Sunday, February 28, 2010

Filibuster reform ideas?

I'm going to be writing about various filibuster reform ideas over at the other place...I'm aware of a few proposals that have been made, but if anyone is aware of anything more obscure please leave a comment or email me, and I'll take a look.  Thanks!


I was going to pass on the opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Happy Purim, but it's a good excuse to link to this story from the Sunday NYT.  Enjoy!  And if you celebrated too much last night, I hope your day isn't all that miserable today.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

(Just a little late for Friday)

Look, in my house growing up...hell, in my house now, he's the next best thing to a god.  I'm taking second place to no one in my Willie Mays fandom.  But when the NYT says (in the homepage blurb thingy; haven't read the review yet, or for that matter the book) that "A biography of Willie Mays reminds us of when the only performance-enhancing drug was joy," I have to wonder if kids these days are calling amphetamines "joy." 

Just remember: virtually every major league player used the special coffee (or just pills) for decades until it was banned a couple of years ago.  The main reason Mays and Aaron and their cohort didn't use steroids (if they didn't; we don't really know that, either) is because baseball people until the 1980s were convinced that ballplayers shouldn't be musclebound, not because they were more ethical than Canseco, McGwire, and Rodriguez.  And the outraged sportswriters know all of that.  The whole thing is hype and nonsense, and I can't wait until the sportswriters just drop it.


Howdy everyone,

As some of you have seen, I'm mostly going to be elsewhere this week.  I'm planning to do one post a day with links to my stuff over there, and I may write a few quick items here...I still owe a Friday Baseball Post (it'll be a bit late, I guess!), and I'll try to do a Monday Movies post, and a few other things.  For those who are new, please take a look around, and I hope you like what you find here.  And my thanks to Andrew for the gig!  Beyond that, and this goes especially for regular readers, if there's anything that you would suggest that I post about over there, please feel free to drop me an email.  Thanks to all of you for your support, and things will be back to regular next week.

Friday, February 26, 2010

You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up

The hallmark of Mark Thiessen's defense of torture is that he's oblivious to criticism.  Oh, and either deeply dishonest, deeply stupid, or both:
There’s a standard of torture in civil law,” he said, “which is severe mental pain and suffering. I also have a common-sense definition, which is, "If you’re willing to try it, it’s not torture." Thousands of American soldiers have been willing to undergo waterboarding as part of their resistance training, Mr. Thiessen notes; therefore, it stands to reason that it is not torture.
C'mon, Mark...resistance to what?  Could it be...torture? 

You just know that coming soon is the S&M defense.  I mean, who needs law when we have Mark Thiessen's common sense?  

Read Stuff, You Should

I've been extremely negligent...haven't done one of these for ages.  So some of this may be old, but I'll try to only include items I think are still worth reading.

But first, what's not worth reading.  Today's item is the Lowry/Ponnuru National Review cover story, "An Exceptional Debate: The Obama Administration’s Assault on American Identity."  The frustrating thing about it is that there are actually some worthwhile points in it; you could see a sensible conservatism emerging from some of the things that these gentlemen believe about America.  Alas, as an essay, it's a mess, and not worth reading.  Instead, turn to Damon Linker's fine take-down.  One thing to add: Lowry & Ponnuru are wrong about Tocqueville, who not only devoted a large portion of his study of Democracy in America to the evils of slavery and the treatment of American Indians, but also was far more ambivalent about the rest of what he saw than they realize.  Oh well; on to the good stuff.

1. On health care, start with Jonathan Cohn's reaction to MA Senate, still very much worth reading.  And then go to Ezra Klein's interview with Lamar Alexander.

2. On national security and terrorism:  I've been known to criticize Glenn Greenwald, but this is a must-read.  Sullivan is always excellent on that topic, including this one. And don't skip Fred Kaplan on the defense budget.

3. Good stuff on the general topic of democracy, and the more specific topic of Senate procedure.  Start with this Clay Risen essay defending the American version of democracy against the German version.  Then go to Brendon Nyhan on the filibuster.

4.  Love any takedown of discredited pollster Frank Luntz; this is a good one.  And while I'm in a mean-spirited mood, this was fun.  As was this.

5.  Media: Marc Ambinder pulls back the curtain a bit.  Brad DeLong shows that the curtain needs to be pulled back a lot further.  And the best thing you're going to read about the O'Keefe flap is from talented reporter and hack brother David S. Bernstein.

6.  Oh, they also have to actually run the government.  Joe Davidson on Obama and personnel; Andrew Rudalevige on the budget process; and the NYT,  on the budget numbers.

7. Pointless -- you should read everything they write, but at any rate TNC, and Friedersdorf.

8. And baseball fans, here's one for you.

Learn This Name: George LeMieux

All hail the political instincts of Jonathan caucus member Chait, who has predicted for months that Charlie Crist would walk on the Republican Party.  Nothing confirmed yet, but it looks as if Chait nailed it.  Nice call.  I didn't see this one coming.

The most important immediate consequence if this happens would be the likely creation of a new swing voter in the Senate for the rest of the current Congress: George LeMieux. 

Recall that Mel Martinez inexplicably resigned from the Senate earlier this year, and that Crist appointed LeMieux, despite conservative fears that LeMieux had dangerous moderate tendencies.  LeMieux's real loyalty, however, appears to be to Crist, and given Crist's tough primary LeMieux established himself as a safe conservative vote in the Senate. 

However, if Crist runs as an independent and therefore needs moderate and even some liberal voters, LeMieux would presumably shift to the center.  We haven't seen that yet.  LeMieux did not join moderates Snowe and Collins, new Senator Scott Brown, and retiring Senators Voinovich and Bond in voting for cloture on the jobs bill this week.  In other words, he's still staying hard right.  But then again Crist hasn't jumped yet.

Now, we don't know any of this for sure.  It's possible that LeMieux is actually far more conservative than advertised, and would vote his convictions, rather than Crist's interests.  It's possible that LeMieux wants a Republican future, and so he'll keep voting with the conservatives.  We don't know.  But if he does shift to the center, and if Scott Brown is going to be a wildcard, then getting 60 may suddenly be a lot easier for the Dems than they thought it would be a month ago.  We've all been watching Brown, but it's time to start watching George LeMieux, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Summit Sum Up

I said going in that the real audience here was marginal Members of the House, but that it wasn't clear what they wanted.

If they wanted the president to make a serious commitment, they got that.

If they wanted a show of bipartisanship, they got that -- although they didn't get the GOP stomping out, or not showing up, or bragging about being the party of "No."

If what they wanted was an assurance from the Senate, I don't know that they were helped with that.  I didn't see anything at the summit, per se, to help with that, although Harry Reid has been more positive about it over the last couple weeks. 

If what they wanted was major changes in the polls?  There wasn't anything here to do that, because events like this can't change the polls.

I don't know which of these things they want.  We'll learn more in the next few days.  If it's either of the first two, then today probably moved the ball a bit.

As for the rest of it, Obama did well, and most Members on both sides did an okay job.  If you want to understand the Democrats' core argument, watch the Obama/Barrasso exchange on coverage.  I'm not sure that I could single out a core moment for the GOP, though.  They had a set of talking points: bill is very large, bill is unpopular, clean slate, best health care in the world...but none of those is an argument about how health care should be organized. Either they're not interested in advancing their ideas about how health care should be organized, or they're incapable of doing so, or, more likely, they'd rather try to win the argument about whether the bill should pass than try to win the substantive argument.  The Democrats were also reciting their talking points, but for the most part theirs were much more substantive, and I agree with Jonathan Chait that the Republicans pretty much just let those talking points go uncontested.

So, bottom line, the fact of the summit may have helped reassure wavering House Dems to vote for the bill.  The actual discussion within the summit didn't really do much of anything, although I have nothing against it at all as an exercise in democracy.  Next step I guess is putting the president's compromise into legislative language, getting a CBO score, and then finally finding out whether Pelosi has enough votes.  We'll know soon.


Just to let everyone know: I'm still live-tweeting the summit, @jbplainblog.  I'll do a sum-up post, I suppose, when it's done.  But the bottom line -- hey, reporters!  is what the marginal House Dems think, and I'm not sure any of us know that.

Translated, from the Obama and McCain

Behind the fun of the McCain/Obama back-and-forth today was something I find fairly interesting.  They both say that they want to change the way Washington works, but they mean completely different things.

John McCain wants to change the way Washington works.  What he doesn't like is a system in which various groups come together and, through their elected officials, bargain to reach a conclusion they can all live with.  Instead, he thinks that everyone should simply do whatever is in the public interest.

Barack Obama wants to change the way Washington works.  What he doesn't like is a system in which politicians mostly speak in spin and poll-tested talking points.  Politicians, he thinks, should just say what they mean.

Completely different things.  For what it's worth, I believe that both of these positions sound good to the American people, but both positions are wrong.  Spin is mostly harmless, and the stuff that McCain doesn't like is essential to democracy.  But, regardless of whether they're correct or not, that's what they mean.

McCain also seems to believe that since they were the two presidential candidates, Washington should now be doing whatever things either of them advocated in the campaign.  That, however, is another topic altogether.

Summit Time 2

So if the real audience is marginal House Democrats, and most of what they want probably has already happened just by calling the summit, is there really reason to watch it today?

Mixed answer.  For substantive effect on the chances of the bill passing or the contents of the bill, mostly not.  You never can tell, but the summit is unlikely to change public opinion, and even less likely to feature actual negotiations.  Doesn't mean it's a bad thing -- democracy needs its rituals, and I think this is a promising one -- but adjust expectations with that in mind.

However, sure, a bunch of pols operating on live TV for several hours -- that's worth watching.   They're all competing to have the best soundbite, the best YouTube moment.  The first-rate journalist and brother David S. Bernstein has already handicapped the field to predict who is most likely to have a "You Lie" breakout (he makes Joe Barton the chalk).  We may get an iconic presidential moment...hey, future presidential candidates have emerged out of this sort of attention.  So there's every chance that something worth watching will happen, even if there's not much chance that anything that significantly changes the chances of health care reform passes happening. 

I had fun live-tweeting the SOTU, so I think I'll give it another go today, at least on and off.  Follow @jbplainblog.  See you there!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Summit Time

I think Ezra Klein's Viewer's Guide to the health care reform summit is well worth reading, especially his final point (sorry, you'll have to go look), but I think I can do it in fewer than five points.

Remember who the audience is here: nervous Democratic Members of the House, who probably already believe that passage of the bill is better for them than failure, but don't want to be the ones who actually have cast the vote for it.  What do they want?  I wish I knew, but we haven't had very much good reporting...I don't think I've seen a single extensive interview with any of the fifty or so swing Members.  I'm not blaming the reporters (well, not too much), because odds are that most of those fifty want the bill to pass without their vote, but realize that they might have to vote for it after all, and how exactly are you supposed to explain that in an interview? 

OK, so, what do these Democrats in the House want?  Well, my guess is that someone at the White House thinks they want a summit. 

Too glib?  OK, three realistic possibilities, and one unrealistic possibility, any or all of which might be what they really want..  They might have wanted the president to take an (even more) personal stake in the specific bill that they're going to have to vote on.  They got that.  They might have wanted yet another show of an attempt at bipartisanship; they got some of that so far, and they'll probably get a bit more tomorrow.  On that topic, they would love to have the Republicans reject bipartisanship as explicitly as possible (thus leaving them free, they might believe, of the charge that Democrats are the partisan ones).  Republicans are unlikely to offer that, but you never know -- Republicans gave Democratic Senators that gift when Enzi and Grassley publicly undermined the Group of Six in August.  They may want assurances that the Senate won't undercut them again this time.  I've argued for a month now that the House is making a mistake here; unlike the BTU tax in 1993 and climate/energy in 2009 and a host of other things, the reconciliation bill will be an easy vote for Senators (especially if the House goes first by passing the Senate bill, but even if they don't).  And yet, mistake or not, that may be one of the things that swing voters -- marginal Democratic Members of the House -- are looking for.

What they shouldn't hope for is significant changes in public opinion.  Really, any changes in public opinion.  For people who read things like this, the health care summit is a really big deal...but hardly anyone is going to watch, and most Americans probably have no idea that it's even going on.  Those who do watch, the most attentive voters, are also in almost all cases the most partisan voters, and the least likely to change their minds about anything.  If Members of Congress are looking for changes in the polls, they're almost certainly going to be disappointed.

OK, I'm not sure how many points that was, but really there's only one core point: the audience here that matters is about fifty Democratic Members of the House.  Maybe fewer. 

Nuclear, or Whatever

Matt Yglesias walks everyone through the evolution of calling things the "nuclear option." 
[R]ight-wing organizations came up with the idea of having Dick Cheney rule such filibusters unconstitutional, and then having 50 Republican Senators support his ruling. The devisers of this plan called it “the nuclear option.” Then Democratic opponents of this plan also took to calling it “the nuclear option” at which point proponents of the nuclear option decided they wanted to change the name and started calling it “the constitutional option.”
And now conservatives are claiming that reconciliation, a thirty year old procedure, is a "nuclear" option.  Only it's easy to see that they don't mean it.  What made the actual nuclear option...wait for it...radioactive (sorry) was, on the one hand, that it was a massive change in Senate rules -- and on the other hand, something so massive that Democrats threatened to shut down the Senate if the Republicans really went through with it.  There's some question as to exactly how serious that threat was, but it bluff or not it was certainly what Democrats at the time were threatening.  And it was basically a sensible reaction: Republicans were threatening to shift the Senate to a majoritarian institution overnight (for judicial nominations, but by implication for everything) and thereby take away the minority party's main weapon, and so the minority party threatened to retaliate by using whatever other weapons were available.

This time?  Not so much.  Via Chait, here's Michael Gerson's threat:
[A] reconciliation strategy would both insult House and Senate Republicans and motivate them for future fights. The minority would not only be defeated on health reform but its rights would be permanently diminished -- a development that would certainly be turned against Democrats when they lose their majority. Each side would have an excuse for decades of bitterness, creating a kind of political karma in which angry spirits are reincarnated again and again, to fight the same battles and suffer the same wounds [Emphasis added]. 
Which prompts two reactions.  First, "Day of the Dove" was a really stupid episode, although Kang was a great Klingon.  And second, Ooohh, Scary!  Drop a nuke on 'em, and it'll...motivate them for future fights. 

Which is not to say that Gerson is wrong about health care reform in general, although I think he is; I don't know whether Republicans really think that Democrats will be punished for passing the bill instead of letting it die, but if that's what they really think they're almost certainly wrong.  His entire argument is based on the polls right now, which are actually fairly complex and ambiguous and are also the wrong thing to look at.  But it does point out that no one, proponents or opponents of  health care reform, is acting as if the minority party's "rights would be permanently diminished."  The Democrats are planning to use a standard procedure to pass a bill the Republicans don't like.  That's all.  It ain't nuclear. 

Worst Idea of the Century, So Far

Say it ain't so:
Speedy Gonzales, the hyperactive Warner Brothers rodent who calls himself “the fastest mouse in all Mexico,” is on the fast track for his own feature film... [T]his “Speedy Gonzales” film, which will be made by New Line Cinema, will avoid outdated depictions of the cartoon character.
OK, look, I admit it: I absolutely love Speedy Gonzalez.  They're great cartoons.  They're also based on bigoted stereotypes.  You can't pull that thread out; you have to either enjoy the cartoon while simultaneously being quite aware of how problematic it is, or if you can't do that, just don't watch the cartoon.

George Lopez is apparently behind this, and I have nothing against George Lopez, but this can't possibly work.  I mean, outside of the other main reason it can't work (unless Lopez happens to have a Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng up his sleeve).  Apparently they've only now commissioned people to write it (and  people responsible for perpetrating Garfield movies, just in case you weren't completely sold on what a bad idea this is), so perhaps the thing will die before ever seeing a movie screen.  One can only hope. 

Style Points

Sheryl Gay Stolberg's article on Barack Obama's negotiating style in today's NYT strikes me as a really good piece of reporting trapped in a forced and unfortunate analysis.  Her thesis is:
Ever since his days as a young community organizer in Chicago, Mr. Obama has held fast to the belief that by listening carefully and appealing to reason he can bring people together to get results, an approach that in Washington has often come up short.
And yet... her reporting doesn't seem to match that thesis at all.  Her opening vignette is about the House/Senate health care negotiations, but she doesn't finish the story, and in fact what we know is that those negotiations eventually were largely successful until the Massachusetts Senate election rendered them (sort of) moot.  The next two stories are mixed results, with Obama failing to win Olympia Snowe's vote on health care but succeeding with Jay Rockefeller.  And, well, that's it.  The only "failure" story to support "often come up short" is that he couldn't keep Snowe on board for the health care bill when it reached the Senate floor, but of course in any larger sense it's hard to say the president came up short when his position prevailed. 

In fact, the president hasn't lost a lot of close ones in Congress so far.  The stimulus bill and health care in the Senate, and climate/energy and health care in the House, all prevailed in close votes.  There have certainly been setbacks, but those don't seem to be the sorts of cases that personal persuasion might have turned around.  Perhaps that's wrong -- but if so, where's the evidence from the story? 

A larger problem, I think, is that Stolberg constructs a framework in which Lyndon Johnson's style -- "an arm around the shoulder, a full-body lean, a finger poking into the chest" -- is assumed to be the gold standard for political one-on-one influence.  There are certainly plenty of stories of Johnson intimidating, and humiliating, those around him.  And Johnson was without a doubt a master manipulator.  It's less clear to me, however, that Johnson's bullying style was something that a president would want to emulate.  Johnson was also known as an information sponge, someone who knew everything about every Senator, and knew how to deploy that knowledge for maximum manipulative effect. 

Moreover, as effective as the Johnson Treatment was in the Senate and early in his presidency, it was apparently pretty worthless when things started going badly.  This is hardly surprising.  Humiliating people might be effective in bullying them into actions today, but it is unlikely to make a loyal friend for tomorrow.  A better example to emulate might be FDR, who by all reports was at least as good at collecting and deploying information to manipulate others as Johnson, but without the physical intimidation.  A larger point might be that there's no reason to assume that we know what constitutes "toughness" in negotiations.  And, again, Stolberg just doesn't give us very much in the article to support either that Obama has or has not been effective.

What she does give us, however, is some excellent (if true -- always hard to tell with a sitting president whether something is someone's spin or not) into how Barack Obama operates.  Nothing in the story is a great surprise, but there's good detail here to flesh out what we know.  Obama likes sit back; he doesn't, according to Louis Slaughter, dominate a room.  I don't think I've ever heard anyone say anything like that about any other president, certainly not as president; that's an extraordinary claim.  We also learn that he is always in control of his emotions, but that there's "sort of steel in his voice," at least according to Steny Hoyer.  One does get the sense that Obama enjoys a good cop, bad cop strategy, in which he has a succession of people -- White House staff, Congressional leaders -- play the bad cop on his behalf.  I'd say that sounds more like Ronald Reagan than any other recent president, although I'd guess that it's perhaps a more deliberate strategy by Obama than it was by Reagan, who seemed more of a personality-driven conflict avoider.. 

The other, and perhaps less amorphous, important piece of Obama's style Stolberg reports is that "during his 13-month-old presidency, he has had countless one-on-one meetings with lawmakers."  I'd love to see a bit more detail on that, but it strikes me as very interesting, and at least perhaps a good long-term strategy.  For example, just this week Jay Rockefeller did what I'd consider to be a favor to the president by shooting down the attempt to bring back the debate on the public option.  Is that, to some extent, a consequence of the time the president has spend with him?  Can we expect future dividends from the time he spent with Olympia Snowe, even if he didn't win her vote on health care?

So: I do recommend the this story, but as you read it, strip away the evaluative framework; the takeaway here is the details, not the conclusions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Joementum, 2010

I haven't commented yet on the news that Joe Lieberman is carrying the bill to repeal DADT.

For all of those who were upset that the Democrats didn't throw Holy Joe out of their caucus at various points of the last year: do you get it now? 

Yes, Joe Lieberman is a very annoying Senator, by all accounts, and certainly (well, I suppose I should say in my opinion) in his public persona. 

But kick Holy Joe out, and:

He wouldn't have voted for the stimulus, whihc passed with one vote to spare.

He certainly wouldn't have walked for miles in the snow to vote for health care reform, which is alive now because it made it through the Senate with no votes to spare.

And one can never know, but I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't be taking a leadership role in DADT repeal, which in my opinion at least is very helpful to that cause.

All that, because Harry Reid and Barack Obama treated Joe Lieberman as if he was King of the World, despite liberal pressure to exile him to the other side of the aisle.   

Hey, a lot of the people who were upset with Reid and Obama had never been active in politics when their side had a chance to actually get something done, and may not have realized that there's more to it than just winning elections.  Consider it a useful lesson: sometimes, Congressional leaders, presidents, and White House staff actually know what they're doing.  Not always, of course (I'd never say to just assume that Obama or anyone else in office Knows Best), but sometimes, they really do, and it's generally a good idea, especially for activists, to try to understand why things are happening.

One More Time: The Numbers on Public Option

Grenn Greenwald claims a gotcha on Barack Obama:
President Obama, in introducing his own health care proposal, exposed a transparent, year-long sham. White House loyalists insisted for months that the president genuinely supported a public option...But the plan President Obama unveiled does not include a public option. If he were truly in favor of it, why would he exclude it from his own plan?  
Greenwald says that there are 51 Senators who favor a public option, so Obama (and the rest of the Democrats) have no excuse now that the Dems have no choice but to use reconciliation.  If they don't include the public option now, they must actually have opposed it all along.  Gotcha.

Or so Greenwald says.  Actually, I think there are up to four good reasons to believe that Obama's actions are perfectly consistent with his words  (which are that he fully supports a public option, but doesn't consider it necessary, and so he's not willing to sink the bill over it).

1.  It's really not clear that there are 50 votes for the public option in the Senate.  Greenwald refers to this list, but at least three of the 51 listed there (Webb, Warner, and Tester) are pretty vague.  One or more of the others might have really only been saying that they were willing to vote for a bill with a public option, even if they preferred a bill without one -- in a separate vote, they'd go the other way.

2.  As Kevin Drum points out, re-inserting the public option now would involve Harry Reid (and perhaps Barack Obama) breaking their word to the anti-public option Senators.  There are other bills, and Reid -- and Obama -- need to keep their reputations intact.

3.  Even if there are 51 votes for a public option, there may not be 51 votes for a bill with a public option.  That's because marginal Democrats are not at all thrilled with the prospect of voting for a bill against all Republicans and against the most conservative Democrats.  As I've argued from the start, it's never been clear that it would be easier getting 51 in reconciliation than it would be to get 60 (with Kirk/Kennedy) without it.  So it's very possible that half a dozen marginal Democrats would prefer a bill with a public option to a bill without a public option, but also would prefer a public-optionless bill supported by Lieberman, Webb, Ben Nelson, Lincoln, and Bayh to a bill with a public option and only 55 votes.  And no marginal Senator wants to be the 51st vote on this.

4.  Regardless of any of that, what we really have right now is a relatively non-controversial reconciliation bill and a very controversial bill that passed the Senate.  Right now, without the public option, the Senators do not have to cast a tough vote -- the reconciliation bill alone is mostly ice cream, not spinach.  That allows everyone to focus on the House.  And since the House and Senate hate each other, it's very helpful that the House can trust that the Senate has only an easy vote to take, since they're extremely unlikely to trust the Senate to take a hard vote.  Even if knowing that the Senate only has to take an easy vote is likely to make the House hate the Senate even more.

I have no idea whether #1 is true, but I do think that #2, #3, and #4 are all true.  And I think Obama's words are, in fact, consistent with his behavior. 

Health Care, In Future Tense

I was going to write something in response to this AP story, but Jonathan Chait beat me to it

Chait's post is excellent, and I recommend the whole thing.  I agree down the line with him...if anything, I think the bill is a bit more likely to pass than he thinks it is. 

I guess I can't really understand the president's actions in the last couple of weeks if the bill is likely to fail.  Obama could have, had he thought the bill was dead, retreated to a "pass something" mode, and pushed for a small beans, happy-talk bill that either would have passed, or which he could have used to bash Republican opposition.  The idea that he would spend a month or so elevating the importance of the original bill, and eventually putting his own personal stamp on the House/Senate compromise, without having a pretty good sense that it would pass just doesn't seem likely to me.  Oh, and the "Obama plan" sure looked designed to get through reconciliation (notice the absence of House-favored national exchanges and the antitrust thing, both of which are Byrd rule bait).  If the White House is just scoring points, why care about such things?

Perhaps Barack Obama (and Rahm Emanuel, and the rest of the White House) have no idea what they're doing.  That's possible.  But it seems far more likely to me that they have at least a tentative whip count from the House -- and there's no question but that the House is where the action is -- showing that they have the votes. 

To believe otherwise requires one to believe both that House Democrats are foolish (because their political interest lies in passing the bill) and that the White House is incompetent.  I see little evidence of either. 

There's plenty of evidence, however, that Washington conventional wisdom has been wrong before about this president.  Chait points to the late summer idea that the Town Hall crazies had damaged health care, something that was completely wrong.  Others have pointed to dead spots in the Obama campaign, in fall 2007 in Iowa and nationally in summer 2008.  I'll give another one: Washington conventional wisdom totally swallowed the GOP talking point that Obama was dragging his feet on Afghanistan with all sorts of dire consequences to come, but of course (whatever happens in Afghanistan eventually) that turned out to be much ado about nothing, too. 

I won't be shocked if health care reform fails, but I'll be surprised.

More on Health Care Choices

Nate Silver has a very reasonable take today on the Charlie Cook thesis that health care was (1) a choice for Obama and (2) a bad choice, following up on my argument that it really wasn't a choice, after all (for why it wasn't necessary bad for him and the Democrats anyway, see Seth Masket and Jonathan Chait).  I had said that Obama had no choice about adopting a strong health care platform in order to win the nomination; Silver makes the point that health care apparently helped Obama in November, as well. 

Silver (along with a commenter on my post) says that while I might be right that Obama had to move ahead with health care, he could have delayed for a while, in light of the bad economic news.  I think that's correct, to a point.  Two problems, however.  First, as it turns out he was probably correct about the timing if his goal included passing health care reform; starting, say, in November would have been a disaster.  Second, as Chait says:
[Y]ou have to compare pursuing health care with an alternate strategy. What else could Obama have done? Cook says they should have focused more on jobs. But he offers no suggestion of what meaningful legislation could have passed after the stimulus, which exhausted Congress's willingness to spend any money on job creation. The current fiasco of a jobs bill, with the two parties bickering over symbolic legislation, suggests how little substantive progress was there for the taking.
The stimulus passed in February, and at that point Obama had presumably squeezed every penny that Congress was willing to spend on stimulus.  The main thrust of the Tea Party and other protests over the summer was against spending (stimulus plus bailouts) at least as much as it was against health care.  Is it even remotely realistic that Congress would have passed an unfunded jobs bill big enough to make any difference in March, April, May, or June?  I sure don't think so.  Perhaps, in mid-summer, Obama could have introduced  such a bill, but not much earlier.  But by then the damage was done to his approval ratings, which fell in the spring and early summer until basically going flat from mid-August on.  Of course, Obama could have pushed a jobs bill knowing that it was doomed in the Senate.  But I'm not sure how moving health care prevented him from doing that.  I think a much better case could be made against the climate/energy bill...I could definitely see an argument that had the House voted for a jobs bill just before August recess instead of climate/energy that it might have given Members of Congress a better counterattacking talking point during that recess.  But I also don't think it would have mattered very much to where Obama and the Dems sit today.  So while I'll grant that Obama did have some choice about timing, I don't really see that his actual choice was a mistake.  Especially, of course, if he wanted a bill.

I guess the truth is that I don't see health care reform, to date, as a significant loser for Obama and the Democrats.  Unemployment is at just under 10%, and most everyone thinks the economy is lousy.  Those facts, which have essentially nothing to do with Obama's strategy on health care, do all the work needed to explain Obama's current approval rating.  Improving those numbers would have meant substantive, not rhetorical, changes, and I just don't think Congress was about to throw another $300B or so at the economy, and I don't think anything much less would have made a significant difference.

At any rate, I do have to take issue with one point that Silver makes:
The bigger mistake -- and I've been saying this since at least last June -- may have been in giving the Congress so much latitude to craft its policy, which resulted in an extremely protracted process and news cycle after news cycle in which the lead story was Democrats yelling at one another.
This, again, isn't a choice that Obama had.  He certainly could have dropped a fully-formed bill on Congress...after which they would then begin an extremely protracted process with news cycle after news cycle about Democratic squabbling.  Nothing any president can do about that.  He didn't "give" Congress latitude; Congress has such latitude, whatever a president thinks.  

Media Bias

Ezra Klein points out, correctly in my view, that the whole story on health care reform essentially comes down to a relatively small handful of people.  These people are the remaining swing voting Democratic Members of the House.  In fact, we can narrow that down further.  As Ezra points out, there are thirty-nine Democrats who voted against the health care bill the first time around, and another fourteen Democrats who voted yes, but may switch without the Stupak language.  Basically, for every one of the fourteen that Pelosi loses, she needs to get one of the thirty-nine.

OK, quick: name five of them.

You can't, can you?  Can you name three?  C'mon, I spotted you one already.  I'm sure a few of you can, but most of you?  No way.

But if you're reading this, and read Ezra Klein regularly, and otherwise follow the news closely, I bet you can name, oh, the two least conservative Republican Senators, and four solid candidates for the four most conservative Democratic Senators.  Well, I don't know; I'm sure some of you leave people like me to know the details, and you skip to the bottom line.  Still, I'm sure you know who Snowe and Collins are, and I suspect you thought of four out of a list of Ben Nelson, Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, Bayh, and Webb. 

What accounts for this is, to some extent, the actual influence of individual Senators compared to the actual influence of Members of the House.  But there's also a huge media bias involved.  The press basically treats the House as if it was a bunch of nobodies, other than the Speaker, the Minority Leader, a handful of key committee chairs, and a few crazies who are good for a quote or a wild story.  Senate elections are national news, at least sometimes; individual House elections are, no matter how entertaining, not news.  A Senator who retires is front page news; a Member of the House who retires might get a two sentence squib.  Yes, individual Senators are far more important, but they're not that much more important.  And right now, it's swing voters in the House that matter, and we're not hearing nearly as much as we should.

It's possible that the fifty Democrats who really matter -- and the true number is no doubt fewer, because many of them probably have clear positions that just haven't been widely reported -- simply don't want the press attention.  It's also possible that Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman really, truly, didn't want any press attention, and just happened to keep talking without realizing all those cameras were pointed at them.  But, whether they want attention or not, reporters should be pressing them for answers, because they're the ones who are going to determine what's going to happen.  As Ezra says, they're the true audience for Thursday's summit. 

Monday, February 22, 2010

Climate Hard, Health Care Easy

I'm not talking here about the where we are now debate on health care reform between Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sprung (Chait's right!), but about the big picture differences between the politics of health care reform and the politics of climate change legislation.   And, as depressing as it must be for those who want both, it's pretty clear to me that climate is a much tougher. 

I'm following up on a column by Robert Frank and a post by Mark Kleiman, both of whom have explanations from cognitive psychology for why climate change legislation seems to be going nowhere.  Frank suggests that the potential harm from global warning doesn't sufficiently tug at our emotions, while Kleiman opts for our tendency to overvalue the dangers of action compared to the dangers of inaction.  While these explanations may both be accurate (and certainly the underlying cognitive biases are real, although I'm not convinced -- cute polar bears! -- that the former really is at work here), I think the main explanation is simpler, and alas for proponents of change pretty depressing.  

In fact, climate change strikes me as a classic "democracies are bad at this" situation.  Two big problems.  First, democracies are generally not thought to be good at focusing on problems with tangible, short-term costs and intangible, long-term benefits (and avoiding disaster, it seems to me, counts as an intangible benefit).  Second, the short-term costs are apparently going to be localized, affecting particular industries and regions, while the benefits are mostly general (those owning beachfront property notwithstanding).  And that's not even including the global collective action problem, in which each nation has an incentive to free ride which others do the hard work.

Compared to that, health care reform is easy.  There's a natural constituency, and while there are also natural opponents, in principle (and, it seems this year, in reality) those opponents should be open to compromise.  What's prevented universal health care from being a reality over the years has mainly been the difficulty of doing anything in the American Madisonian system, and then some bad luck (had Ted -- or for that matter Bobby -- Kennedy been elected president in 1976, odds are that Congress would have passed health care reform in 1977.  Indeed, if Mo Udall or Birch Bayh had been elected president in 1976, there's a good chance it would have happened in 1977). 

The way that things like climate change get done is either for the long-term intangible benefits to change, or at least seem to change, to a crisis (Polsby's definition of a crisis: everyone agrees that something has to be done), or for clever pols to figure out a way to rejigger the issue to produce some short-term, tangible benefits.  That's why climate change becomes climate/energy, and why proponents of a bill spend so much time talking about clean energy jobs.  But it's a very tough road, and I think it's going to be pretty hard to get there, at least in this Congress.  I guess the backup question for the policy wonks is whether incremental stuff if actually worthwhile or not. 

Sorry, supporters of legislation, I told you it wasn't very cheerful.

The Obama Plan

Via Yglesias, Igor Volsky has a good chart explaining the president's plan that he's going to take to the big summit on Thursday.

I'll leave it to others to talk about the policy implications of the various pieces, but I can talk a little about the politics.  The most important piece for the Democrats, as far as short-term politics (i.e. through the 2010 elections) is concerned, is that they will, if they pass this, be able to claim that they fully filled the donut hole.  As I've said, it sure looks to me as if that one will have far more of an immediate and tangible effect on people -- and not just people, but people who vote in disproportionate numbers -- than anything else that might have wound up in the bill this year.  Smart move.

For Senators, I think once the smoke clears what's going to matter is exactly what is in the reconciliation bill, and as far as I can see it's pretty much full of goodies.  The Nebraska fix will be in there.  Closing the donut hole will be in there.  Changes in the exchanges from the Senate bill, a complicated policy adjustment that would leave voters bewildered?  Not in there (I don't think that's why; I think it would be pretty vulnerable to a Byrd rule challenge).  No annual and lifetime limits?  Looks as if it's in there -- I think that one is also vulnerable to a challenge, but do Republicans really want to take that vote?  Lower penalties for escaping the individual mandate are in there.  Higher subsidies are in there.  The president's new plan to restrict premium increases is likely to be popular, as are whatever new anti-fraud provisions he added.  And I think the funding shift, away from Cadillac plans and to unearned income, is probably an easy vote for Democratic Senators.  Some of these provisions will make policy wonks unhappy, and if they're right the plan won't work as well years down the line, but for the politics of the here and now I'm seeing a whole lot of ice cream and very little spinach.  Remember, as I've said many times before, that for the Senate this is the only bill they're voting on, so they can talk purely in terms of fixing and improving something that's already been done (easier if it's signed into law, but still true either way). 

Now, for Members of the House, the situation is different: they need to vote for both the Senate bill and the reconciliation fix.  Volsky believes that this is a hard compromise to swallow for liberals:
But it’s unclear if progressive House members will embrace the new compromise. While the bill addresses House members’ affordability concerns, increases the excise tax thresholds and completely closes the donut hole in Medicare Part D, the legislation does not include a public option, retains the Senate bill’s state-based exchanges and keeps the start date for most reforms at 2014. (Obama’s plan also retains the Senate’s abortion compromise and most other core provisions).
Yes, there's plenty of spinach in here.  However, I continue to agree with Kevin Drum, Jonathan Chait and others that at the end of the day, all the incentives for liberals in the House point to accepting half a loaf rather than blow the whole thing up -- the "finish the kitchen" logic.  The consequences for the liberal agenda, whether on health care or anything else, are pretty severe if this fails, while adding a public option in a year or two is pretty likely if it passes.  I would say that even though the liberals have very little bargaining power here, the one thing they could ask for in exchange for going along is a very public statement by the president of his continued support for a future public option (either at the summit, or at the bill-signing ceremony, or both) and a private commitment from the president to feature the public option in his 2012 re-election campaign, assuming it hasn't passed by then.  I don't think that would scare off Blue Dog votes, and while it might not make liberals happy now it would moderately increase the already excellent prospects for actually getting a public option done, assuming Democrats can hang on to control of Congress.  But that aside, liberals would just be nuts to actually vote against these bills, assuming that Nancy Pelosi moves them to the House floor.

Elections, Consequences, and Presidential Choice

Ezra Klein:
That, of course, is the real plan: finish the bill. The if the bill fails, and they succeed if the bill passes.
Jonathan Chait:
Ultimately, I don't think you can answer the question of whether it made sense to undertake health care reform until we know whether or not it passes. If it does pass, it was a good idea...If it fails, it was a bad idea.

Well, I suppose I dig a little further into it.  Klein and Chait both agree that the bill would actually be good for the country; that's why they believe that it will work out well for the Democrats if it passes.  If the policy doesn't work, then it was never a good idea to try it (see also Seth Masket's good comments).

But it won't be a mistake by Barack Obama or by the current Democrats in Congress; it would be a long-term mistake by Democrats for over half a century.  Complaints, such as those by Charles Cook and Dana Milbank treat the attempt to pass comprehensive health care reform as a choice made by Barack Obama sometime after January 20, 2009.  But that's not right at all.  Barack Obama ran on health care reform.  It wasn't incidental to his election; it was absolutely essential.  Not, to be sure, to the general election campaign, but to his nomination in the first place.  Without a firm commitment to health care reform, Barack Obama would have folded his tent immediately after the Iowa caucuses, if he had even managed to make it that far in the first place.  Democrats demanded it.  And the idea that Obama would have had a thriving presidency if he had dropped the key part of his nomination platform for no good reason is preposterous.  In real life, Obama ran up against the left wing of his party merely for insufficiently backing the public option; if he had started 2009 by jettisoning the whole thing then he would have lost the support of mainstream liberals, as well.  Including mainstream liberals in Congress, who likely would have attempted to push ahead with health care reform without the president, given that all of them ran for office pledging to achieve that goal.

In other words, attempting to pass health care reform was not a choice for Barack Obama.  Any Democrat elected in 2008 would have done exactly the same thing.  And given the similarity in the plans pushed by the leading candidates for the nomination, it's fairly safe to say that any Democrat elected in 2008 would have had a substantively fairly similar bill.  I can't say that the process would have been identical, but on that I would say that it's unlikely that any other Democrat would have done better, and it's easy to imagine things going much worse...and that's even without any assurance that they'll wind up with a signing ceremony. 

The main point here: Presidents don't take office with complete freedom of action.  They win nominations, and they win elections, by forming coalitions -- and that means making commitments that constrain their choices once they reach the White House.  Ignore that, and you'll really misunderstand a lot of the actions that presidents take.  Moreover: ignore that, and you'll really misunderstand how elections work, and how American democracy works.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Kevin Drum spots a pattern of clumsy, obvious lies in support of the proposition that torture elicited important information, and concludes:
If torture were really as effective as the Thiessen/Cheney wing of the conservative movement thinks, they'd hardly risk resorting to such obvious lies to defend it. They'd have so much good evidence in favor of it that they wouldn't need to bother. But apparently they don't.
Just to add to that -- remember (as many have pointed out) that for torture to be a good idea, it must:

1.  Get (accurate, usable) information;
2.  Get more (and more accurate) information than normal, Geneva-approved procedures would get;
3.  Get enough extra information that it's worth accepting the very real effects of the negative publicity surrounding torture.

And of course that's just the pragmatic case, not the moral case. 

The obvious problem here is that the Cheney gang can't seem to get past the first one of these conditions.  Every time they claim that torture produced information, it turns out that they're wrong. 

I don't know; there could be classified materials that will someday make a much better case for the Cheney gang than they make for themselves right now.  It's certainly possible. There just isn't any (I want to say isn't much, but I really don't think there's any, so far) meaningful evidence in that direction, and increasing evidence the other way.

Loving Politics

Matt Yglesias has a great catch today:
One ad for Chuck Todd’s show features Todd saying: “I love politics; I wish every day was Election Day.”
I think that’s probably true, and that Todd’s probably not the only person involved in high-profile coverage of politics who feels that way, and that that explains a lot of what’s wrong with our media. I recall back during the 2008 primary campaign when every Tuesday brought a new Obama-Clinton result that Todd’s coverage was vital—breaking down the mechanics of the different primaries and caucuses, telling us about the demographic and geographical splits, running through the whole thing. It was great stuff. But obviously it’s not Election Day every day. There’s all this governing that happens and that’s important mostly because of its impact on the lives of ordinary people who themselves are probably fairly indifferent to politics. 
Absolutely true.   Governing stories are underplayed, and electoral stories are overplayed.  It's worth pointing out, however, that governing stories are political stories, too.  Often, they're fascinating political stories -- certainly the health care reform bill has been a great political story.  The single best political story in the last decade might be the Ashcroft/Comey/Card hospital room confrontation; that was a governing story.  The Obama administration decisions on Afghanistan was another terrifically interesting political story, also about governing.  The stories told in the 9/11 Commission report, or the stories that Bob Woodward told about the Bush Administration in three books, or Robert Caro's examination of how Robert Moses ran New York -- all great political stories, all governing stories.  Speaking of Al Haig -- the story of how the American government dealt with the near-death of President Reagan is such a great political story that they made a (lousy) movie about it.  People seem to have liked The West Wing, which was quite often about governing; the best TV show about governing was almost certainly Yes, Minister, and that's all about how political governing is.

Electoral politics is only a subsection of politics, properly understood.  And as much fun as election season is, it's too bad that more reporters aren't equally fascinated by the rest of American political life.  Not only because of it's effects (which is, to be sure, a good reason), but just because there are great political stories to be told.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Al Haig

The New York Times obituary for Al Haig is cute, with it's little third-paragraph joke.

As much fun as it might be to guffaw over Haig's misadventures while Ronald Reagan was near death in 1981, Lyn Nofziger, and the Times, have it wrong.  Haig's most important role in history was as Richard Nixon's chief of staff as the presidency collapsed, and his most important contribution to that was his part in the Saturday Night Massacre, the event which essentially sealed Nixon's fate.  The obit oddly portrays Haig as a passive victim of that episode, but in fact Haig was a major actor, and probably bears plenty of the responsibility for just how ugly it turned out to be. 

The Washington Post, while accepting as the Times does Haig's self-aggrandizing and in my opinion very dubious version of Haig's benevolent role in Nixon's final days, has a somewhat more accurate version of the events prior to that:
When the public learned about the secret Oval Office taping system, which would eventually implicate Nixon in the coverup, Gen. Haig acknowledged later that he urged the president to destroy the tapes.

When Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Jaworski's predecessor, pursued his investigation too aggressively for Nixon's comfort, the president dispatched Gen. Haig in October 1973 to instruct acting Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. "Your commander in chief has given you an order," Gen. Haig told him. Ruckelshaus refused, quitting instead in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Of course, destroying the tapes would have been obstruction of justice.  The Post also includes Haig's participation in the Kissinger taps, which the Times skips.  However, neither mentions Haig's (possibly benign, possibly scary-bad) involvement in the Moorer-Radford affair.

Friday Baseball Post

The great Frank Thomas, the Big Hurt, formally retired last week, although he's been out of baseball for a while, last playing in 2008.  He is, of course, a shoe-in HOFer; apparently there are some people who question that, but he is both certain to be voted in (barring scandal or whatever) and fully deserving.  I guess, in some ways, his career wound up a little on the disappointing side, but only because his first seven plus years (1990-1997) were just that good.

There are two well-known oddities about Frank Thomas.  The first is that he had the same name as another excellent player from an earlier era.  That's no big deal, although I have to say that my dad believes that baseball players should be like horses (and I guess Hollywood actors) -- if the name is already taken, you have to come up with a different one.  Of course, the Frank Thomases didn't come close to overlapping, unlike the Alex Gonzalez or the Jeff Robinson pairs, each of which had a decade or so of overlap, and each of which were very similar players, and each of which bounced around a lot so it was even harder to keep track of which was which.  As far as I know, neither Alex Gonzalez or Jeff Robinson ever picked up a nickname.  Now, Baltimore once had a pair of same-name scrub pitchers...looking it up...yes -- not only two Mike Smiths, but two Michael Anthony Smiths (but not the recent Michael Anthony Smith, who was also a scrub pitcher).   Since the Orioles also had Jon Miller doing play-by-play back then, he promtly gave them what I guess was the first nickname he thought of, which was to insert their home state into their name, so one of them became Mississippi Mike Smith and the other became Texas Mike Smith.  All of them (and both the Jeff Robinsons, for that matter) were righties.

Guess I got lost there.  Well, I was going to say something clever about Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell being born on the same day, but I've run out of time. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Translated, From the Conservative (Miranda edition)

I haven't seen anyone mention this, but it's probably worth pointing out something perhaps relevant about many of the conservatives who oppose reading terrorists their Miranda rights: for better or worse, many of them never actually liked the whole idea of Miranda rights in the first place, for anybody.  For traditional Reagan conservatives, "Miranda rights" are a criminal-coddling outrage perpetrated on the nation by permissive liberals and activist courts. 

Just saying...conservative complaints about Miranda rights and terrorists should probably be seen in that context.

Majorities, Madison, and Democracy

More comments sparked by this Kurt Anderson essay (well, really, just using it as an excuse to talk about one of my favorite subjects, but plunging ahead)...

Madison's terminology (for example in Federalist 10) confuses people.  He contrasts "democracy" with "republic," and praises the latter.  But as the democratic theorist Robert Dahl says, the real difference between the two is semantic and cultural -- one looks to Greece, the other to Rome, but both are all about popular control of government.  Better to read "direct democracy" for Madison's "democracy" and "representative democracy" for Madison's "republic."  Both are forms of democracy, and neither is inherently better or worse (or, to use the word that makes me cringe in this context, "pure"). 

Democracy is rule by the people.  (See below for an important clarification).  At least in a first-order sense, it's democracy whether the people themselves decide public policy (as in a direct democracy), or if the people elect some subset who then decide public policy (representative democracy).  It's true even if decisions are made by a mixture of those directly elected by the people and those indirectly elected, as was true of the original Constitutional scheme (and is still true today with respect to the courts).  What matters is whether it comes down to the people or not.  And thus what makes a polity less democratic is if there are portions of its governance that are beyond the reach of the people (directly or indirectly).  Obviously, that would include anything like an aristocracy (by birth) or a monarchy, or an unelected dictator.  Democracy is also threatened, or diminished, when elected officials, once they're elected, can do whatever they want without any constraint.  Democracy is threatened, or diminished, when parts of the government are removed entirely from any sort of popular control -- if, for example, the actions of a bureaucracy (including those bureaucrats that are the armed forces) are beyond the reach of elected officials. 

Democracy, at least in my view, is also threatened and/or diminished if the government only represents a subset of the people -- even if that subset is the majority of the electorate.  I've quoted Hannah Arendt before on this subject, and I'll turn to her again:
...we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision.  The latter, however, is a technical device...In America, at any rate [the Constitution was] framed with the express and conscious intention to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the procedures of majority decisions from generating into the "elective despotism" of majority rule (On Revolution, 164-165, or at least it was in the old editions).
This is true whether the minorities are ethnic or religious minorities, or minority interests (such as farmers in an overwhelmingly non-agricultural nation), or minorities of opinion or ideology. 

Madison has, roughly, two solutions to the problem of preventing the natural "technical device" of majority decision from become majority rule.  The one we're most familiar with is basically to generate any number of new technical devices to prevent simply majority votes from becoming simple majority decisions: representative instead of direct democracy, separated institutions sharing powers, bicameral Congress, and federalism are all Madisonian devices for this purpose.  This works, as Madison famously discusses in Federalist 51, because individual ambitious political actors will be unwilling to go along with any simple conspiracy of the majority; it also works just because a successful conspiracy of this type is so hard to put together.  The other solution, as I discussed earlier today, is just making the nation so big that there are no real natural majorities.

I should tie this to the filibuster, since that's what everyone is interested about...I don't think Madisonian ideas push anyone either for or against the filibuster.  To the extent that any particular set of rules makes governing impossible -- I'm looking at you, California -- then I think I'd object to them on Madisonian grounds (because if no one can rule, then the people are not ruling).  I don't think that's quite true of the filibuster, but it's a concern.  Of course, just as Madison didn't want any single majority to rule, he certainly didn't want any (single) minority to rule.  I don't think that's really the case in the Senate right now, but again it's a fair concern.

A couple of other notes.  First, on why majority rule (as opposed to majority decision) is problematic.  In addition to Madison's concern with tyranny of the majority, we can add two other issues.  One is the problem of intensity -- generally, our intuition is that in cases in which an indifferent majority opposes an intense minority, we feel that the proper -- the proper democratic -- solution is for the minority to win.  A pure majority-rules system cannot accommodate that intuition.  The other, more complex, problem has to do with mathematical properties of voting, and I hate explaining it because I'm not very good at it -- but, basically, voting doesn't necessarily do what we want it to do in cases in which there are multiple voters and multiple choices.  So what we think of as majorities may in many cases actually be artifacts of (arbitrary) voting rules.

Second, I said at the top that democracy is rule of the people.  It's extremely important to distinguish between The People, thought of as a united group with a single clear interest, and the people, understood as plural, with all kinds of differences and disagreements and colliding interests.  Democracy is interested in the latter -- the former is an excellent path to tyranny of all sorts of nasty kinds.  My advice is that whenever you hear anyone talking about "the people," be sure to think about which of these they're talking about.

I Wish I Were Big

Via Ezra, Kurt Anderson makes a common error about Madison and democracy, but compounds it by getting the size argument all wrong.  Anderson:
The framers worried about democratic government working in a country as large as this one, and it’s possible that we’ve finally reached the unmanageable tipping point they feared: Maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogeneous population of 310 million. When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members. And so I wonder, as I watch Senate leaders irresponsibly playing to the noisiest, angriest parts of the peanut gallery, if the current, possibly suicidal spectacle of anti-government “populism” in Washington isn’t connected to our bloated people-to-Congresspeople ratios. As the institution grows ever more unrepresentative, more numerically elite, members of Congress may feel irresistible pressure to act like wild and crazy small-d democrats.

Bush, Social Security, and Filibuster

I've seen this point made before:
You hear this a lot, and it's always worth reminding people that it's not true. Social Security privatization wasn't doomed by the filibuster. It was doomed because it didn't have a majority of senators on its side. The bill never made it to the floor for a vote (which is where it would have been filibustered). In fact, it never got out of committee at all. There was never even a real bill to speak of. George W. Bush proposed the idea, and it proved so violently unpopular that Republicans decided against pursuing it. Democrats won that one without resorting to minority obstructionism, which is how it should be.
That's Ezra Klein, responding to a commenter who supports the filibuster because it can prevent (from his or her point of view) the worst excesses of the other side. 

Just on the empirical point about the Bush Social Security plan, I'm not convinced that Ezra is correct.  He's right that the bill didn't get out of committee...but that doesn't mean that a majority didn't support it.  After all, it's very possible that at least the weaker versions of the public option might have 50 votes in the Senate right now, but the public option never reached a Senate vote because it didn't have 60 votes, and given a 60 vote Senate the majority chose not to put it up for a vote only to lose.  I don't know whether that's correct or not about Bush's Social Security plan -- one would need further details about the history -- but I think it's very likely that Bill Clinton's health care plan in 1994 would have progressed a lot farther through the legislative process, and possibly even passed, had there been no filibuster.  After Clinton's stimulus failed in the Senate, and after Members of the House voted for the BTU tax only to have the Senate yank it, the House was unwilling to move ahead on health care in 1994 unless they were sure that the Senate was moving too -- and the Senate knew that 60 votes wasn't going to happen, so the whole thing died before passing through even the committee stage. 

As for the Republicans under Bush, there were presumably any number of things they didn't even bother trying because they knew they could never get 60 votes in the Senate, and because they wanted the bill, not the issue -- just as the Democrats haven't bothered to try moving labor legislation through Congress this year. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's Baa--aack

I think this is the first time I've ever read anything by Ezra Klein (and you know I'm a big fan) in which he sounds almost confused. The occasion?  The latest comeback of the public option, in the form of a letter asking for it to be part of the reconciliation package signed by, at last count, 18 Senators.  Well, confused is an exaggeration; maybe exasperated?
One way or another, however, Senate Democrats and the White House need to choose their path and communicate it clearly. If Democrats want to use the public option to reinvigorate their base and attack the insurers and push this bill over the finish line in a final blaze of populist fury, more power to them. If they decide that the process is fragile and Americans want bipartisanship and this is a bad time to introduce uncertainty into chaos, that makes sense, too.
My guess is that all of this is both more and less than it seems.   On the one hand, it seems awfully unlikely that they'll get as many as forty Senators on board for this.  The total number of Senators willing to vote for a public option was always right around fifty, and of course it's one fewer now that Scott Brown is a Senator.  I'm pretty sure the number who actively want a public option, in the sense of being willing to ask for it, is not much more than forty.  So I think this gives liberals another chance to show the flag before moving (perhaps?) to final passage.  If I had to guess, I'd say that they won't get thirty-five names, and the whole thing fizzles as a story before the summit.

However: if the proponents play this correctly, it becomes the opening shot of the battle to pass the public option through reconciliation next year, or, barring that, in 2013 -- assuming, that is that Democrats retain their majorities and the main bill passes this year.  While it's possible that, handled wrong, yet another failure of the public option could (further) demoralize liberals, I think it's more likely that the combination of passing the bill and the promise of a new campaign for the public option in the future will make liberals feel, if not excited, at least a little happier about supporting Dems this fall.

Why Polarization Happens (or Doesn't)

Via Sullivan, there's apparently a debate on the right about whether liberals and conservatives are equally pushing for polarization.  David Frum doesn't like right-wing "purity" tests for GOP candidates; Eric Erickson says that the Dems do it, too.  On the particular case Erickson cites -- Evan Bayh -- I don't think he has much of a case.  As Erickson notes, a friend of Bayh was quoted as saying that he didn't like taking hits from liberal bloggers, who certainly have bashed the Indiana Senator (and gave him little credit, as far as I could see, for mostly quietly supporting both the stimulus and the health care bill -- no Benator grandstanding from him!).  However, "I sometimes get criticized from the extremes" is hardly the same thing as the primary challenges that John McCain and Bob Bennett are receiving this cycle.  I'm not going to do a count right now, but I do think that there have been far more ideological challenges to sitting Republicans from the right than to sitting Democrats from the left in recent cycles.

Frum's point, however, is that
As many political scientists have demonstrated, the parties are becoming more polarized even though the electorate is not. The cause of the “disconnect” (as Morris Fiorina calls it)? Party elites, both Democratic and Republican, have found ways to take command of party institutions and steer their organizations further and further away from the broad preferences of the country.
Absolutely correct -- but incomplete. I've talked about some of these issues before, but I think it might be helpful to lay them all out in one post.

The process Drum describes is certainly one party impulse, but it isn't the only one.  There's also the Downsian incentive to move to the center (of each district) in order to win.   Typically, these impulses are in tension, but the money is in the middle: that is, politicians want to win in order to have jobs, political consultants want to win in order to enhance their reputations, many party-aligned interest groups want to win in order to implement as many of their public policy objectives as possible, party bureaucrats want to win because it tends to generate larger and better financed formal party organizations, and policy wonks want to win so that they can get government jobs (which is not about immediate financial reward, but does tend to help their long-term earnings; they also might actually care about changing the world).  Each of these incentives push a political party towards the center, which is the ideal position for winning elections in a two-party system.

Against all that are those interest groups that are willing to risk and all-or-nothing strategy. and support candidates who are less likely to win but would take extreme positions if they do win, and those with no material self-interest in the success of the party who tend to be ideological extremists -- the political science literature calls them "purists" or "amateurs" (although note that the latter is only a tendency; it's certainly logically possible to be a pragmatic amateur).  Also pushing parties away from the center are primary electorates.  Primary elections -- you might not know this, but very few nations have adopted that particular American innovation -- introduce another possible polarizing incentive, since candidates must appeal to the median voter in a primary electorate in order to win the nomination, and if voters are even somewhat sorted ideologically into parties then that median point will be to the left of center for Democrats, and to the right of center for Republicans.

Most, but not all, of the self-interest incentives push parties to the center.  There are also, however, another set of factors that can push parties to the extremes.  Parties have their own internal cultures and information flows, and they can affect the behavior of party actors, even if outside observers might find those actions irrational in some objective sense.  For example, a politician might erroneously but sincerely believe that there's a hidden vote available to candidates that ignore the middle of the electorate in favor of mobilizing the party's base (it's possible that there might conceivably be rare circumstances in which that's a wise electoral strategy, but normally any candidate who captures the center will win an election; what I'm talking about here, however, is when those rare circumstances do not apply).  A partisan policy wonk might mistakenly believe that her issue positions, which are well-received on partisan blogs, are actually far more popular than they in fact are.  And some politicians and their staffs may simply hold issue positions because they really believe in them, regardless of electoral incentives (and, in most cases, that won't actually hurt them very much with the electorate, which is far less attentive that pols and other political actors believe). 

If you're still reading this long piece, what you probably want is a takeaway paragraph, but unfortunately I can't give you one.  Political scientists have reached no consensus at all on which of these incentives, or even which actors, are the important ones.  Some of us think that politicians are the crucial actors.  Others believe that pols will ultimately follow whatever bargains are reached by party-aligned interest groups.  My own (unpublished as yet) claim is that there is no ultimate answer: the results of both which actors will be most important and which incentives they will follow are contingent on the (formal and informal) rules of the game, and on all sorts of other things happening in a society and its politics.  I know: not really helpful, is it?  Sorry, but that's how I see it.  The main thing is that, if I'm correct (which of course I believe I am) there are a wide range of possible stable outcomes when it comes to polarization.

One more thing, which might be fairly important.  The core assumption of everyone who has studied party incentives has always been that winning is always a good thing.  For purists, it might be a good thing that is trumped by other considerations, but we've always assumed that winning office was at the very least a neutral factor, and in almost all cases, certainly for any professional politician or operatives, incentives would always run toward winning office.  That no longer appears to be true, at least (or at least mainly) on the conservative side of the spectrum.  There's just no getting around the fact that there is a large conservative marketplace, and that there's more money that can be squeezed out of that market when Democrats take office.  I don't know that any conservative operatives actively follow the obvious incentive and consciously try to make their own side lose elections, but the incentive most certainly exists, and may well affect behavior in some cases.

All of which still supports my general point I've made in the past, which is that while polarization is a natural development, there are a lot of different possible degrees of polarization, and the current levels are very high -- and hardly inevitable.

The Maddow Sting

In my view....

There's nothing hypocritical or wrong in any way with a Member of Congress saying that government should not spend money, but trying to get as much of it for his or her district after its been approved. 

On the other hand, it is massively hypocritical for a Member of Congress to say that a bill would not create a single job while, at the same time, lobbying for projects from that bill to be placed in his or her district on the basis of all the jobs it will bring. 

I'm not a big one for objecting to hypocrisy in politicians, but that's a pretty extreme version of it.  It's pretty clear that such Members are deliberately lying to someone.

Oh, and I just saw Eric Cantor's spokesperson quoted on CNN (sorry, no link, will update if I see one) saying something to the effect of that a Member can't be expected to vote for a bill if he supports 1% and opposes 99% of the bill.  I think that means that while Cantor admits to supporting high speed rail, he opposes tax cuts (and unemployment benefits extensions, and expanded COBRA, and did I mention tax cuts?)  Good to know!  Perhaps he's almost telling the truth again.

(Gotta be fair...the quote was phrased a general proposition, not a claim that Cantor actually opposed 99% of the stimulus.  Nice spinning!  Doesn't get him off the hook on the jobs created thing, though).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Greg Sargent reports that House and Senate (and presumably White House) Dems are getting close to an agreement on a single health care bill, although details are scarce and what's there seems, to me at least, problematic (could they really use reconciliation to expand the exchanges the House-friendly national version?).

Regardless, I have one piece of advice to the Democrats as they close in on a final bill: fully close the donut hole, effective ASAP.  Don't worry if it pushes the cost over whatever arbitrary limit that you've been working with, or if it hurts the deficit projection, or if it means that you have to tweak taxes a little bit higher in order to do it, or even whether it's good policy or not.  This is a just an enormous political opportunity.  Seniors vote, and fully closing the donut hole will give them skin in the game, immediately.  Seniors have been the most skeptical group of health care reform (at least of those groups that could possibly support it -- that is, excluding serious conservatives and partisan Republicans), and I'm pretty convinced that this one provision alone would make a significant difference in their views on the issue, which in turn would have a real effect on overall polling on health care reform.  And my sense on this one is that to get the effect, the Dems should go in whole hog; halfway measures won't do the job, politically. 

Yes, there are other measures that take effect immediately, but many of them are either obscure, or limited in who they help.  For example, ending rescissions  is substantively a big deal and politically a great issue to bring up if your goal is to demonize insurance companies and convince people of the need for reform...but no one is going to vote for Democrats this year because they think that if only the health care bill hadn't passed, their insurance company might have found some excuse to not pay up had they encountered a serious medical problem sometime after the bill became law.

No, in the short term, the biggest bang in the largest swing population of voters is the donut hole.  If Democrats are smart, that's where they'll go.

Deficit Deficient

I just have to repeat what Matt Yglesias says:
The problem with Holtz-Eakin’s remarks, by contrast, is that like all mainstream American conservatives he’s not interested in reducing the deficit. Rather, he supports lower taxes and lower spending. This is why deficits exploded under George W Bush’s watch and also under Ronald Reagan’s watch. It’s not “irresponsibility” or some mistake; rather, conservative policymakers are not interested in the question of how large the deficit is, they’re interested in cutting taxes on the rich.
Conservatives don't care about the deficit.  Really.  Therefore, bipartisan deficit reduction schemes built on the assumption that both parties "really" want to cut the deficit but just don't have the political courage to do so are built on a fallacy, and are not going to work.

Now, granted, most liberals do not believe in deficit reduction per se; they believe as deficit reduction as a means to the end of a growing, stable economy.  There are exceptions -- just as there are some Republicans who actually do support deficit reduction -- but for the most part, liberals don't care at all about the size of the deficit except to the extent that it affects other goals liberals care about (and there are typically differences of opinion among liberals, including liberal economists, about the relationship between the deficit and other goals).

Conservatives, on the other hand, have a clear policy goal of low taxes, a goal that is inherently in competition with small deficits. 

Both parties are rhetorically in favor of low deficits, because the Washington consensus says that balanced budgets are a Good Thing.  But anyone who thinks that Republicans care about deficits is just ignoring thirty years of evidence to the contrary.  Before 1980, it was more or less true; since then, it just isn't.

Pardon Them

As you might expect from previous items in this series, I agree with Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald about Dick Cheney's appearance on Sunday TV in which, as Sullivan put it, "the former vice-president has just confessed to a war crime." (see also Scott Horton).  To me, this is just further evidence that the decision of the Obama administration to try to avoid the issue -- a decision I can fully understand as a reasonable choice of priorities -- is also, whether they like it or not, a decision that ultimately cannot hold.  As I've argued, from the point of view of the administration, pardon plus commission is the best solution.

Here, however, I want to argue from the point of view of strong opponents of torture, for those who find torture morally abhorrent and practically counter-productive.  They might not care about my argument from the point of view of Obama (and the Democrats); they might be perfectly willing to give up every other item on the Obama agenda, including reelection, in order to put an end to American torture.  That's a reasonable position to take -- and what I say to them is that pardon plus commission is the right path.

First, where we are now.  Greenwald nails it:
What would stop a future President (or even the current one) from re-authorizing waterboarding and the other Bush/Cheney torture techniques if he decided he wanted to?  Given that both the Bush and Obama administrations have succeeded thus far in blocking all judicial adjudications of the legality of these "policies," and given that the torture architects are feted on TV and given major newspaper columns, what impediments exist to prevent their re-implementation?
Obviously, from this point of view, there's no need to talk about what the administration is doing now.  (1) selective prosecutions; (2) massive prosecutions; (3) pardon.  In each case, presumably the prosecutions or pardon would be accompanied by something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  My feeling is that selective prosecutions is probably a non-starter.  I think it's very likely that a great many people, from those who actually carried out the policy, to those who developed it, to those at the very top of the Bush administration who chose it -- including the President and Vice-President of the United States -- commited criminal acts.  Perhaps prosecutors could stop short of those two, but I'm not sure there's a good justification for it, and at any rate torture opponents believe that Cheney, at least, should be prosecuted. 

The question, however, is not whether Cheney (or Bush, or Yoo, or CIA operatives) deserve to be in jail -- but how to answer Greenwald's rhetoric questions.  What remedies now will make future torture less likely?

If Obama and Holder decide to prosecute, there's little question of the results: Republicans of all stripes would rally around their now-persecuted  friends from the Bush administration.  Republicans of all stripes would feel the need to justify the actions that the torturers took, and to do so they would double down on tales of how effective torture was at supposedly stopping all sorts of nasty terror attacks.  Republicans, I tend to think close to unanimously, would refuse to have any part in any Truth Commission.  They wouldn't serve on it, and they wouldn't accept its results; they would brand it a partisan witch hunt.  Torturers and those who worked with torturers wouldn't testify.  How could they?  They'd be incriminating themselves and their coworkers.  So the commission might demonstrate some of the truth, but would achieve no reconciliation at all.  The deterrent factor for the future would rest on one thing alone, the ability of the Justice Department to obtain convictions and serious sentences, although such sentences would be gone, at least for policy makers once the next Republican president was sworn into office.  And yet even then, the more Republicans solidify into the torture party, the more they would be likely to change the law and treaty obligations once they win the White House.  In my view, a not at all unlikely result of prosecutions is withdrawal from Geneva during the next Republican administration. 

Would pardons avoid this result?  I can't guarantee it, but I think it radically changes the incentives.  Recall that I'm recommending a blanket pardon for everyone involved in torture, along with a serious commission that would lay out exactly what happened and all the things wrong with it -- and I'm also recommending working hard to try to get as many senior Bush administration officials as possible to publicly accept those pardons.  And I'm recommending a generous pardon, with President Obama granting the war criminals (no, he wouldn't call them that) the best of intentions. 

OK, what happens with pardon plus commission?  Hard core supporters of torture, including Dick Cheney, will certainly continue to press their case.  But there's a real chance that they can be marginalized within their own party.  Once his son is no longer in legal jeopardy, and assuming that his personal views are anti-torture (which I think is likely), then George Herbert Walker Bush might well be persuaded to speak out publicly and privately on the issue.  Other Republicans respected by Washingtonians -- Lugar, James Baker, Dole, former CIA, FBI, and other government leaders, perhaps McCain -- might follow.  As I've said before, I think it's realistic to hope that some of the Bush folks might join that chorus, perhaps even the former president himself.  As Andrew Sullivan has done, Republicans could invoke Ronald Reagan (not to mention George Washington and other American heroes) in making their case against the acts that took place -- as long as they do not also have to condemn the people who performed those acts.  With them on board, and with the threat of prosecution no bar to testifying, a real Truth Commission could function.  Such a commission (and all commissioners, Democrats, Republicans, and others) would take it as a given that the United States should abide by Geneva, and therefore could consider evidence of any possible gains from torture in the proper context.

Basically, I think criminal sanctions on past war criminals are far less likely to prevent future war crimes than would a restoration of the American consensus against torture.  I can't guarantee that pardon plus commission would achieve that, but every bit of political instinct that I have says that prosecutions would prevent it.  If one is really against torture, it seems to me that preventing future torture is far more important than punishment of the torturers -- the latter should only happen if it is a means to an end, not for revenge, and not even for justice.  The current best path toward that end is a generous pardon, as hard as that might be to swallow for opponents of torture.  Separate the acts from the actors, and the chances of preventing future acts are much, much, better.
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