serious political error.  It's actually an error that arises repeatedly -- the idea that Democrats can avoid attacks from Republicans by being careful about their actions. 

This is not true.  Democrats can be assured that Republicans will attack them, regardless of what they do.  Democrats could eliminate the estate tax permanently, slash the capital gains tax, repeal the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, invade Iran, and pass a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, and Republicans would still attack them -- with exactly the same vehemence and vigor that Republicans have now.  That's politics.  It's how partisan politics is played.  It is absolutely impossible to avoid attacks from one's opponents; nothing you do gives them license to attack, because they will attack whatever you do.  Oh, and this isn't partisan; Democrats are going to attack Republicans, whatever the Republicans do.

Don't believe me?  Republicans are attacking Democrats for taking away people's guns, even though the Democrats basically surrendered on that issue fifteen years ago.  They are attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare and for allowing Medicare to grow so fast that it'll bankrupt the nation -- sometimes in the very same speech (I've seen it in the same paragraph).  Republicans have, repeatedly, attacked Barack Obama for not using a word he uses all the time.  Last I heard, they were still attacking the Democrats for bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, something that as far as I know not a single elected Democrat has any interest in doing.  No, it didn't make sense, but if they don't have attacks ready that make sense, they'll use ones that don't. 

The trick is to avoid doing things that voters don't like that really matter to voters.  Chief among these are things that make the economy tank.  It's not a good idea to do those sorts of things.  It's also not a good idea to fight wars, in general, but especially wars that don't go well.  Other things are much smaller, even something as big as health care.  Provisions within health care just aren't going to do the trick.  Oh, Republicans will no doubt attack Democrats over the Nebraska provision should it go into law; I have no doubt that polls would confirm that it's an unpopular provision.  But what those polls don't tell you is that it just doesn't matter very much.  By November, it will be just part of the partisan background noise.  No one who was otherwise intending to vote for the Democrats is going to vote for the Republicans because they passed that damn Nebraska giveaway.

My advice to Democrats unsure about what to do is this: think about the actual bill, and what its effects would be if it became law.  If in your judgment those effects would be bad for your constituents, then odds are they will dislike it, blame you for it, and you'll be in trouble.  If those effects would be good for your constituents, then vote for it.  Then figure out how you're going to sell the thing and yourself, based on that vote.  But don't back off of it because you think it will open you up to attacks; you're wide open right now, and you'll remain wide open regardless of what you do. 

The Money Song

I should say something about the Citizens United case, and campaign finance, but I haven't found the time to read the decision yet, and so I don't want to comment to directly about the Court's logic.

As far as the effects, just read what Seth Masket has to say.  Long term, most of us think that corporate money is going to find an outlet, so what campaign finance regulations mostly do is affect how, and not whether, corporate money gets into politics.  That said, the "how" can matter, and in the short term, disruptions in the rules tend to have unpredictable effects as some players learn to game the system quicker than others, or game the transition in the system while others don't.  So the response that this decision will mean that corporations will henceforth run the country after being shunted to the side under the previous regime is wrong, but that doesn't mean there won't be effects, especially in the short term.

When it comes to reform, I like what Seth says, but my ideal reform would be somewhat different I think.  I'm in favor of floors, not ceilings.  That is, I'd like to see public financing for federal candidates that insures that every House district and every Senate district gets at least a minimally competitive alternative, but after that, I'm of the general opinion that raising money is a fair test of candidate appeal, and I don't mind at all if the candidates who are better at it have an electoral advantage.  Oddly enough, that was basically the system that prevailed, although not by design, for presidential general elections from roughly 1992 through 2004, and I thought it worked pretty well.  There are lots of reasons that floors, not ceilings is a tough policy to pass through Congress, but I think it would work well in practice and comports well with my preferred version of democracy.


There are plenty of times in politics that call for action; those times are, in some ways, easy for committed activists -- it's easy to see in October of an election year exactly what one should do to make a difference.  More frustrating, and difficult, are times that call for patience.  Last summer, Democrats were trying to use extended negotiations as a way of providing cover for marginal Democratic Senators (it worked -- that was one of the reasons they got all sixty in December).  There really wasn't anything activists could do to make much of a difference at that point. 

For advocates of health care reform, we appear to be, now, in a period that calls for both patience and action.  I've been talking about patience all week, so I'll start there.  Liberals need to be careful not reinforce the idea that Democrats will inevitably fold on health care; they need, as I've said, to avoid panic about panic.  We do have some reporting -- see this item from Greg Sargent -- that indicates that House leadership and the White House may be essentially following the course predicted by Jonathan Chait and Neil Sinhababu.  They both suggest that once the politicians recover from the shock, they'll realize that the obvious best course is to get health care done.  So, for activists, the trick is to give them time to do that without immediately attacking the president and everyone in Congress for their weakness.  All those attacks do is keep the downward spiral going.  The same, really, with seeking and assigning blame for the Massachusetts debacle.  So, patience about the ongoing process.'s not just a time for patience.  It's also a time for action, for liberals who support reform.  It is absolutely critical that Congressional liberals realize that the thing to do to please liberal activists and to keep their reputation as good liberals intact is to pass the bill.  Look at Raul Grijalva -- he needs to know that liberals want him to get a bill through.  If he refuses, he's going to be looked at the way that liberals look at Ralph Nader in 2000, as the lowest of the low.  This is a case where activists, I'm certain, can actually make a difference.  Grijalva wants to be a progressive hero; activists need to tell him that the way to do that now is to cut the best deal possible in terms of assurances about a reconciliation patch, but then to accept victory and pass the Senate bill.  And that's true down the line.  If you support reform, this is the time to call one's Member of the House and tell him or her to get it done, to bring up and pass the Senate bill.  If you have a liberal blog and support reform, put away the recriminations and the panic, and make it very clear that the House can salvage everything if they pass the Senate bill.  There are lots of times where there isn't much the grass roots can do (grass roots liberals can't get Ben Nelson to act like a liberal, and have no leverage on Joe Lieberman at all).  This, however, is a situation in which activism should be able to affect outcomes.

Patience and action.  Yes, it's a tough week for liberals, but they should buck up and get it done.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


What's the record that you overrated the most when you were a kid -- that is, say, in high school (assuming you're not one now, that is)?  Mine was the Jefferson Starship song "Miracles."  I thought it was one of the Greatest Records Ever.  Something about that slick production got to me -- I overrated Alan Parsons Project stuff, too.  I guess when I was fifteen or whatever it sounded sophisticated.  Obviously, I now find it horribly, horribly, embarrassing.  I mean, overall, I'm not ashamed of my high school taste in music, not at all, but that one's a doozy.  I didn't just like it, mind you -- I thought it was really, really good.  Ugh.

Which brings me to Kevin Drum's terrific post today (see, it's called "Obama the Miracle Worker," so I'm being slightly clever here.  I know, very slightly).  You know what?  When I was in high school, I probably spent plenty of time -- I know I spent plenty of time -- with my rational mind mostly out to lunch.  We all did, right?  So I can blame my other brain, the one that was goofed up on who knows what sort of (normal) teenage emotional mess, for falling for that record.  You know where I'm going....a whole bunch of Democrats are going to look back at the things they said this week and cringe.  Really cringe.  And then there are those who managed to avoid sounding like addled four year olds who have never seen any sort of political setback before. All of which is to say -- if you're a liberal, try reading what Kevin Drum has to say, and if it doesn't make sense, take twenty-four hours off from politics, and then go back and try again, and repeat until you can feel the fog starting to lift.

In other words...of course Obama tried to pass health care reform.  Anyone who wastes time analyzing why, or whether it was a good decision, is missing something pretty central to how politics works in the USA.

(UPDATE:  You know what?  I'm still catching up on my reading after spending time digging through Reagan stuff all day, but Drum has been on a roll.  Democrats and/or liberals shouldn't miss this one, or this one, or this one, either).

Reagan Wasn't Reagan, Either

John Sides has been posting great pieces this week, none better than this one.  He argues that all of the attempts to blame various mistakes, and especially public relations failures, for Obama's (relatively) low approval ratings, or the MA Senate results, or the Democrats' general lack of popularity, are all misguided.  Obama is about as popular as one would expect based on the economy and other structural reasons, John reminds everyone. 

Indeed, as he points out, Obama is exactly where Ronald Reagan was in January, 1982.

But people don't want to listen to that; they argue that, well, yes, Reagan was temporarily unpopular, but at least he communicated the important (to him) things.  John cites George Packer, who says:
Part of Obama’s weakness has been this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately, which would let Americans know that he is on their side. Reagan knew how to do it, which meant that, even when his popularity was sinking at a similar point in his presidency (remember 1982?), the public still knew where he stood, not necessarily on the details of policy, but on a few core principles that he could at least pretend never to sacrifice.

Safire was harsh:
President Reagan, the former hard-liner, having turned his State Department over to a crew of waffling accommodationists, probably feels he occupies the middle ground in foreign affairs - and that his old supporters have ''nowhere else to go.'' He is profoundly mistaken. The revolt of the hawks is under way
See also this article on unhappy conservatives:
Forty-five conservative activists and organization leaders warned President Reagan today that he was allowing ''the abandonment, reversal or blunting'' of the policies that got him elected, such as opposition to abortion, lower taxes and a tough line with the Soviet Union.
And this similar piece.  Neither talks directly about his image, but he clearly wasn't articulating conservative principles in ways that could make conservatives happy.

What else?  The Times editorial board actually gave a fairly balanced assessment, although there was this:
The second Ronald Reagan, the one who blurts out startling, baseless statements, creates a different sort of doubt. In September, for example, he sug-gested that new regulations proclaiming ketchup to be a vegetable in an acceptable school lunch were the work of bureaucratic saboteurs. They were Reagan appointees. In a television interview in December, he made the bizarre assertion that many New Dealers ''actually espoused'' fascism. In the wake of his last news conference, Mr. Reagan left aides a week of cleaning up.
In time, even a patient public will begin to wonder how much else the aides are doing. Comments like these may be tolerable in a candidate quick with an index-card anecdote. They cast doubt on the clarity and credibility of a President.

The strategy of blaming Carter didn't seem to help in the polls:
Americans generally feel that President Reagan's program has hurt the economy so far, and this opinion is costing him support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
(To be fair, people were also optimistic about his policies helping eventually -- they didn't report a "who is to blame?" question.  As several have noted, Obama actually does very well on that question; people blame Bush for the mess the country is in, but also blame Obama for it not getting better).

The kicker is that while this is one year in, same as Obama is now, Reagan was only beginning to suffer.  His approval ratings would sink much lower before recovering.  His recession was just getting started -- unemployment was only up from 7.4% when he took office to 8.9% through December 1981, on it's way to almost 11% at peak.  I have no doubt that if I looked for stories later in 1982, the same traits would be portrayed even more negatively.  And then, when things rebounded, all of a sudden stubborn melted back to resolute, and his management style was relaxed again, and not careless.  Same guy, same traits, but different polling, and so different interpretation.
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