Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Well, April will be over in by the end of the night, and so it's time to check in on Brian Sabean.  Has he managed to keep his incredible string of inept 1Bs alive?

You'll recall...well, if you were reading last fall, you'll recall that among his weak points, Brian Sabean has failed to get a halfway decent first baseman since J.T. Snow stopped hitting.  Well, I mean stopped hitting for good; J.T. had plenty of years in which he didn't hit.  As I said then (and these are OPS+ numbers):
2005 Snow 85
2006 Hillebrand 74
2007 Klesko 92
2008 Bowker 83
2009 Ishikawa 83

I really don't know how to convey just how bad this is. To go five years without a regular first baseman reaching a 95 about this. If you're old enough, you might remember Mark Belanger, a famous non-hitting SS for the Orioles. Belanger's best five seasons? 100, 97, 95, 75, 64.

How do you wind up with a five-year stretch of first basemen who hit like Mark Belanger?
I should update: Ishikawa ended the year at  85. 

So, this year, Sabean is going for the Klesko/Hillebrand model, and not the Ishikawa/Bowker/Niekro version: Aubrey Huff.

Aubrey Huff through Thursday?  314 OBP/373 SLG.  OPS+ 79.  Welcome to the Giants, Aubrey Huff!

And of course the punch line is that he's apparently so bad in the field that they need to keep Ishikawa around to caddy for him.  Oh, that's right -- the last two failed 1Bs are still hanging out on the roster, and neither of them has hit a lick for far this year, either. 

Nice work, Brian Sabean.


Did you know you can follow me on twitter now?  Few do.  I mean, few follow me, not few know that they's actually sort of pathetic, really.  So, in order to avoid ending another week with such a sorry number, I'm making this once-in-a-year special EXCLUSIVE offer: follow me, and you'll receive my EXCLUSIVE Kentucky Derby tweet, with my EXCLUSIVE thoughts on what'll happen tomorrow at Churchill.  I do want to emphasize just how big a deal this is; those who were already signed up already may have seen my EXCLUSIVE touting of 37-1 shot Champaign D'Oro in the Kentucky Oaks today.  Granted, she was shuffled back at the start, never got into the race, and finished up the track, but, you know, had you been following #jbplainblog, you could have had the jump on all your friends and neighbors in that whole laughing at me thing.  But don't laugh too hard, or I'll start telling the story of how I hit the Thunder Gulch/Tejano Run exacta ($480) in 1995.  And I'm sure you don't want that.  So, my advice is to head over now and take care of business.  (Oh, and don't worry -- after tomorrow, back to the normal politics content).

And thanks to all for visiting Plain Blog, and I promise I'll avoid any more of these embarrassing posts for a good long while now. 

I Believe, I Trust, I Promise

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides has another of a series of excellent posts about trust in government.  He shows, once again, that pretty much everything that people say about trust in government is wrong.  If you're tempted to think that survey questions about trust in government yield important answers, he has the evidence that should convince you. Or, you can just take my word for it:

"Trust in Government" survey questions don't work.  They don't measure what we want them to measure...some sort of general sense of whether people think the government works, or something like that.  Instead, the questions tap into people's feelings about the economy and the president.  As far as I know (and I haven't read the literature on this for some time, but everything Sides says is consistent with what I knew about it from back then), the answers to "trust in government" questions don't actually tell us anything at all, not once we know about how the economy is doing and presidential approval ratings (which are partially, but not entirely, caused by the economy).  It may be that people don't actually distinguish between the president and the government in general; it may be something else; but really, who cares?  All non-specialists need to know is that the questions don't tell us anything.  My suggestion is that any time anyone relies on survey results about trust in government, that you just run the other way; you're not going to learn anything from whatever it is they are trying to say.

Deficit Reality and Sideshows

I've been reading an interesting exchange between Stan Collender, George Hager, and Collender again about the deficit commission.  Collender, in his first piece, points out that the "commission" model is a useless one in general, and especially for deficit politics.  That's exactly correct.  What commissions can do -- the only thing they really can do -- is to give cover for something that politicians want to do but don't want to take the blame for.  This is especially effective when the thing that the pols want to do is nothing: if you want to duck an issue but don't want to be seen ducking an issue, appointing a commission is a classic response.  One hopes that by the time the commission reports back, everyone's forgotten about the urgency that made the commission necessary in the first place, and the commission report can be safely filed away.  Stan Collender is exactly right: the deficit commission is a sideshow.

The oddity with deficit politics and this particular commission is that Barack Obama and the Democrats actually are doing something, which Collender and Hager skip right past in their discussion. 

Remember the mantra from Brad DeLong that I'm fond of quoting, but which I'll paraphrase this time: in the short run, what matters is getting the economy moving.  In the middle term, PAYGO to keep things under control.  And in the long run, health care (see also this similar analysis from Ezra Klein).  Well...that sounds like the direction that the Democrats have followed for the last year, no?  Certainly, there are questions about whether they've doing the correct things. But it's just wrong for deficit hawks to completely ignore an enacted plan to take a significant whack at the deficit in the second decade (and beyond that?  I don't know; as far as I know we don't have estimates of what happens done the line -- but note that "down the line" is where the deficit problem is, not now or in the next decade or so).  Why are deficit hawks whining that no one will do anything about the deficit, instead of applauding what the Dems just did (and, if they want, asking for more)?

Moreover, I disagree with Hager's analysis of previous successful deficit reduction packages.  He believes a common element is what he calls a "dire or embarrassing, or both" deficit problem.  I disagree, especially about the "embarrassing" part of it.  What the three episodes he cites (1982, 1990, 1993) have in common was that in each case, the president's economic team told him that the problem was likely to have real, immediate effects on the economy, effects that would show up before the next election.  In each case, that seems to have been both necessary and sufficient.  Hager does include presidential involvement as one of his three conditions, but I'm making a slightly different claim: presidents will care about deficit reduction when they have an electoral incentive to care about it, and once they are on board, Congress gives it them to them. 

That was certainly the case with the Bush and Clinton episodes; Bush was reacting to a stock market crash that was interpreted as a reaction to budget deficits, while Clinton was told that the best thing for the economy was keeping interest rates low, which could be achieved with deficit reduction.  The 1982 case is a little different...if I recall correctly that situation featured the president's staff and the Congressional leadership (primarily the GOP Senate leaders) combining to convince the president that tax increases were necessary, along with the Reagan/O'Neill deal on Social Security.  Notice too the dynamic with health care reform.  In that case, Barack Obama put deficit reduction (and long-term cost reduction, which eventually would produce deficit reduction) front and center, demanding deficit neutrality or better.  And Congress really never questioned that demand. 

By the way, I think the conventional wisdom that Perot was somehow a factor in the 1993 deal is totally wrong, and not just because Perot wound up opposing the deal (because he didn't actually care about deficit reduction after all).  Clinton, in the 1992 campaign, seemed perfectly able to position himself as favoring growth and jobs, not deficit reduction; that didn't change until his economic team convinced him that deficit reduction would cause growth and jobs.  In other words, Clinton -- like Bush in 1990 -- wasn't interested in deficit reduction as a goal, but only as a means to other ends. 

I want to be careful with my claim, because there may be studies of this that I'm not aware of.  But just from the evidence here, it sure looks to me as if presidential electoral incentives are the big thing that makes deficit reduction happen.

A Bit More on DC Statehood

Just a short note here on E.D. Kain's latest comments on the DC Statehood question.  To clarify my position on main interest in the issue is that I find it totally puzzling that liberals did not urge Democrats to take advantage of their brief large majorities in Congress to enact Statehood.  Beyond that, on the question of statehood itself, my feeling is (1) that the status quo is not justifiable, and that (2) the various reasons I've heard arguing against statehood all seem pretty weak to me.  That said, both returning the district to Maryland (Kain's preference) and statehood would solve the violation of democracy that makes the status quo problematic.

Kain objects what would certainly be a power grab to add two new Democratic Senators.  But the Maryland option would be the reverse: it would have no effect on the Senate, but it would, following what would certainly be the repeal of the 23rd Amendment, remove three electoral votes from the Democrats.  So either way, solving the democracy problem would have partisan political effects.  In the abstract, as I have said, I think there's a good case to be made that statehood would help ameliorate the overrepresentation of rural areas in the Senate.  But obviously, in reality, this sort of decision is made on partisan grounds, one way or another.

Another Cutting Strings Update

Charlie Crist, as you all know by now, jumped.  This blog's particular Crist-related obsession has been the possible effect of Gov. Crist (I-FL) on Crist-appointed lame duck Senator George LeMieux (R-FL).  Of course, from Crist's incredibly bland announcement today it's hard to get any specific issue content, but we'll see what happens, right?

For what it's worth, LeMieux is currently the 16th most liberal Republican Senator (between Corker and Wicker).  So we'll see where he ends up by election day.  I guess I'll make a minor prediction: LeMieux will vacate his current spot as a regular-to-moderate conservative, and either move to the left, approaching the two Maine Senators, or to the right, where Vitter and Thune are.  If he wants to work for Republicans in the future, he'll have to let Crist go in some visible way -- but if he wants to work for Crist, he'll have to let the GOP go.

Other strings-cutters of note, as long as I'm looking at Simon Jackman's rankings...Bob Bennett is a bit to LeMieux's left, at #11, between Gregg and Hatch (could Hatch now be too liberal for the GOP?  Yikes!).  The one Democrat whose strings may be cut is Arlen Specter, who was the 3rd-most-liberal Republican, but who immediately changed his voting pattern and is now a mainstream Democrat, the 30th most conservative in that party.  If Specter loses his primary and becomes a lame duck, perhaps he'll decide to vote his conscience for the rest of the year -- except I'd expect it to take several months for him to locate that particular long-lost organ.  Not that I'm against ambitious pols; far from it.  I'm not much of a fan, however, of sanctimonious pols, and to my ear Specter is only topped by one other current Senator on that score.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Read Stuff, You Should

Since you really don't need me to tell you that you should pass on George Will's observations on the social habits and career paths of Latino Americans, I'll go straight to what's good:

1.  Everyone's favorite topic, the conservative closed information loop: Daniel Larison on 2006 and other issues; Ross Douthat defends non-looped conservatives;  Bruce Bartlett remembers some of the history; and Conor Friedersdorf takes on and messes with Mark Levin.

2.  But Jamelle Bouie schools Bruce Bartlett.  Meanwhile, Brendan Nyhan goes after a hack columnist, and Brad DeLong takes apart Henry Louis Gates.

3.  Keith Hennessey is honest on taxes.

4.  Dahlia Lithwick, natch, on judicial philosophy -- although I think liberals don't appreciate Breyer enough.

5.  Ezra Klein is real smart on what's happened and why to Bob Bennett. Did you know he had a peripheral role in Watergate?  Bennett, not Ezra.  Obviously.

6.  Now, I told you this already, but you had better be reading every TNC post with a "CHM" title.  I mean, outside of that you should be reading his blog regularly anyway.  You say you're interested in the United States of America?  Then you're reading TNC.  Here's one taste.

7.  Kevin Drum knows chutzpah when he sees it, but Mark Kleiman tells Jew jokes


DeLay Delay Update

I was just complaining last week about the Tom DeLay case: he was indicted in 2005, and is still waiting for a trail.  Apparently, Plain Blog gets results!  Sort of -- today's papers say that there's positive movement towards a trial later this year, although no actual trial date yet. 

No word on whether prosecutors are going to fish or cut bait on Barry Bonds any time soon, though. 

Rescissions, Implementation, and Public Opinion

Steve Benen today points to some of the early benefits of the health care plan, arguing that quick implementation of these popular provisions will help the Democrats and hurt those who call for repeal.  It's worth pointing out that while this is true for some provisions, a lot of the general advantages of the legislation fall under the category of risk reduction -- and people are unlikely to see that as something that helped them. 

For example, Benen points to the early implementation of the ban on rescissions (in which insurance companies wait for a claim and then find some loophole to cancel a policy).  That's clearly something that helps consumers a lot, and it will be helpful to the Democrats in the sense that it could make for a good TV ad.  But it isn't a benefit in the sense of something tangible that people will have now that they didn't have in the past.  Indeed, the whole problem with rescissions was that people were shocked when it happened; normally, people expect that if they pay their premiums, they'll have coverage.  No one this fall is going to get cancer, file a claim, receive a benefit, and realize that without health care reform something might have gone wrong.

The other benefit Benen discusses, however, is a clear winner: quite a few people, presumably, are going to add their un- and underemployed 20-something kids to their insurance who could not have done so previously, and most of them will know that it was the direct result of Obama's bill. 

Meanwhile, I have to say that I'm surprised at how little we've heard from Republicans about the supposed damage that the bill has already caused.  I had predicted quite a bit of this, and so far I've heard relatively little.  Instead, the GOP seems to be doubling down on their arguments about the budgetary effects of the ACA, including the 10/6 myth (here for example is Rep. Cliff Stearns repeating it) and the 16K IRS agents myth.  In other words, while I thought they would seize on examples of health care system problems and (inaccurately, but perhaps effectively) blame them on parts of the law that have not yet taken effect, instead Republicans seem to be continuing the Betsy McCaughey strategy of finding an inconsequential provision, distorting its meaning, and then predicting disaster when it is implemented.  Perhaps that's a better strategy, perhaps not, but either way it's not what I predicted, so I did want to get on the record as saying that so far, I've been wrong about this one.

Repeal vs. Reform, Again

Over at NRO, I see that Ramesh Ponnuru is taking exception to my post critiquing his article on the politics of health care repeal. Two points seem to be at issue: the meaning of polling on health care reform, and the value of one particular potential GOP line of attack.

First, the polling.  The problem with the politics of repeal is that repeal would mean elimination of the popular portions of health care reform, along with the unpopular provisions.  Ponnuru, to his credit, acknowledges that problem in his original piece; in fact, it's his first main point.  He argues that the problem of popular provisions can be overcome because there are also unpopular provisions and at any rate what really matters is that the plan polls badly overall. 

On the latter issue, here's Ponnuru's original claim:
Here is what can be said with confidence about the polling...Third, the popularity of some elements of the plan obviously does not stop majorities from disliking Obamacare as a whole.
To which I said:
That last sentence is tricky, no?  One could just as easily say that the unpopularity of reform as a whole doesn't stop majorities from loving the details.  When polling numbers are inconsistent like this it's tempting to believe that the public "really" supports your side of the question, but a more honest approach would admit that neither side can really claim clear public support.  
He now replies:
It is not especially controversial to claim that in the political debate so far, the unpopularity of Obamacare as a whole has overshadowed the popularity of some of its provisions. Liberals know this. They've been complaining about it. I go on to argue that there is no reason to expect this to change. Bernstein presents no counter-argument.
OK, let me try to unpack this a bit.  My original claim is that in cases where public opinion is inconsistent (such as when the public approves of the details but not of an overall plan), it is incorrect to claim that either one is the "true" opinion.  If I understand him correctly, he's basically conceding or at least not contesting that point -- but arguing that my objection is irrelevant, because everyone within the political debate has acted as if it's the "whole plan" numbers that mattered.

If that's his position, he's right that I didn't take it on in my piece.  I shall do so now: it's a foolish argument.   Democrats, of course, did not proceed as if the health care plan was massively unpopular.  You know what they did?  They passed it!  And, in the lead-up to the vote, they talked a lot about how the bill was "really" popular, and trotted out the polling data on individual provisions.  It is true that liberals were not monolithic on this: some liberals believed the bill was unpopular and wanted to give up on it, and it's also true that some liberals believed the bill was unpopular but that the Democrats should pass it anyway.  But the people who counted, at the White House and in the Congressional leadership, said that the bill was popular (that is, they claimed that the individual items trumped the whole bill), and they acted as if it was popular.

So, when Ponnuru says that "It is not especially controversial to claim that in the political debate so far, the unpopularity of Obamacare as a whole has overshadowed the popularity of some of its provisions," then I'd say...well, perhaps at NRO it's not especially controversial.  And of course, before the vote, conservatives thought the bill was dead, because of its supposed unpopularity (the two things I always cite are here and here, but I'll add this one from Ponnuru himself).  But liberals didn't, as it turned out, think that or behave as if the bill was massively unpopular.

If, however, what he's really saying is that the reality of the situation is that the "whole bill" numbers are more revealing than the "individual parts" numbers, then he's wrong, too -- as I think liberals would be if they took the other side of the argument.  What the polls are actually saying is that public opinion on this issue is inconsistent.  There's no way to puzzle out what people "really" think, because what they really think appears to be both.  Or neither.  Or, however you want to express it -- it's both popular and unpopular at the same time.  I do think it's worth pointing out, before leaving this part of the argument, that while the overall plan does poll badly, it's only (currently, according to a six-point gap, which is hardly a decisive margin given all the evidence in the other direction.

Ponnuru's other rejoinder to the problem of repealing popular positions, which I didn't mention in my initial post, is that some provisions are unpopular. 
Second, some elements of the plan poll well in general but others do not. The public does not, for example, seem to be fond either of the cuts to Medicare or the requirement that everyone buy insurance on pain of fine.
That is no doubt correct, but basically irrelevant to the question.  He's advocating a clean repeal ("a simple, one-sentence repeal").  That means a repeal of the popular provisions, which means that if those provisions are in fact popular then people are naturally going to object to a clean repeal.  That's the whole point.  Voters who like some benefits but dislike the overall plan will prefer reform (of the reformed system) to repeal; they will want to keep the stuff they like while getting rid of what they don't like.  Should Republicans press repeal, Democrats (especially since in Ponnuru's repeal fantasy they'll be in the minority and therefore can be irresponsible) will say that the only difference between the Dems and the GOP is that Republicans want to get rid of the good stuff.  After all, they'll say, everyone agrees that the unpopular provisions should be eliminated.  Ponnuru's solution to that is to remind Republicans that the unpopular stuff really is unpopular, but (assuming that's true) how does it follow that voters will be willing to jettison things they like?  I'm sure that paying social security taxes polls badly, too, but that doesn't mean that repealing social security would be a winning position politically.

So much for current polling.  Of course, at some point in the future public opinion may well change, and that's where the remainder of our differences are found.  Generally, I tend to agree with those who say that once benefits are in place, they'll be difficult to dislodge; he, obviously, disagrees.  Doing so requires him to argue -- as, to his credit, he did in the original article -- that seemingly popular provisions will in fact be unpopular as they are implemented.  He did so for the donut hole, for tax credits for small businesses, and for the transitional high risk pools (to deal with pre-existing conditions).  If correct, I think those would be his strongest arguments for the plausibility of repeal.  But I argued that these claims are not convincing.  I found his donut hole and tax credit arguments implausible, and pointed out that even if the high risk pool is unsuccessful, Republicans who advocate permanent high risk pools as a solution to pre-existing conditions will be in the untenable position of arguing for a repeal of (temporary) high risk pools followed by passing new high risk pools, while Democrats can argue that the status quo phases them out in favor of something better (for those with pre-existing conditions, that is), so why repeal?  In response, Ponnuru says that on the donut hole I put too much weight on a scenario that  had "two 'may's and one 'could,'" and basically switches ground, saying: "Bernstein can't imagine how the failure of the first stages of implementation of Obamacare might help Republicans?"

To the contrary.  I certainly can imagine how problems in implementing the ACA could help Republicans; in fact, in my post, I say that I don't think that even a successful health care reform will necessarily help the Democrats.  But of course Ponnuru's original piece wasn't about whether reform will help the Democrats or the Republicans this year; it was ostensibly about the feasibility of flat-out repeal.  For repeal, it's not enough to argue that ACA in general will be unpopular.  What one needs to believe -- what I thought Ponnuru was arguing in the original piece -- is that voters will want to get rid of the entire thing.  Repeal will open up the donut hole; repeal will eliminate tax credits to small businesses; repeal will (once the bill is fully implemented) eliminate subsidies to those buying insurance on the individual market through the new exchanges; and repeal will once again allow insurers to avoid those with pre-existing conditions.  If those provisions are popular, a simple repeal won't fly -- even if people dislike the system overall. 

In other words, if it is to be taken seriously, the case for repeal really does need an argument that those seemingly popular items will in fact prove to be unpopular.  Especially since (as Ponnuru again acknowledged in the original piece) most of the unpopular provisions are only in there because they are necessary for the popular stuff to work.  That he tried to make that case is to his credit.  That it was, in my view, so weak -- and that he didn't even bother trying to defend it in his response to my critique -- reveals just how untenable repeal really is. 

Just to be clear: I'm not claiming that the Democrats will be helped in this election cycle by the health care law they passed (I suspect so, a little, but I'm far more comfortable saying that we don't know).  I explicitly said that I don't think that having passed ACA helps the Democrats in the long run.  I'm also not predicting that the new law will be popular (again, I don't know).  I am predicting two things.  I suspect that once it is implemented, many provisions of the new law will seem uncontroversial, just part of the regular way things are.  And that as a result, flat-out repeal, the one-sentence repeal Ponnuru is championing, is not going to happen.  Moreover, while I suppose it might be popular as a slogan in a Republican primary, repeal is a terrible issue for Republicans in competitive general elections. 

In other words, I don't know whether the new health care system will turn out to be popular or unpopular.  Either way, however, it sure seems to me that Republicans are going to have to find some position other than simple repeal.  

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No Bob Dole?

Quiz Time!  So, the Republicans are dropping their filibuster on the motion to proceed on the banking bill.  Was it because:

A. Mitch McConnell needed to get a bet down on Lookin At Lucky.
B. Those wimpy Dems finally threatened a "live" filibuster.
C. Uh...because the Republicans said they were only bluffing to being with.

Yes, the answer is in fact C: they never really had 41 solid votes to begin with. 

Now, why the GOP leaders decided to force a foolish filibuster anyway at this stage of the game, even though it wasn't going to succeed, is a pretty good mystery.  Remember, this isn't about whether they're going to filibuster passage of the bill; it's about the decision to filibuster against consideration of the bill.  I can think of three possibilities:

1.  It's part of a long-term strategy to waste Senate floor time, in order to reduce the capacity of the Senate to get anything done.  That does make some sense; eating up three days this week could, at least possibly, prevent some judicial nominee from being confirmed later this year.  On the other hand, the Democrats still have unused floor hours (Mondays, Fridays, nights, weekends), so they're not running up against any real limits yet.

2.  The Republicans are terrified of the talk show hosts and conservative bloggers, who are demanding maximal resistance to the dread socialist Kenyan Obama whether the resisance makes any sense or not.

3.  Mitch McConnell is actually an incompetent hack and has no idea what he's doing.

And the answer is...I don't know!  I'd like to think that it's a logical strategy (which implies answer #1), but we've seen this before (during Christmas week) when it was clear that delays were not affecting future Senate business.  If not that, I'd like to think that it's at least a rational response to political incentives, but I'm not convinced that Rush and Beck and all are really focused on the minutia of Senate procedure.  Maybe, maybe not. 

I am convinced that if their goal was either amending or defeating the banking bill, the Republicans are going about it badly.  I'm not actually concluding that answer #3 applies...but I'm really not sure that it doesn't. 

Hold Reform

I've been planning to do a Senate Reform Week around here for a while, in which I look at the various reform proposals that are floating around, but I never seem to quite get to it.*  Meanwhile, the proposals keep coming.  Now, we have a bipartisan hold reform proposal from Chuck Grassley and Ron Wyden.  The focus is on making holds public, forcing Senators to take credit for what they're doing.

I'm indifferent to this particular proposal, because I don't think that the primary problem with holds is that they're secret.  The primary problem with holds is that there just far too many of them, especially on nominations, and that they are apparently being used not to protect the rights of individual Senators, but to advance the goals of the minority party.  Parties don't need added protection in the Senate; they have the filibuster. 

The reform I'd like to see is for Harry Reid to put everyone on notice to cut it out, or else he'll just start ignoring holds and bringing up nominees whether there are holds or not.  If Republicans want to object, he can file cloture; if Republicans don't have the votes to stop cloture on a lot of these nominees but still insist on chewing up floor time anyway by full use of parliamentary stall tactics, then Reid should expand floor time by keeping the Senate in on nights and weekends. 

The Democrats cannot force much to happen in cases in which the GOP has 41 votes.  But that hasn't been the case, at least not when the actual votes happen, for a whole lot of judicial and executive branch nominations.  Given that Reid (or whoever replaces him as Majority Leader) is likely to have even fewer votes at his disposal next year, he really should place a much higher priority on getting at least the relatively non-controversial nominations done (last week was a good start, but it should be sustained and systematic).  And he doesn't need any rule changes to make that happen.

*For example, my post about filibusters and the Kentucky Derby should have mentioned that some reform proposals, including the Krasno/Robinson proposal, suggest that cloture shift from 3/5 of all Senators to 3/5 of all Senators voting.   Perhaps if I write in this post that I'm intending to review the various proposals it'll get me to actually do it, soon.

Will the Derby Derail The Filibuster?

Ezra Klein thinks it might:
Word is that the Democrats might make the Republicans actually filibuster FinReg tonight. That is to say, stand on the floor and talk and talk and talk. And if the Democrats are serious about forcing the Republicans to really filibuster the bill, this is the right week for it: The Kentucky Derby starts Friday, and Kentucky's senior senator, Mitch McConnell, would surely prefer to attend. Given that his members are already talking about breaking ranks, McConnell may find himself eager to get this kabuki dance over with a little bit early.
The problem with this logic is that while it might look bad for McConnell to be cavorting with the rich and famous in Louisville on the First Saturday of May while Republicans back in Washington continue to block the banking bill, his vote isn't needed: cloture votes require 3/5 of all Senators to vote yes, regardless of how many vote no.  Now, given that (as Klein points out) a lot of the rank-and-file Senators appear to be less than enthusiastic about this particular filibuster, perhaps McConnell going off to play might be enough to break GOP unanimity, especially if Reid held the Senate in over the weekend (yes, other GOP Senators could play hooky too, but pols tend to be very careful about the "attendance" records -- they don't like to miss recorded votes).  I also don't see what the point would be of making the Republicans do the talking; a better idea, it seems to me, would be to allow the Democrats to use floor time, but to schedule cloture votes at odd hours and on the weekend. 

So McConnell won't have to choose between the Derby and the filibuster...unless the other Republicans make him stick around.  Whether that's the case or not, I don't know.

By the way, a little horse race nitpicking: the Kentucky Derby, of course, is a single race and takes place on Saturday.  There are Derby weekend festivities on Friday, with the big race on that card the Kentucky Oaks for three year old fillies, but one would not say that the "Derby starts Friday." 

Iraq Draw Down

Some time, no news is big news.  With that in mind, I recommend a pretty good New York Times article about Barack Obama's insistence on continuing exit plans from Iraq, more or less regardless of what's happening there.  Or, at any rate, despite continued (relatively) low-level violence and considerable political uncertainty. The news here is confirmation that Obama wants out of Iraq, and at least so far, he's willing to do so despite the certainty that he'll be attacked over it.

On the politics of Iraq, it's pretty clear from the article and other coverage that at least some Republicans are preparing to attack the president on Iraq, on the grounds that he's (1) insufficiently focused on it, (2) stubbornly sticking to an inflexible deadline, and so therefore (3) he will have "lost" Iraq.  (Not to mention (4) The Terrorists!).  Obama would be wise, on narrow political grounds, to continue to ignore such criticisms.  This is, in a sense, a curious case where the usual myopia of the American mass media is going to help Obama even if the policy goes wrong.  Basically, as long as Americans aren't dying in Iraq, there are going to be very few news stories about that nation.  That's going to be true if there's a low-level civil war, and it's certainly going to be true if democracy doesn't, in the end, triumph.  Sure, if there's a coup, CNN will cover it briefly, but after that it'll be back to weather, murders, shark attacks, and whatever else CNN fills its days with.  If there's no coup, but just increasingly rigged elections, or Iraq falling further into Iran's camp, it'll get even less coverage (were you aware of this anti-American rally in Iraq last week?  Didn't think so).  No one is ever going to base their vote against Barack Obama or the Democrats primarily on Iraq becoming a basket case, if that's what happens, in large part because the media aren't going to cover it.

My impression is that liberals have given Obama very little credit for staying on course in Iraq (that is, continuing Bush's planned retreat), perhaps because troop withdrawal has not accelerated.  It seems to me that the more important thing to watch is that his plans have stayed in place, even when violence flares up, or political markers are not met.  One useful measure is American casualties, with American deaths in Iraq falling below a dozen a month in July and then staying there.  No spike for the election or the delay in the election, no spike after major bombings, nothing (although American injuries have been running a bit higher in March and April than they had since June 2009).  It's also worth noting that American and allied losses in Afghanistan have not returned to the July-October 2009 peak levels, although still are higher than one year ago. 

The significant developments scheduled between now and the 2010 midterm elections are the planned removal of combat troops from Iraq by August, and the planned assault on Kandahar in Afghanistan.  If the latter results in a relatively low spike in American casualties, and the former goes off as planned, I suspect the combination will go a long way towards building trust for Obama among liberals.  One way to look at this is that Obama has had roughly four areas in which he's probably disappointed anti-war liberals: moving too slowly out of Iraq, not yet closing Gitmo, not prosecuting Bush-era torturers, and ramping up the war in Afghanistan (the latter of which is in keeping with his campaign promises, but still not something many on the left want).  Of these, the easiest one for Obama to rectify sure seems to be keeping to the schedule on troop withdrawals from Iraq.  A lot of people (Andrew Sullivan for one) have been skeptical about getting out of Iraq, correctly noting that whenever Americans leave, the president will be subject to Cheneyite attacks that everything was going perfectly well before the sudden cowardly surrender, and Friedmanish helpful suggestions that if withdrawal is only delayed for a few more months that it would make all the difference.  So far, it looks as if Obama is going to ignore those concerns: it's going to take a while, but the war in Iraq is finally ending.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cutting Strings Update

Looks as if we made well see two GOP Senators with possible reasons to stray from party discipline, and soon.  Charlie Crist has announced that he'll announce his plans on this point, and given his public indecision, I'll be very surprised if he chooses to contest the Republican nomination for Senate this year, but his actions so far would fit either an indy Senate run or a retreat from the race altogether.  Meanwhile, polling indicates that Bob Bennett may at this point be a longshot to make it beyond the Utah Republican Convention on May 8.

Once again: I'm not predicting that either Bennett or George LeMieux will cease to be party-line Republicans if Bennett is defeated /if Crist bolts, but I think that it is a live possibility, and well worth watching. 

(How) Does The Information Loop Matter?

As the closed-information-loop conversation continues, one interesting line that emerged yesterday is about the effects of the effect.  Ross Douthat argues that Fox News et al. are a political boon to Republicans but a policy disaster, and Kevin Drum mostly agrees, although he thinks that GOP policy failure is also partially the result of natural life-cycle effects, with conservative exhaustion now mirroring liberal exhaustion of the 1970s.  Both interesting pieces, but I think there's a couple of things worth clarifying.   I'll start with policy, and then talk about the effects on partisan politics.

To begin with, there's a big difference between the possibility of closed loops on rank-and-file conservatives compared to the effect on conservative elites.  I think the former is no doubt true, but I'm not sure that it has the policy effects one might think.  Consider the disastrous effect of the Iraq War on Republicans in the 2006 election.  One might think that information loops are partially responsible: Republicans spend three years using Fox News and Rush to inform voters that everything is just peachy keen in Iraq, and then when politicians want to change course, they are constrained by a rank-and-file that strongly believes in staying the course.  But I suspect that's wrong; had Republican elites wanted to change course earlier (either to a surge, or to retreat), it wouldn't have been difficult at all to rapidly educate Republican voters of the need for the new policy -- as was in fact the case for the surge after the 2006 elections, and the retreat agreed to prior to the 2008 elections. The very fact that the rank-and-file (of all parties) tend to follow opinion leaders means that making that process extraordinarily efficient may only give leaders more freedom, not less -- although to be sure those interested in public opinion may want to study whether that's actually true.

If there's a problem with policy, then, I think it's because conservative leaders are believing their own rhetoric -- something that may or may not be true.  It's hard to tease out the effects of this stuff on voters, but it's even tougher figuring out what pols or talk show hosts really think, since they're apt to say what they think voters want to hear whether they believe it or not.  However I do think that it's fairly obvious that if conservative policy-makers truly believe things that are not true, then their efforts to make good policy are likely to fail.  So: for policy dangers, I'll argue that the real issue is information loops at the elite level.

On the other hand, if epistemic closure (fine, I'll say it -- it's just awful jargon, though) is helping the Republicans politically, then we're talking about the mass level, not the elite level.  It can't possibly help Republicans to have John Boehner actually believe any fictional talking points he's using, although I can imagine it hurting them.

I disagree, however, with both Douthat and Drum on the question of whether Fox News et al. are good for the Republicans politically.  The big data point everyone points to is the first two Clinton years (pre-Fox, but with many other pieces in place), but while I do think that Bob Dole's filibuster strategy hurt Clinton, I've always argued that it was Clinton's own weaknesses that hurt him.  Health care reform in 1993-1994, in my opinion, wasn't defeated because of Rush and Betsy McCaughey; it was defeated because Ira Magaziner (and Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton) did a terrible job, and the failure of health care reform hurt the Dems -- as did alienating labor over NAFTA, and various other policy and political mistakes.  But after which elections did Republicans do better than one would expect based on economic and other fundamentals?  Surely not 2008 or 2006, and I'd strongly argue that 2004 doesn't fit, either.  Douthat argues for very recent GOP political success:
In a sense, the last eighteen months have been enormously successful for conservatives: The polls have turned decisively against the Democrats, the Obama White House, and liberalism in general; the Republicans have won a series of elections they weren’t expected to win; and conservatives look primed for bigger gains in November. 
But that "series of elections" is really just the MA Senate race, and possibly the NJ contest for Governor; it was hardly a surprise that Republicans won in Virginia with a Democrat in the White House, and while Republicans might win the upcoming House specials, so far they've lost ground, not gained ground, in House special elections.  As far as polls turning "decisively" against the Obama White House, in fact Obama is right around the same 50% he's been at for months now.  Which, by the way, is better than Ronald Reagan was doing at this point in his presidency.  And that's really the point, isn't it?  There's no need to look beyond the economy to find reasons for Obama's tepid approval ratings, or the somewhat worse polling numbers for the Democrats. Really -- if all we knew was that unemployment would sit at 9.7% in April 2010, would we expect any president (or his party) to be doing well in the polls?  If Republicans do manage to win 65 House seats and 10 Senate seats and a bunch of statehouses, especially if they do so with an improving economy, then I'll start looking for explanations.  Right now?  Those things haven't actually happened, and so crediting them to anyone seems awful premature to me.

So, no, to answer Dothat's question, I don't think conservatives "need Fox News."  For all the hype, it's very possible that the political achievements of Fox News, Rush, and the rest of it are limited to winning a whole bunch of ephemeral news cycles -- and if you think that's a big deal, I suspect that the guy who lives in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue would be glad to tell you some stories about Hillary Clinton winning the nomination, John McCain winning the election, and seven or eight deaths of health care reform.

Another E-GOP?

Back in November, I thought that Republicans were making a tactical error by filibustering the motion to proceed on health care reform.  The situation is different now (since they have 41), but I still think they're probably making a mistake by blocking consideration.  And not just for the excellent reasons that Jonathan Chait pointed out yesterday, or for that matter for the reasons I gave yesterday, although I think both of us were correct.  No, I just don't see what advantage it gives to the GOP to keep the bill off the Senate floor.  Granted, the rhetorical advantages they are handing to the Dems are not exactly game-changing, but still: the argument against consideration of the bill strikes me as one that is highly unlikely to be greeted very well by anyone who isn't already committed to accepting whatever talking points Republicans offer.  For as long as this goes on, the Democrats don't even have to argue the merits of the bill; they can just say that it's important, and that the Senate should work on it.  Good government types should love that!  On the other hand, if Republicans allowed the bill to come to the floor, they could then offer amendments and force tough votes -- and when (if?) they filibustered the final vote, they would have a much better rhetorical case to make (We have more amendments to offer!  What's the rush?). 

Granted, it's true that Democrats too could offer amendments and force tough votes, but given Senate rules (which allow Senators to offer any amendments they want) it seems to me that the amendment process puts the GOP on more-or-less equal footing.  After all, the Democrats are constrained by actually wanting both a bill that can pass and a good law, and therefore can't offer amendments that would harm either goal, while Republicans can pretty much offer anything they can think of to make the Dems look bad.  If they're really lucky, maybe they could get a killer amendment accepted and never have to cast a vote against the bill at all.

So, perhaps I'm missing something, but it sure seems to me that Republicans would be better off allowing the bill to come to the floor, but then objecting to any further unanimous consent agreement.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Newt Update

Our good friend Tom P. Baxter, Business Visionary (or as he's more popularly known, Disgraced Former Speaker Newt Gingrich), is back in the news again, this time having taken to the pages of the Washington Post to dispute Norm Ornstein's sensible op-ed, in which Ornstein noted that Barack Obama is obviously not imposing socialism on America by means of a "socialist-secular machine" (gosh, our Newt sure does love his words) or otherwise. 

Marc Ambinder does a valiant job taking apart Newt's claims, but really, it's sort of beside the point, isn't it?  You don't stop a snake-oil salesman by outarguing him; once you realize that the guy's a total fraud, the actual questions are whether, and if so how, to keep him from fleecing the yokels.

The rubes in question here are not swing voters (or, it should go without saying, Democrats), all of whom can't stand Newt Gingrich and really never could stand Newt Gingrich.  No, the relevant yokels here are people inside the conservative closed-information loop, the people who listen to Rush and Beck and Palin, who are Newt's current most prominent competitors, I suppose.  As far as I'm concerned, the best response is to say tough luck, yokels...but I suppose that conservative leaders might disagree.  Might, but as far as anyone can tell, don't.  Or at least, don't if they want to remain conservative leaders -- or maybe it's just don't, if they want to stay on the gravy train. It is possible that conservative leaders are foolish enough to believe that Newt's hocus-pocus will help them on Election Day, but one would think that the 1996 and 1998 cycles (and a little more careful reflection on the 1994 cycle) would have cured them of that. 

I suppose there are also some rubes in the press corps who somehow or another are able to see through the Sage of Wasilla's ordinary hockey mom pose but are still mesmerized when Newt waves around his latest set of books that you just have to read and then you would understand everything and his latest words -- the man does love his words.  I'm afraid that if they haven't figured it out yet, there's just no hope for them.


I'm as baffled as anyone by the apparent decision from the Democrats to give up on climate/energy and move immigration to the Senate floor.  First of all, I'm baffled about whether or not its an actual decision.  We have the CNN story (linked to above) that says so, followed by some rather mild White House pushback over the weekend.  On the other hand, there's no actual bill to work on in the Senate yet on immigration, while climate/energy is close to ready for floor consideration.

My initial reaction was that this is a mistake by the White House (or Harry Reid, or whoever is making the decision), but even more so I'm not sure I understand the logic of it.  The more I think about it, alas, the more confused I get, so after a few discarded drafts of posts that attempted to explain what they're doing, I realized that the main problem I have is that I can't figure out what facts, or beliefs, they're working from.  So here's an attempt to at least get the playing field set up correctly.
What are the factors here?  Well,  first of all, there's the Democrats' judgment about the chances of either bill passing and being signed into law.  It's hard to believe that they think that immigration has a real chance (see Ezra Klein's comments), but we know a lot less about their sense of climate/energy.  Then, a second question is how they see the two bills politically.  Do they believe that revving up Latino groups is worth annoying anti-immigrant groups?  On climate/energy, are environmentalists a bigger group than those who might react by worrying about jobs?

So while my initial reaction is to agree with Ezra Klein and Jonathan Chait that the White House is making a mistake here, whether that's correct or not really depends on knowing the answers to those questions (that is, the answers to what Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House think). And that's just the first level, because it's also possible that they're wrong about the politics of the two issues, or the politics of getting the two bills through Congress.

For example:  Suppose that industrial state Democratic Senators have made it clear to Reid that they simply will not vote for a climate bill.  Or, suppose that the White House believed that a Kerry/Lieberman/Graham bill is likely to actually pass the Senate -- but that it has no chance in the House.  If either of these is true, then the decision is purely one of election-year politics, because a bill is (considered to be) impossible.  In that case, I'm not so sure that choosing immigration is a mistake.  Or, it's possible that there's serious substantive objections from experts, in and out of government, to the kind of bill that could pass.  If that's the case, the White House (and Congressional leaders) may believe that moving ahead on climate/energy might lead to bad public policy.  In any of these cases, it's reasonable to believe that forcing tough votes in the quest for signing something worthwhile and then not getting a bill might be bad politics.

I do have one other thought about this...I was thinking of doing a post and titling it something like "Climate/Energy Bill Demise: It's Jane Hamsher's Fault," but since what I'm saying is I suppose speculative, I decided to hide it down here in the sixth or so paragraph of a fairly rambling post.  But here goes.  Suppose that the White House does believe that climate/energy has a pretty good chance to be signed into law, but that in order for that to happen, it will require another very high profile round of sausage-making.  And, even more than in health care reform, the White House believes that the results would involve quite a bit of compromise.  The problem here is that the White House is well aware that prominent liberal yakkers are unlikely to rally behind whatever Reid and Pelosi claim is necessary; instead, they are extremely likely to react with charges of sell-out, with claims that no bill would be better than a compromised bill, and with threats to stay home in November.  I'm differentiating here between climate/energy experts, who Democratic leaders should certainly be consulting, and Democratic activists who might take a "purist" position that any compromise is bad news.  At some point, the president and his aides (and the House and Senate leadership) might just say: why bother?   Is it really worth passing a marginal bill, even if it would be marginally worth it on substantive grounds, if the likely political effects are to keep Republicans riled up and at the same time just frustrate liberal activists?  Especially since, unlike health care, the effects of passing climate/energy are unlikely as far as I know to be noticeable to anyone, certainly not before Election Day in November.

Having raised that, I need to qualify it somewhat.  First, the scenario does depend on a gap appearing between the policy views of  vocal liberal activists and liberal experts.  That certainly happened in health care.  Would it happen in climate/energy?  I think it's a little less likely, because of how interest groups are organized; there is no real "health care reform" interest group, but there are environmental groups, and liberal activists are likely to take their cues from those groups -- and those groups, in turn, may be more likely to listen to liberal experts.  But it certainly could happen.  The other part of this is that I think it would be a mistake for the White House to pay very much attention to dissenting liberal activists.  The evidence on health care is that liberals overall were very happy with the bill, and continue to support the president, regardless of dissent to the left.  Granted, Democrats this fall would be happier with enthusiastic support from all progressives, but it's easy to overstate the amount of dissent on health care reform.

It's also possible that the White House is following the line of thinking, spouted here by Joe Klein, that "the public has had quite enough, thank you, of government activism this year."  If so, I disagree; I see no evidence from polling that "doing too much" is hurting the Democrats.  Doing unpopular things would hurt, but I think the only people who are upset about "government activism" are the people who would oppose the Democrats whatever they did.

So after all that, I don't really have much of a conclusion.  I guess what I'd say is that if Reid, Pelosi, and Obama believe that a climate bill can pass, then they should try to pass it.  There will be plenty of time later, if they want it, to allow immigration to be shot down in the Senate (it doesn't take long to lose a cloture vote on a motion to proceed).  But if they believe that no climate bill can be done, or if the only bill that can be done isn't worth it on substantive grounds, then backing off makes plenty of sense.

GOP Demand: Backroom Deal

Let's see if I understand this one correctly...Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, wants the Senate to move next to the banking bill.  Republicans objected, and pledge to unanimously vote against the motion to proceed.  Why?  Not, apparently, because they don't think that the Senate should act on financial reform.  Instead, their stated reason for blocking consideration of the bill is that they want more time to work out a bipartisan agreement on the issue.

But...last I heard, when Democratic leaders were working out agreements on health care with Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu, the proper name for that was the dreaded "backroom deal," the scourge of all that was right and proper and above board and clean.  Or perhaps backroom deals are only a bad thing if Republicans don't have the votes to stop them.

Just to be clear: the GOP is correct this time; not only is there nothing wrong with concerned Senators working things out about a piece of legislation, but it's exactly how Congress is supposed to work.  It's a very good thing.  Now, I'm not thrilled with a filibuster of the motion to proceed; if Republicans really want a bill, they lose nothing by letting the bill come to the floor and allowing the Senate to work on amendments, while holding in reserve the threat to prevent a final vote.  But generally, American democracy, at least the Congressional version of it,  is supposed to work by having those who want a bill sit down together and work out language that they can all live with.  They can do that in committee mark-ups, or on the floor of the House or Senate, or, as is often the case, far from C-SPAN and the press corps.

I'm glad that Republicans have recognized the value of negotiations, and I assume that they will henceforth cease attempting to smear the Democrats as the party of corrupt backroom deals.

(In which, obviously, "assume that they will" is meant to be read "assume that they won't").

(UPDATE: via Yglesias, see this Ryan Grim piece)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The NYT and Spitzer

I think Matt Yglesias's comments on today's front-page Sunday NYT interview with Eliot Spitzer are fine, but he misses what I think is the larger point: why is the New York Times giving Spitzer prime real estate to criticize Andrew Cuomo? 

I mean, I could see giving Spitzer space if they needed his expertise in something, such as the banking bill, or prostitution, or disgraced politicians...but I'm really not sure what the news value is, here.  I mean, "Gosh, if I hadn't screwed up as governor, I'd be a much better governor than him" -- why is that on the Sunday front page?  Especially coming on the heels of their "Spitzer's Back" feature.

Really, I don't want to pick on Spitzer; I think it's totally fine that he's writing for Slate, and apparently doing pundit duty on various TV shows.  I don't believe that he should be treated as a non-person, and he does have real knowledge of Wall Street.  As an expert on how to be a good Governor of New York, however...well, I'm not seeing that, and I'm not sure why the Times is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Joe Sheehan, now at SI, has a terrific column about the structure of the baseball season.  Sheehan:
For too long now, MLB has tried to be like the NFL, emphasizing the postseason at the expense of the regular season while embracing the idea that every team should be competitive every year. It was a ridiculous notion in 1994, when MLB realigned and foisted a new round of postseason play on us, and it's a ridiculous notion now. MLB has raised a generation of fans who don't appreciate the idea of September, of a long, drawn-out pennant race in which there can be just one winner, who don't understand that sometimes a great team can fall short of the postseason or even be eliminated in it, without changing its greatness...That should stop. Instead of cowering when it's compared to the NFL, MLB and its leaders should stand up and brag about the differences that make its game great.

Closed Loop Debate Continues

The big closed-information-loop discussion continues...since I've posted several times on the subject, here are links to recent contributors.

Julian Sanchez returns and offers some worthwhile thoughts on the issue, and the debate.  Conor Friedersdorf has not one, not two, but three terrific posts up.  One on the notion of conservative entertainers, another on the Manzi/NRO flap, and then one skewering Jonah Goldberg.  All terrific if you're interested in the topic.  There's also Anonymous Liberal weighing in, and E.D. Kain.

My main point after all this is the same I had at the beginning: the real test of whether conservative (and Republican) decision-makers really believe the nonsense rhetoric that they often use will be Sarah Palin, 2012.  For there can be no question but that a lot of Republican pols act as if they are fully captured by what Andrew Spung calls the "screamosphere" -- thus the endless repetition of factually incorrect assertions, such as the "10/6"  and "16K" claims about health care reform.  But of course pols of all stripes -- not to mention propogandists such as those on talk radio -- have never been known for being especially careful about facts.  What one would expect, of Republican politicians and conservatives more generally, is that they would make cool, careful appraisals of their choices for the presidency in 2012.  If they are using the same information to do so that the rest of us use, they would never even consider supporting Sarah Palin -- on the grounds that she's unpopular with the American people, on the grounds that she's not apt to be very good at being president, and on the grounds that she's proven no loyalty to Republicans or even conservatives (who do you think she was going rogue from?).  Collective support for her candidacy (or, for that matter, support for Newt Gingrich, but I assume that he's even less likely to put it to the test) would be very strong evidence that they were ignoring that evidence.


E.D. Kain opposes DC Statehood on three grounds, against Andrew Sullivan's insistence on representation for the citizens of the District.  One, I think, is based on a misguided reading of the politics of statehood; the second is nothing more than a prejudice; and the third, based on principles, I think is wrong.  My main interest here is the third one, on representation, but I'll take them one by one.

First, he thinks that it would be an unfair advantage:
DC is at the very heart of the country’s power structure. It is the part-time residence of every one of our federal elected officials. While voters may indeed lack proper representation, giving DC the added clout of two Senators and a number of representatives, plus all the other perks that come from statehood, would vastly tip the scales in DC’s favor.
The problem with this theory is that the interests of Members of Congress as part-time and temporary residents of Congress often clash with the interests of the people who actually live in the District.   So if anything, permanent District residents are bound to be in worse shape, not better shape, than residents of Alaska or North Dakota if they want to govern themselves without Federal government influence.  This is easy to see, since the District is not currently (nor has it as far as I know ever been) a paradise overflowing with government spending or any other clout-derived benefits. 

Second, Kain doesn't like the idea of a city-state:
[I]f DC can be its own state based solely off of the size of its population, why shouldn’t other cities also become states? New York City has far more people than DC. Perhaps each of the Burroughs could become a state. 
Well -- why not?  Makes as much sense as having large mostly empty states, to me.   Obviously, for various historical reasons, the fifty states are what they are -- but there's no underlying logic or sense to them.   After all, prior to 1960 there were no states remotely like Alaska or Hawaii, but those have worked out just fine.    There's little question in my mind that current residents of the District think of themselves as citizens of a politically separate jurisdiction, certainly more so than people in "North Dakota" presumably thought prior to their statehood.   Thinking that a city can't be a state is just prejudice, not argument.

Third, Kain believes that there's a principle at stake here:
Then again, the representative system in this country was never meant to be entirely based on population. As with every other aspect of our government, our electoral system acts as a set of checks and balances. That may be frustrating, but it is what it is...This is why we have two bodies in Congress – the House and the Senate. Each state gets equal representation in the Senate, but not in the House. Granting DC statehood makes sense if we’re going to base our representative structure on population alone, but that’s not how this country works, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Here's the thing about representation, something that is I think fairly little known: political representation is a really, really new idea, historically speaking.  For example, you won't find it in Shakespeare, because it hadn't really been invented yet.  By 1776 it was an established and recognized fact in England, but there was very little systematic thought about it yet (Burke's famous speech to the Electors of Bristol was in November, 1774)..  So in large part, the Framers were making it up as they went along; Madison's insights into democracy and representation were really very new, really original.  It wouldn't be surprising at all if their understanding of representation was not fully mature.  Folks back then thought that women didn't need to vote, and they had ideas about representation to support that notion, but they got that wrong -- and they got representation of arbitrary pieces of land wrong, too, to the extent they believed in it.  Anyway, as we know, the House/Senate distinction wasn't made on principle; it was a compromise forced on everyone by political necessity.  So while we're stuck with it, we don't have to embrace it as a virtue or a founding principle. 

The truth is that the American political system has rejected representation of places, not people, at every other stage of the political process, ever since the "one person, one vote" Court decisions of the early 1960s.  And as far as I can tell, everyone is pretty much OK with that in virtually every context.  No one is arguing that states would be better off -- more democratic -- if they had upper chambers apportioned by counties, not population.  The Senate is an unfortunate anachronism, one that we're stuck with, but not one that can be justified with any recognizably contemporary democratic theory.

(And don't even think about trying the old Reagan saw about the states creating the Federal government and not the other way around.  Perhaps 13 states could make that argument (against 37 the other way), but even there a map a 1770 Virginia isn't going to remind anyone too much of 2010 Virginia...and the Constitution is authored by We the People, not We the States).

None of this demands that representation of the citizens of the District can only be achieved through statehood, as opposed to the Maryland option. But Kain's arguments against statehood in principle strike me as wrong or misguided.   In reality, as with all statehood decisions, it comes down to political expediency, but in my view supporters have nothing to be embarrassed on the merits, certainly not the merits on democratic grounds, of DC statehood.

More Wildcard Senators (2011 Edition)

I've blogged a fair amount about the possibility that a handful of Senators could change their voting patterns this spring, summer, or fall.  But another Jonathan -- Zasloff -- is way ahead of me in thinking about the next Congress.  He asks: if Crist wins as an independent, with which party would he caucus?  Good question!  Of course, unless the margin in the Senate is very close, voting patterns may matter more than where a Senator caucuses (assuming those two decisions are independent of each other, which they might not be).  My guess is that a Senator Crist (I-FL) would vote as a Florida version of the Maine Senators, but who knows?

It does make me think that it's worth listing some of the wild card Senators for the next Congress: Senators whose voting in the Senate is the most difficult to predict right now.  I'm assuming a Democratic majority, with at least 52 and no more than, oh, 58 Democratic Senators -- in other words, their decisions will be in a world in which Democrats have solid control, but do not have 60.  So, ranked based on how large a range of reasonable predictions would probably be (in other words, from most to least uncertainty):

1.  Crist (if he wins as an indy).
2.  McCain (if he's back) -- least predictable voting record of any pol, over time.
3.  Lieberman -- does he drift right again in a more evenly balanced Senate?  Could be.  However, Dems could threaten his committee if they no longer need his vote so often.
4.  Specter (if he's back) -- voted like a mainstream liberal Dem this Congress.  Next one?  Who knows?  If he's back next year, he'll probably be planning a '16 run.
5.  S. Brown -- we'll probably learn more this summer, but he's still pretty unformed.
6.  Snowe -- no longer will be the swing voter; how will that affect her?
7.  B. Nelson -- see Snowe.

Any other candidates for this list? 

As with my speculations about Senators over the rest of this Congress, I'm not predicting anything.  Just pointing out some people who are worth watching, because of the possibility of very large changes.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Statehood, Again

Matt Yglesias makes the partisan argument for DC statehood (but appears to be as puzzled as I am about why liberals didn't push for it in 2009); Andrew Sullivan makes the enfranchisement argument.  James Joyner, and some commenters to my previous post, argue for giving the district back to Maryland, which solves the enfranchisement problem. 

Yglesias refers to the principled argument...I'm not sure which argument he's referring to, but I'll toss one in.  As regular readers know, I'm not a supporter of majoritarianism, so Madisonian elements of the American system such as separated institutions sharing powers, bicameralism, and various Senate rules don't bother me in principle (and indeed I think many of those features are excellent in theory and practice).  However, there is simply no good democratic argument for the composition of the Senate, and unfortunately the two-per-state rule is also just about the hardest thing to reform.  Constitutionally, it's as set in stone as anything.  If everyone within the system agreed to work around it, one could devise a solution; for example, it's theoretically possible to move state borders around to make the states equal, or at least less egregiously unequal, in population.  However, in practical political terms, that solution is probably even more implausible than a Constitutional fix.

Fortunately, the practical effects of Senate malapportionment have never been very important to partisan outcomes (although, alas, I don't have citations for studies of it).  There are (and again, my apologies for not having the citations) however some policy biases in favor of rural areas.  In other words, neither Democrats nor Republicans are helped, but rural interests are helped and urban interests hurt.  And thus the case for DC statehood: it's a work-around to redress the overall undemocratic Constitutional bias in favor of rural areas. 

Beyond that, I think the case against statehood is weak.  Yes, the District has a tiny population, but it's not tiny compared to Wyoming or North Dakota.  Sullivan links to questions about fiscal viability, but I do suspect those concerns could be dealt with (given a Congressional majority large enough to support statehood in the first place).  Two commenters brought up the 23rd Amendment as an issue, but I really don't think it's a serious problem: if and when Congress approved statehood, I suspect everyone concerned could rapidly pass a new amendment repealing the District's Electoral College votes.  Who would (at that point) oppose it? 

None of which, however, answers my original question, which is why liberals and partisan Democrats didn't push statehood.  For that, I need to hear from liberals and/or partisan Democrats (not Sullivan, then) who didn't support it (not Yglesias, who I think has posted quite a few times about it).  Anyone?

All Mod Cons

Jonathan Chait notes that conservative talk radio and blogs are mostly ducking the banking bill.  He think it's because the issue is tricky to get right (no pun intended) for them:
You can see why the issue would pose problems for the right. First, it threatens the self-image they've developed over the last year as opponents of the government-business nexus. Second, it's difficult to work out a free market response...Either way, government has to get involved at some step in the process. It almost seems like conservatives can't choose which form of government intervention to accept, so many of them just aren't choosing.
I think this misunderstands the goals and incentives of what Ross Douthat has been dismissing as conservative "entertainment."  Chait, and I think most liberal bloggers, aren't entertainers, certainly not primarily so.  They are advocates for a particular type of politics and government.  As such, they are interested in public policy issues because they believe those issues are important to the well-being of the nation.  For entertainers, however, interest in an issue is going to be driven by the market, and the conservative market isn't apt to be interested in regulating (or not regulating) banks; it's interested in guns, and abortion, and religion, and various other hot-button issues.  Health care mapped pretty well onto those issues; financial regulation, much less so.  So it's not so much that there's no coherent position that conservatives could take; it's that the types of people who listen to Rush, watch Beck, and read NRO just aren't interested in this sort of thing.  And we're talking about entertainers who may not know much about public policy, but give every indication of knowing their audience extremely well.

The other side of this, however, and where Douthat's classification runs into trouble, is that on the conservative side the "entertainers" are far more prominent than anyone else, and certainly far more prominent than what he calls "the elite world of pundits and intellectuals."  In other words, what Rush and company talk about -- which is driven by what drives ratings and sells books -- then becomes the only thing that conservatives talk about.  Moreover, as far as anyone can tell, there's just a lot of money to be had by being a conservative entertainer, which creates strong pressures on talented conservatives to be more Levin than Manzi, more Coulter than Friedersdorf, more Beck than Larison.  And that leaves people such as Manzi or Larison or Bartlett or even Frum marginalized by people such as Lopez or McCarthy. 

So it's a bit disingenuous for Ross Douthat to say that Mark Levin's book is just entertainment.  He's correct...except that it's entertainment that's driving the party, entertainment that makes it hard for Republicans in Congress to acknowledge widely-understood facts about climate change, entertainment that drives the conservative conversation so that if there's no market, there's no conversation.  And that, rather than the more general unpopularity of their position, is why there's little conservative talk about the banking bill: there just aren't enough abortions, guns, and gays involved.

Read Stuff, You Should

Starting with something not to read, as's a close call, this time, between a Schoen/Caddell op-ed in the WaPo giving (more) terrible advice to the Democrats, and Hot Air's contribution to the closed-information-loop discussion.  The tie-breaker?  Yes, I know it's a mug's game to dig down into comments, but I did want to quote this one -- the fun part is the parenthetical at the end:
WOW! Great take down Karl :) The First part using Rush’s shows how ridiculous the idea that the riight is engaged in some epistemic closure. On the contrary we are constantly engaging the media. If we werent fox news would be our only source for information. (If you listen to Laura ingraham, Hannity, Levin or even our local Washington DC consevative Chris Plante you will see that they all pretty much follow the same format that Rush uses)
But of course the real news here is not only that Jim Manzi wrote a scathing review of Mark Levin's book, but that it was posted at NRO.  Good for them, and well worth a link.

Continuing with the good stuff:

1. I doubt anyone needs me for this well-publicized item, but if you haven't read Bruce Bartlett's closed-loop post, you should.

2. Matt Yglesias makes a good point about counterinsurgency and Afghanistan, while William Saletan has a clever piece on Palin's foreign policy.

3. Ezra Klein is right on tax enforcement.

4. Yglesias again, this time harping on the open seats at the Fed.  Meanwhile, Brad DeLong explains Goldman's problems with the SEC.

5. Sullivan vs. the Tea Parties.

6. OK, I'll admit it: I'm now going to link to something I haven't actually read, just because I really want to mention the Monkey Cage's terrific job of collecting posts about elections in far off and exotic places.  Like Hungary.

7.TNC.  The Civil War.  Just one taste, but obviously you want to read the whole series.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another Senator's Strings Cut? 2

A quick follow-up to my post about Bob Bennett, and how he'll behave if he loses his seat to a Republican this spring:

In case you're wondering, John McCain's primary isn't until August 24.  I can confidently predict that following that primary, win or lose, his voting record will not be significantly to the left of Bernie Sanders or significantly to the right of Jim DeMint.  Beyond that, you're guess is as good as mine. 

Whichever way he lands, it will be pretty late in the Congress, so it's unlikely to matter much. 

Another Senator's Strings Cut?

I've blogged quite a bit about Senator George LeMieux (R-Crist), and whether Charlie Crist's apparent immanent departure from the GOP nomination contest might affect LeMieux's votes in the Senate.  I haven't, however, posted anything about another intriguing case.  Senator Bob Bennett is apparently in deep trouble for his own renomination.  As David Weigel explains, under Utah rules if any candidate receives 60% of the vote at the state party convention, that's it: that candidate is the nominee, and the primary election is canceled.   And it seems that polling of the delegates indicates that it's a real possibility that first-time candidate Mike Lee might be able to do that   We'll know on May 8; if Lee can't shut the thing down, it goes to a primary on June 22.

Bob Bennett, a second-generation Senator, has always seemed to me to be about as close to the ideal regular conservative Republican as you can get, but for whatever reasons Utah Republicans might be ready to give him the boot.  My question: how will he react?  Unlike LeMieux, he gives (as far as I know) absolutely no hint of having any liberal inclinations, so it's hard to believe that freedom from electoral constraints would push him to the left.  On the other hand, he certainly would have a motive for sticking it to Republicans: revenge.  The guy will be 77 by January, so it's not as if he'll be bucking for an ambassadorship from the next GOP president...

I'm not predicting anything.  Just saying that if he is defeated on May 8 or on June 22, it might be worth keeping an eye on how he reacts.

Just A Bill

Andrew Sullivan has a great throwaway line at the end of a post today:
By the way, have you begun to notice the massive amount of legislative change and action since Obama came to office? More will.
One of the reasons that people haven't noticed, as Norm Ornstein observed a while ago, is a consequence of the way Congress does business nowadays.  Have you watched the Schoolhouse Rock "I'm Just A Bill" lately?  Our hero, the bill, was a one line item about school buses stopping at railroad tracks.  It went through a House committee, the House floor, a Senate committee, the Senate floor, and then was signed into law.  But even then, and certainly now, that would rarely happen.  Instead, our friend Bill would (just like the schoolbuses!) wait for the next big train to come by: a comprehensive eduction, or perhaps transportation, effort.  And then the bill's sponsor would, if he was talented and lucky, add the bill to that larger effort.  Remember the line of bills waiting to get signed?  One of them...two of them, I guess, were twins!  I always thought that was funny, but in real life now most bills that get signed are whole families, with kids, grandkids, first cousins, and perhaps a few of those miscellaneous relatives that you're not quite sure who they are, maybe the stepsister of your divorced sister-in-law that just got on so well with the cousins from Atlanta that she just stuck as family. 

So, the two mega-bills that the president has signed into law so far (the stimulus and the health care bill) both contained that sort of multitudes.  Think about health care.  If I have this right, I'd say there are two Big Bills: one is the individual mandate/pre-existing conditions/subsidies bill; the other sets up exchanges.  They're related and overlapping, but I think they're conceptually separate.  And then, there are a whole lot of other bills.  The various cost control pilot programs probably each started life as separate bills.  The CLASS Act was a separate bill.  The Medicare cost board.  Of course, there's also student loan reform, which had nothing to do with health care at all, but was included in a second "sidecar" bill. 

Which brings me to today's news that Greg Sargent is reporting, which is the implementation of the requirement that insurance companies allow parents to keep kids up to age 26 on their insurance.  I don't know the origins of this one; I don't know if it started life as a bill, or as an idea cooked up by Obama's White House health care people, or what, but again this is something that as far as I can tell could exist, and may once have existed, as a free-standing bill.

In other words, Sullivan is exactly correct: this has been, so far, a very productive Congress.  Note that he's now rated by Politifact as having fulfilled over a fifth of his campaign promises  (and about a third if compromises, such as state instead of national insurance exchanges, are included), for what it's worth.  That's without the big items still out there: banking (fairly likely), climate (still unlikely, but not impossible), and immigration (I'd be shocked) I missing any?  And it's also without all the small things that will happen.  Of course, that alone doesn't make Barack Obama a successful president, whatever that means.  But those who are focused only on what hasn't happened, or what has been compromised, are missing the big picture here.
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