Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Nothing but Giants this week...

OK, two issues for Sabean et al. this week: who to play, and whether to sign Pat Burrell.  I'm going to run two numbers...projected EqA from BP 2010, and OPS+ for this year so far.  Obviously, for some of these guys it's a very limited year to date, but it's what we have.

Sanchez   250     61
Renteria   255   102
Uribe       246   105
Huff         260   112
S'holtz     267   107
Bowker   269     66
Torres     238   130
DeRosa   261     42
Burrell     261     70

and since you're asking, Posey is projected to 349 OBP/424 SLG, good for a 270 EqA.

OK. We're talking about five spots (1B/3B, 2B, SS, LF, RF).  At least two of the MIs, obviously, have to play, counting DeRosa as a MI, including at least one of Renteria and Uribe.  I'm assuming that everything else is flexible; anyone on the list could play 1B/3B or LF, and most of them could play RF.  Sound good?

The next thing I'd say is that from a developmental point of view, there's no one here who has to play.  Most of them are at the ends of their careers, and the two young players have very limited potential; I could picture either of them topping out as a minor plus regular...and that's optimistic.  Posey, of course, is a big deal, but no one else here has a career worth worrying about.

Well, the first thing to note is that it's not an easy call.  The guy who is projected as the worst is hitting, by far, the best.  That's Torres.  The guy who is by a very narrow margin projected as the best, Bowker, isn't hitting at all.   And of course the three of the four MIs have spent time injured.

So, what to do?  First thing is I think there's no reason to be forcing three of the MIs into the lineup at the same time, whether it's DeRosa in LF, or Uribe at 3B with Sandoval at 1B, Huff to LF, and another OFer to the bench.  Third, there's no real reason not to sign Burrell, especially if they can stash him at AAA, since there doesn't seem to be any serious opportunity cost in doing so (I suppose there's a spot on the 40 man roster to clear, but I can't imagine it's a real problem).  Even if it meant Bowker going to Fresno for a while, so what?  Bowker is probably a better hitter than Burrell, but maybe the water is just funny in Tampa and Burrell's fountain of youth is in California.  Beyond that, this is a rare case in which I'd say play the hot hand, or the manager's hunches, or matchups, or whatever.  If there's any more obvious solution to this, I don't see it.

And then go out there and find a real hitter.  Any position but catcher.  Don't give up Posey or Bumgarner, but outside of that, anything in the minors is fair game.  There's no standout team in the division, and it's worth trying to contend right now.  Presumably Posey will be up in a few weeks and that'll help some, but he's not going to be a serious bat for a while (and certainly not at 1B, if he plays a lot there)...a serious hitter would really change the odds of this team reaching the postseason.

Comment of the Day

Jonathan Chait had a nice quick item today making fun, as he does, of a GOP group for having a goofy acronym...he wound up puzzling over the word "monger," as in hate-monger or fish-monger.  At any rate, for some reason I looked through the comments, and came across this one from a krlong014 which struck me as the perfect Friday reading:
Does a fishmonger "monger" fish, or does one "mong" fish? A miller doesn't miller, one mills. On the other hand, a butcher doesn't butch, one butchers. But then drilling is done by a drill, not a driller. The whole damn language makes no sense. Rush says things weren't this confusing before ACORN stole the election and Nobama made the banks fail.
I'll be back later with a baseball post, but for those who skip those -- have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Read Stuff, You Should

Have to do the tab dump...I get to contribute to the guest-Ezra tab dump over there, but there's only five slots for the four of us to fill, and there's more good things to read (that I don't have time to comment on or anything to add) than that...not to mention that I need as always to start with something not to read.  In this case, it's not exactly one that you've probably been sitting around wondering whether to look at it or not, but just in really don't want to read Zev Chafets' op-ed in the NYT last week explaining that Rush Limbaugh is The Most Incredibly Powerful and Important Person in the Universe Bar None...oh, and Chafets also happens to have a book out about Rush.  My guess?  David Frum is right, and you don't want to read the book, either.  At any rate, I hope you skipped the op-ed.

Now, on to the good stuff.

1. Andrew Sullivan on living in multiple worlds.

2. Rand Paul inspired blogging: Adam Serwer on freedom...and I'll add a little George Will, too.

3. Immigration/Arizona?  You're not going to do better than Michael Kinsley and Conor Friedersdorf, are you?

4. You know what I think: he's the best one out there, absolutely essential.  TNC.

5. Blogging the Pill, Roy Edroso and Amanda Marcotte.

6. Afghanistan, with Fred Kaplan, Matt Yglesias, and Kaplan again.

7.  Serwer takes on Andy McCarthy (the Bush apologist, not the actor in all those great movies).

8.  Do conventions affect local voting?  Seth Masket crunches numbers, says no.

9.  And Yglesias counsels conservatives not to fall for a fraud.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ronald Reagan, Conservatives, and Willing Innocence

There's a whole discussion that Matt Yglesias sparked and Conor Friedersdorf got going about today's conservatives and Goldwater worship, but I'm going to skip to what what Ta-Nehisi Coates said, because it's Just That Good:
Goldwater's sin was naivety...In that sense, Goldwater is the more appropriate hero for today's generation of blissfully ignorant ("How did that 'White slavery' sign get there?") non-racist Republican. It's not so much that they hate you, it's they are shocked--shocked--to discover that some of their fellow travelers hate you. When discussing them, all bloggers are required to begin their missives by quickly dispensing with  with the "Are they racist?" strawman. Answering in the affirmative has been outlawed in polite company, where there are no actual racists. And so we are left, as I've said, with imbecility as an explanation, and a much more troubling query--"Are they stupid?"  ("Are you so stupid that you would allow racist newsletters to be published in your name?" "Are you so stupid that you would have a campaign manager with "Happy Nigger day" on his Myspace page?")
TNC is brilliant as usual.  Even better, all of this gives me an excuse, actually a pretty good excuse, to go through at least some of the bits of my very favorite classroom lecture that I give, since it's very much to the point here. Plus it can count as a Monday Movies Post, sort of.

Here's the thing: Ronald Reagan's great gift, as Garry Wills told it, was exactly that naivete.   I've posted before Lou Cannon's story about Reagan's ability to continue touting Hollywood morality and how it led to great marriages even in the weeks after his own divorce.  That's just the beginnings of it.  Wills talks at length about Reagan's ability to believe what he wanted to believe, to believe things that fit the story he wanted to be living.  The best illustration of this, to me, was that Reagan even managed to ignore the obvious subtexts of Production Code era movies.  This brings us to Reagan's favorite movie role, the one that made him a star: Drake McHugh in King's Row.  For Reagan, King's Row -- a gothic story about the evils lurking below the surface of a seemingly idyllic American town  -- was mostly a story about overcoming adversity in an idyllic American town.  Moreover, part of the strength of the American gothic genre...think, for example, David Lynch's Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" that it undermines one's ability to retain an idyllic image of American small-town life.  See also the political theorist John Seery's wonderful analysis of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" (alas, I can't find an ungated version of the paper, but he discusses it briefly here).

As Wills describes it in his Reagan book, Code-era audiences learned to understand the ever-expanding symbolism that Hollywood deployed to evade the censors (think of how in Top Secret! the camera cuts from Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge embracing while parachuting to a fireplace, parachuting right along side them).  Here's Wills:
Once it was realized that movies were sending messages over and around the Code, a kind of snide knowingness was required in the intelligent viewer.  The question became not is this storm really the Code's code for intercourse, but can there be any storm in the movies that is not a sexual spasm?...There was a perpetual oscillation, a forever wavering balance, between the naive and the knowing, between sappy innocence and winking lubriciousness.  One falsehood fed the other.  As Ben Hecht wrote: "The have learned how to hint at fornication in a hundred masterful ways and so much that I, for one, watching a movie, am ready to believe that all its males and females fall to futtering one another as soon as the scene dissolves."
Mind if I go off on a bit more of a tangent?  If the Production Code protects us from King's Row, from American gothic themes of incest, sadism, and other depravity lurking below the surface of small-town America, then when the Code goes away, the movies in that genre get awfully hard to watch.  After all, even David Lynch needs a stylized opening to his own imaginings of depravity (granted, Lynch is no slouch at imagining depravity).  Much easier to take are two Reagan-era films.  Back to the Future is an inverted comic American gothic.  In it, the perverted, corrupt city is on the surface, while the pure idyllic American small town is, perversely, lurking underneath.  The film retains the themes of incest (Marty and his mom) and sadism (the town bully), but they're now comic, not depraved.  Even more oddly inverted, albeit far more obscure, is The Experts, from one of John Travolta's career lulls.  Like Back to the Future, this one also features an idyllic American 1950s small town.  However, the rot underneath this one is quite literally Communism; the small town is actually a KGB version of an American small town in which agents live out their lives in order to raise "real" Americans who can grow up to be the perfect agents.  Insidious -- but it's the 1980s, and in order to bring the town up to date, the KGB tricks Travolta and Arye Gross to move there to bring them 1980s hair or something like that.  Not only are Travolta and Gross too foolish to figure out that they're not in Nebraska, but as two city-dwelling, club-hopping, losers, they don't have the true American values that the KGB...wait for it...finds to its horror that they've inadvertently bred into their faux "Americans,"  who naturally have to teach Travolta the true meaning of America.  (Arye Gross is a sidekick; sidekicks don't have to learn things).  It's not quite as clean an inverted American gothic as is Back to the Future, but I do love the way that it subverts American gothic themes by replacing personal and societal corruption with communism.

By the way, the KGB agent who lures Travolta and Gross to the USSR is Toad, from American Graffiti (a movie irrelevant to this, despite its small-town setting, but one I like to mention since I love it)., Charles Martin Smith, also directed the first half of the pilot of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which certainly is relevant.  In American gothic, things lurk American gothic monster-style, things really do lurk underneath, and they're trying to get out and kill you, and in fact they take half the high school kids in town hostage by the end of the second half of the pilot.  After Buffy stops them (uh, spoiler -- the world doesn't actually end in the pilot), her new friend Xander says that nothing will ever be the same again/quick cut to the next day, at school, where everything is the same after all, and Giles has to explain to Willow and Xander that people are capable of blocking out all sorts of horrible things that they don't want to know.

Which leads us back to Ronald Reagan, and his great gift of naivete.  I'll quote Wills again:
Each performer had to strike her or her private bargain with make-believe.  It is clear, from early on, what Reagan's device would be: he pretended there was no pretense.  When he had to, he could will his own innocence.
Reagan, as it were, is the people of Sunnydale.  He's able to believe that idyllic American small towns are nothing but idyllic American small towns even after watching the vamps kill his friends.  Reagan famously said that "I am eternally optimistic, and I happen to believe that we've made great progress from the days when I was young and when this country didn't even know it had a racial problem." One can read all sorts of terrible motives into that, but I think it's better to see it as of a piece with the Reagan who never was divorced, the Reagan who makes himself believe that a fireplace is just a fireplace.  The Reagan who just couldn't force himself to believe that he had traded arms for hostages, because it didn't fit with the rest of the story he thought he was in.

Sometimes, with Reagan, the belief in the pretense got him into trouble.  Sometimes, as in his recovery from divorce, as Wills writes, it was a source of great strength (and of course he had other strengths, too -- Reagan was a very successful pol for plenty of reasons).  I think it was this quality of Reagan's, however, and not his Hollywood background that fooled liberals into thinking that he was "just" an actor and over his head in national politics.  But at the same time, Reagan's ability to believe things that weren't so was no help to him in the White House, and in my view it seriously endangered the nation more than once, most precariously at Reykjavik (although see this argument that Reagan's belief in pretense was in some ways essential to the demise of communism).

That's the basic story I feel confident in telling about Reagan.  Now, if I wanted to stretch, I would launch into a discussion of how Ronald Reagan taught conservatives to believe that the things they want to believe are true.  Perhaps that's true, but it's pretty squishy stuff.  I guess what I'd say is that Reagan's belief-in-pretense solved solved for himself at least one difficult problem in post-civil rights America, and it's not unreasonable to speculate that those who have sought to emulate him have learned what he taught.  And here I would return to TNC and the willed naivite among some of today's conservatives.

The problem for conservatives in post-civil rights America -- at least for well-intentioned conservatives -- is the one that Rand Paul ran into last week, or the one that Trent Lott ran into a few years ago.  Like or it not, the problem goes (and this is what Matt Yglesias was talking about), the contemporary conservative movement was very much born in opposition to the civil rights movement.  That's a whopping big original sin.  Conservatives have dealt with this in any number of ways...pretending that MLK's basic message was opposition to affirmative action, or Michael Steele's favorite, pretending that the Republicans who fought the Civil War and supported civil rights are the same people as today's conservatives.  Reagan's is one of the best: simply pretending that it never happened, that there was a time when no one knew about the bigotry...and then things got better.  Of course, the past and race isn't just a problem for conservatives; it's a problem for Democrats, for liberals, and for the nation as a whole.  But liberals can look back with justifiable pride of at least some of their actions at one critical point, and that perhaps makes it easier to deal with the truth of other times when they showed less courage.  Democrats can look back with pride (perhaps less justifiable, but at least plausible) at the record of their party in risking electoral loss over historic legislation, and that perhaps makes it easier to deal with the truth of the party's long and disgraceful record up until that point.  It's not surprising, then, that believing the pretense that there never were any racists is appealing to some conservatives, even if it means pretending that there are not now, and never have been, any conservative interest in winning the Jimmy Rebel vote.

 (I don't, by the way, mean just white liberals and white Democrats -- I mean liberals-as-liberals, regardless of ethnicity).

If I really wanted to dive into speculation, I could talk about what Jonathan Chait recently referred to as "magical thinking" among conservatives, generally, and think about the connection between that sort of thinking and Reagan's ability to believe the pretense.  I think that's probably a step too far for me, and I'll leave it to others to think about.

Which leaves me just with one important paragraph of caveats.  I am certainly not saying that conservative thought is somehow illegitimate or tainted because of its history, any more than America itself is somehow illegitimate because of its history.  What I am saying is that one does have to deal with these things in some way, and the Reagan method involved simply not believing things that didn't fit what he wanted to believe, true or not.  And, again, I'm not saying that this means that Reagan was a moron or anything like that, or that this particular trait of Reagan's delegitimatizes conservative ideas.  That's not the point.  The idea here is to understand how he went about his life in order to see his strengths and weaknesses, not to assess conservative thought based on how one conservative pol lived his life.

And,'s Adam Serwer and David Weigel, and here's Conor Friedersdorf's follow-up.

I mentioned a lot of movies and TV shows above.  I give my highest recommendations to Top Secret! (much funnier than Airplane!); to Buffy (stick with it, the first season is inconsistent, but it's worth it); and to American Graffiti.  I'm not sure what kind of recommendation to give The Boondocks.  It's wildly inconsistent; at its best, one of the most terrific shows I've ever seen, but I'm not sure that it's really worth sticking with it past season one, although there are still funny bits that pop up when you least expect it.  I have some thoughts about Huey in the current season, but this is long enough already.  If you haven't seen Back to the Future for some reason I suppose I can solidly recommend that, as well.  And, of course, I continue to highly recommend Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

More Dynasty Blogging

After having a 2nd or 3rd generation Bush on the national ballot for decades, the 2008 presidential campaign was relatively dynasty-free.  Not completely, of course: the runner-up for the nomination on the Democratic side was the wife of a former president; the sort-of runner-up on the Republican side was the son of a presidential candidate, and one of the also-rans on the Democratic side was the son of a Senator.  Still, the eventual Democratic ticket was completely dynasty-free, as was the VP pick on the GOP side. 

How should John McCain be counted?  He's the first in his family to go into electoral politics.  But his father and grandfather were four-star admirals, so its not as if they were strangers to government and policy-making.  It's obviously a judgment call...if I were doing a formal study, I'd probably try to find a middle ground.  For this post, it's enough to just note his background.

If one doesn't consider McCain a dynastic candidate, was 2008 a restoration of normal?  Aren't candidates such as the Bushes unusual?


Ready?  I'm going to list the dynasty candidates and hope that readers know which ones are Democrats and Republicans, presidential nominees and VP candidates.  Also, this isn't intended to be an exhaustive list (in other words, I'm mostly relying on my memory + wiki).

2004: George W. Bush, third-generation pol
2000: Bush, and Gore, second-generation pol
1996: Gore
1992: George H.W. Bush, second generation, and Gore
1988: Bush
1984: Bush
1980: Bush
1976: None!
1972: Shriver, brother-in-law of President Kennedy
1968: None!  (Humphrey's father was a small-town mayor, but really?  I don't think so).
1964: None! (see 1968)
1960: Kennedy, 3rd generation pol, more or less; Lodge, long political family
1956: Stevenson, long political family
1952: Stevenson
1948: None! (although Thurmond's running mate came from a political family)
1944: Roosevelt, long political family
1940: FDR
1936: FDR
1932: FDR
1928: None!
1924: Dawes was from a political family; Davis was a second-generation pol; the Democrats' VP pick was Charles W. Bryan, who was William Jennings Bryan's younger brother.
1920: FDR
1916: None!
1912: Taft, third-generation pol; Hiram Johnson, second-generation pol
1908: Taft.  Bryan's father was a local pol
1904: None!
1900: Bryan

So, no, 2008 was definitely not a return to normal practice, unless you count McCain as a dynastic pol, in which case it was normal.  I count seven fully non-dynastic elections in the 20th century (eight if you don't want to count the elder Bryan; six if you count Thurmond's running mate in 1948).  Or, to look at it another way, almost exactly one out of four major-party nominees for national office over the period 1900-2008 have been from political families.  And it's not as if Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Chris Dodd were unusual, either.  There are plenty of Tafts, Lodges, and Stevensons who came close to nominations they didn't get. 

What actually strikes me as I look through the list is that there are a lot of Tafts and Bushes, on the one hand, and then a lot of Nixons, Reagans, and Clintons, on the other hand.  What seems relatively unusual are people who were from wealthy or otherwise prominent families -- even comfortably middle class families -- that were not prominent because of politics.  There are some, of course, especially preacher's kids, I think (did I count three of those?  four?), but not nearly as many as one might have guessed.  Of course, there are a lot more poor and working class people than there are lawyers, professors, doctors, or corporate executives, but one might have thought that the latter group would produce plenty of successful pols.

Back to the main point, however: Bush, Gore, Romney, and the rest are nothing new.


Howdy everyone,

As you may have seen, I'm off for another guest-blogging gig, this time for Ezra Klein.   My plan is to drop in here for a post a day or so...I'll certainly do Friday Baseball Posts here, and I'm really trying to get back on track with Monday Movies Posts, and a tab dump. Beyond that, well, as always just stop by or follow the twitter feed or whatever.  For those who are new, please take a look around, and I hope you like what you find here.  Mostly my thanks to Ezra for the invite!  Beyond that, I do want to thank everyone again for visiting here, especially the bloggers who have been very kind to me as I learn the ropes, and the regular commenters who keep things lively around here.

I'll add one thing for the political scientists reading: here's your chance!  If there's anything that you know (or that we collectively know) that you wish more people knew -- especially something that reporters typically get wrong -- please leave a comment here or drop me an email, and I'll try to post about it over there.  Thanks!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

One of the old-time sabermetric findings is that people don't learn to hit past the age of, oh, 25 or so.  99% of the time, that's true.  I'm not sure why, but I really do think that Andres Torres is the other 1%.  It's not that he's anything special now, but he was a puny singles hitter who would have needed a .320 BA to be acceptable, and now he walks and gets tons of extra base hits.  It isn't really enough PAs to mean much, but I'm a believer, for what it's worth. 

Meanwhile, I have nothing analytic this week, but for those who want good stuff I'll direct you to Steven Rubio's discussion of...oh, I don't know how to characterize it.  When narrative and sabermetrics meet, perhaps? 

Nepotism Update: Rand Paul and Bob Bennett edition

The demise of Bob Bennett and the nomination of Rand Paul reminded me of the question of dynastic succession in American politics.  When I last visited this one, Glenn Greenwald was concerned that nepotism is on the upswing, Tom Schaller had data (but unfortunately not real recent data) that showed nepotism declines over time, and I tended to conclude that it's not an increasing problem.  By the way, I should say that I do agree with Greenwald that dynastic succession in American politics tends to be a Bad Thing, all else equal.

So, how do things look for 2011? 

Greenwald identified twelve dynastic Senators in the current Congress: Murkowski, Kyl, Gregg, Dodd, Casey, Bayh, two Udalls, Snowe, Pryor, Bennett, and Rockefeller (plus Ted Kennedy had been the thirteenth).  This is actually down a bit from the previous Senate, which had neither Udall but did have a Clinton, a Dole, and a Sununu, for sixteen in all.  And so far, Rand Paul notwithstanding, it looks like there will be even fewer in January 2011.  Bennett, Gregg, Dodd, and Bayh are all leaving.  Greenwald was concerned about a variety of rumored candidates, but none of them -- Kennedys in New York and Massachusetts, a Cuomo in New York (yes, but different office), a Jackson in Illinois, a Bush in Florida, or a Biden in Delaware -- will be on the November ballot.  I suppose there are still states remaining with deadlines that Harold Ford, Jr. could meet, but so far, not.

Of those candidates who are running, I'll start with Rand Paul, son of the Member of the House and peripatetic presidential candidate, currently a mild frontrunner to be Senator from Kentucky.  In Arkansas, the GOP nominee (and again mild favorite) is John Boozman.  Boozman's older brother, the late Fay Boozman, was a four-year state senator who ran for the same Senate seat in 1998; that's a pretty weak nepotism case, I think.  In Missouri, the Democratic candidate, Robin Carnahan, is the daughter of two politicians (her opponent, Roy Blunt, is the father of a pol, but that doesn't count). 

And as far as I can tell, that's just about it.  I could be missing someone, in two ways: first, I basically used Wikipedia, and they don't always have complete information, of course; second, I might be missing a candidate for some reason, although I did go through all of the contested races and open seats, per the latest Cook chart.

But as far as I can tell:

Previous Senate: 16 dynastic Senators
Current Senate: 13 (now 12)
Next Senate: Between 8 and 10 or 11, assuming no late changes and how one counts Boozman.


Creeping nepotism in American politics: still not a major problem.

(Update: Ugly Typo in Subject Line Fixed.  Yikes!)


One of the more useful findings from elections research, in this case from Gary Jacobson, is that "quality" challengers, politically skilled and ambitious candidates, are far more likely to defeat House incumbents than are other challengers.  In fact, it's such a big deal that it is possible to get a large partisan effect in fall elections purely from the choices of potential candidates months in advance.  That is, if Republicans think it's going to be a great year for them, and all the best potential GOP candidates choose to run while the opposite dynamic works on the Democratic side, one can show that the results will be a Republican landslide even if there is no other, external reason for Republicans to do well -- that is, even if voters have no intention to reward Republicans or punish Democrats. 

Now, that raises the question of what constitutes a "quality" candidate.  Well, that, and Rand Paul's Big Adventure.  While we know, from Jacobson's (and other) research, that candidates who have previously won elective office do quite a bit better than those who don't, it's not clear what differentiates good from bad candidates.  Is it something about the person -- does one learn how to be a pol from previous (especially successful) efforts?  Perhaps previously successful pols are better at giving speeches, allocating resources, and convincing people to give money; perhaps previously successful pols have built strong ties to district elites.   Or is it about the system, and external to the candidate?  Regardless of whether or not she knows what she's doing, the previously successful candidate probably starts with higher name recognition than a newcomer.  She may raise more money not because she's good at it, but because people eager to support candidates with a good chance of winning will just assume that, say, a state senator has a better chance than a shoe salesman, and make choices accordingly.  For those who want to solve that question, however, the problem is that it's hard to isolate the various things in the real world.  Candidates don't conveniently come with single skills present (or missing) so that we can tease out which traits matter.

All of which brings me to Rand Paul, who surely is setting some sort of record for ugliest first week as a Senate nominee.  Not that he's necessarily going to lose (or that he'll be hurt in the polls right away), but just in terms of the number and the visibility of awkward moments.  He clearly has some solid candidate skills, but knowing how to talk about potentially unpopular positions in an interview doesn't seem to be one of them, at least so far.  I'm afraid that Steve Benen is entirely correct; it sounds pretty lame for national Republicans to be making excuses for him based on his inexperience, although not nearly as lame as Paul's complaint that he's not getting a honeymoon (he's used that one at least twice so far.  Yikes!  Hey, Rand Paul: Honeymoons come after the wedding, not after the engagement!). 

Of course, this is a case of living by the sword and all that.  I suspect that there are plenty of candidates for the U.S. Senate who would do badly if exposed to the national press in gotcha mode; Paul has the disadvantage of holding issue positions out of the mainstream, but then again he probably has more facts at his disposal than does the average Senate candidate  Granted, I haven't listened to him enough to be able to speculate how many of his facts are actually true -- could be all of them, could be only a portion -- but unless it gets to Reagan levels it's usually not a problem to confidently state facts that turn out not to be true.  Unless, of course, the facts are about oneself...that gets tricky.  But holding oddball positions, and having a history of holding oddball positions, is definitely a problem for a candidate, especially one that is going to receive more than his share of news coverage.   Rand Paul wouldn't be a nominee for Senate without the things that have brought him all the attention this week; we'll see now how he handles it over the next several months.

Newt's Babies vs. the Watergate Babies

A nice item from Hotline On Call this week by Reid Wilson noted that with the sudden demise of Mark Souder, there will only be nine Members of the House next year from the class of 1995 out of the 73 new Republicans elected in the 1994 GOP landslide.  I don't give Newt Gingrich much credit for the landslide (credit beyond the normal Republican gains to be expected that year given the Democratic president and large Democratic majorities should go mainly to Bill Clinton's self-inflicted problems, with secondary credit to Bob Dole's all-filibuster strategy in the Senate).  But the future Speaker, erstwhile snake-oil salesman, and general fraud was involved directly and indirectly in candidate recruitment, so in that sense it's not unreasonable to call them Newt's babies.

At any rate, it looks as if there will only be nine of them in the next House.  That doesn't strike me as very many, but they'll be joined by quite a few on the Senate side.  There are seven now, perhaps down to six when Sam Brownback leaves unless Todd Tiarht replaces him, although Richard Burr could lose, and it's not entirely certain that John Ensign will still be a sitting United States Senator next year.

It's not an especially distinguished group, I don't think.  Brownback has become something of a conservative leader, although I'm not aware of that being expressed legislatively to any great effect.  Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham have both had significant Congressional careers.  Of the rest, and go to the link for the list, I'm not really aware of much -- although I should note that (1) it's very possible that one or more of these Members has been productive on the Hill and I've just missed it, and (2) there are another forty or so Newt Babies that have gone, but may have been productive before that.  Among them, Tom Davis and Ray LaHood both had, I believe, reputations as hard-working Members.  As far as I can see Davis is the closest that any of the 73 have come to House leadership position, having served two terms as NRCC chair.  That's fairly astonishing; one would think that a class that large would produce a Republican Leader, Whip, or at least chair of the conference, but unless I'm missing someone I don't think they have.  I do think that as a group they've been fairly impressive in their upward mobility, since over 10% have moved up to the Senate or become governor.  Others ran for higher office without winning. 

On the other hand...I did mention John Ensign and Mark Souder right?  The scandals of the Newt babies, from the infamous Enid Greene Waldholtz on, have always overshadowed their substantive accomplishments.  Guess who else is a Newt baby: that's right, your favorite Governor of South Carolina, Mr. Hiking the Appalachian Trail himself, Mark Sanford.  Mark Foley?  Oh yeah.  And that's not all. Dana Millbank counts 15 sex scandals, although it's not clear how he's counting.  It's not just sex, however.  Abramoff-related criminal Bob Ney is a Newt baby.

So the profile of the Newt babies seems to be heavy on ambition for higher office, but little interest in building a career in the House, and with more than a little scandal.  Surely they stack up badly next to the Watergate babies.  It's hard to imagine the Newt babies ever doing anything as productive as the class of 1975 did in this Congress, when several of them -- Waxman, Miller, Baucus, Harkin, Dodd -- capped off their careers with health care reform.  Watergate babies had some scandal, too, although I think quite a bit less.  Instead, there were a lot of serious legislative careers.  Oddly enough, the Watergate babies also did not produce a lot of House leaders (I don't think anyone reached as high as Democratic Whip, although I haven't checked a complete list for their success within the caucus). 

Of course, any similarity of the class of 1995 and Newt Gingrich in wild but unfocused ambition, lack of interest in the substance of governing, and/or scandal in private life is surely a coincidence.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Yields Time?

I very much like Ezra Klein's point earlier today about Republican strategy in the Senate:
Republicans use the filibuster process to stretch the votes on non-controversial legislation -- like, say, next week's extension of jobless benefits -- so they take many days rather than a couple of hours, and they use objections to unanimous consent as a way to slow the Senate's general work. The result has been to turn Senate floor time into a precious, and worryingly limited, commodity, which suits the Republicans just fine as less floor time means fewer Democratic accomplishments. 
See also Kevin Drum's good comments here.

Now, as regular readers can attest, I've mostly defended Harry Reid over the last year.  To me, a lot of complaints about Reid (and Obama, and for that matter Mitch McConnell -- that is, about pols in general) overlook the real constraints and limits that they are acting within.  Often, Reid gets criticized for something which has nothing to do with Democratic strategy, but is just a limitation of not having the votes.  Other times, he gets criticized for something (such as keeping Joe Lieberman as a committee chair) which is a means to a much more important end (such as getting cloture on health care reform). 


Ezra Klein is correct that floor time is "precious and limited."  Yes, it is.  Harry Reid and the Democrats, however, haven't come anywhere close to exhausting that particular resource so far.  Reid isn't, with only one or two exceptions, keeping the Senate in on weekends.  He isn't, again with some exceptions, keeping the Senate in late into the night.  He isn't reducing or canceling recesses. 

This is a mistake.  If floor time is what's limiting the ability of Democrats to take advantage of their best opportunity in a generation -- and I think that's correct -- then the Democrats simply have to maximize floor time.  Reid should, in my view, put everyone on notice right now: the Democrats were elected and given large majorities, and if it means no Memorial Day, no 4th of July, no August recess, so be it.  Yes, it might (although it probably won't) turn out that a few more hours of in-person campaigning would have made all the difference to Barbara Boxer or Michael Bennet or...hmmm, looks as if the only other endangered Dem incumbents are Blanche Lincoln and Harry Reid himself.  Far better to lose those races then to let the clock run out on judicial nominees, executive branch nominees, and all the things major and minor that the House has passed that the Senate hasn't found time for.

Now, of course, many of those blocked measures are blocked because Reid doesn't have the votes.  Fair enough.  He shouldn't be blamed for that.  He and the Democrats can be blamed for anything that dies for lack of floor time if they're leaving hours and hours on the table.  For Democrats who worked hard to put Reid and his 58 colleagues in place along with a large majority in the House and Barack Obama in the White House, it's inexcusable.

Oh, and by the way, I'm certainly not a recess-basher.  This isn't about Congress not working hard enough.   Pols work a lot harder than they are given credit for, and a lot of what they very legitimately do doesn't take place on the House and Senate floors.  Normally, I'd be happy to defend the normal Senate schedule. Republican obstruction during this Congress, however, is not normal at all, and Reid needs to be more creative than he has been to date to react to it. 

Rand Paul...Matt Bai Follow-Up

By the way: when I was looking into the Matt Bai article earlier today, I wound up running into a terrific reported piece by Cokie and Steven Roberts on voter unrest.  In 1980; mid-June, 1980, actually, post-primaries, pre-conventions.  It's from the NYT Magazine (pdf), and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit.  Lots of interviews with lifelong Dems, many 2nd and 3rd generation Dems, ready to jump, as of course many of them would later that year.  Also, it's fun to read quotations from early-career Barbara Mikulski and Chris Dodd, plus a bonus appearance by a certain Baltimore pol who is mostly known to us now for his daughter, not his own career.

Oh, and you'll be glad to know that without an internet to blame for everything, it's that newfangled television that's disrupting traditional ties, including party ties.  Yup, at least as late as 1980, TV was still the newish thing that was destroying traditional politics.  Which means that we'll be seeing "the internet is changing everything" stories until Ezra Klein is drawing social security.  At least.

(Yes, I know: sometimes, the technology really does change things.  It isn't destroying political parties now, however.  And it doesn't change the fundamental formula: it's tougher to be the in-party during bad times than during good times).

Rand Paul, Arlen Specter, Political Parties, and Matt Bai

I'm trying to get a handle on just how awful Matt Bai's piece in the NYT is today.  It's really a prize-winner.  I mean, to begin with, drawing massive conclusions from a handful of primaries is always a losing game, as John Sides memorably noted a while back.  But Bai manages to get things almost completely backwards, anyway. 

Where to start?  I'll skip the opening paragraphs and get to the substance, such as it is. 

Bai frames Tuesday's results as a revolt of voters against parties:
The old laws of politics have been losing their relevance as attitudes and technology evolve, creating a kind of endemic instability that probably is not going away just because housing prices rebound. Nor is that instability any longer driven only by ideological mini-movements like or the tea parties, as some commentators suggest. Voter insurrection has gone as mainstream as Miley Cyrus, and to the extent that the parties in Washington take comfort in the false notion that all this chaos is fleeting, they will fail to internalize the more enduring lessons of Tuesday’s elections. 
I'm not sure what "all this" chaos is; he's building on one GOP faction beating another in Kentucky, and the failure of an 80 year old party-switcher to break decades of antipathy in Pennsylvania.  So to begin with, his effect for which he'll be searching a cause is ill-defined.  One problem: in an introductory paragraph, he refers to "this week’s primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania," managing to ignore the fourth state involved (Oregon).  Well, no chaos there, so best to just ignore it.  OK, moving on:
The first is that this age-old idea of “clearing the field” for a preferred candidate, so as to avoid divisive primaries, is now, much like the old party clubhouse, a historical relic.
Tell it to Pat Toomey. Or John Boozman, the GOP Senate nominee in Arkansas.  Neither had high-profile opposition.  The Democrats cleared the field in Oregon for their candidate for Governor...I'm not sure whether that was the case in Pennsylvania, but neither party had a particularly close nomination fight for that open seat.  In other words, "clearing the field" isn't a historical relic; it is, as it's always been, something that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't.   Occasional divisive primaries are nothing new in American politics.
This should have been clear to everyone after 2008, when Barack Obama, shunned by most of his party’s major contributors and its Washington establishment, simply shrugged off endorsements and raised more than half a billion dollars from his own constituencies. 
It should be clear after all the campaign books have been published that Obama's outsider reputation was part media hype, part savvy campaign spin, and almost entirely evidence-free.  The Senate leadership pushed for Obama to make the race, remember?  And while Obama's campaign did do a great job of tapping into new sources of campaign money, most of that "half a billion dollars" came after endorsements from Ted Kennedy and others within the party's Washington establishment.
Now the Obama effect has trickled down to the likes of Rand Paul, who beat his party’s preferred Senate candidate in Kentucky, and Joe Sestak, who toppled the new-and-improved Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. (It makes you wonder whether Mr. Obama and his aides really thought they could “clear the field” for Mr. Specter, as they suggested, or whether they knew from their own experience how wishful that was and were just bent on to luring him across the aisle.) 
Neither Rand Paul nor Joe Sestak is much of an outsider.  Sestak is a mainstream Democratic Member of Congress.  Paul's case is a little trickier, and I'll get to it below. 
A new generation of politicians has been raised with more consumer choice and less loyalty to institutions, and they are no more likely to take their orders from, say, party leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, than they are to drive a Malibu just because some car magazine tells them to. Nor, thanks to the Web, are they reliant any longer on the party structure to raise the necessary cash. 
OK, Rand Paul and the Republican Party.  It's true that he didn't take orders from McConnell, just as Ronald Reagan didn't take orders from Gerald Ford in 1976, or Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy from Lyndon Johnson in 1968...or JFK from (Majority Leader) LBJ in 1960, or a variety of candidates from Harry Truman in 1952 or 1948.  And it wouldn't be at all hard to find Senate examples, either. 

A more interesting question is whether these challenges are from within or outside of the party.  Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960, one could argue, was really a challenge to the party from an outsider who managed to find a way to "raise the necessary cash" even without the internet.  On the other hand, Reagan's challenge in 1976 was clearly, in my view at least, one of clashing party groups.  What about Rand Paul?  Paul wasn't just part of the small party faction led by his father, a Member of the House and former GOP presidential candidate.  He was opposed by Mitch McConnell, but he was endorsed by outgoing KY Senator Jim Bunning.  He was also endorsed by Senator Jim DeMint, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and a whole bunch of GOP-aligned interest groups.  Oh, and by Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.  That he won wasn't a sign of voters revolting against party leaders; it was a case of voters choosing between two sets of party leaders.  That's a very different story than the one Bai gives us.
A second, related lesson is that less affinity for parties makes incumbent politicians less safe, generally. That’s because when fewer people bother to engage in party politics, it takes a smaller group of ultra-motivated activists to overturn the traditional order of things. 
Ezra Klein posted on this yesterday...the evidence is exactly the opposite.  There are fewer, not more, primary challenges these days.  Successful Senate primary challenges seem to track bad economic times, not changes in how many people engage in party policies.  And: "less affinity for parties"?  Among voters, I don't think so.  And formal and informal party organizations are probably at least as strong today as they have been in the last sixty or so years.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman found this out in 2006, when an unknown but jaunty cable executive named Ned Lamont — and a capable army of bloggers and antiwar crusaders — drummed him out of the Democratic Party in Connecticut. (Mr. Lieberman won re-election that November as an independent.) Mr. Lamont, who is now running for governor, was the prototype for Mr. Paul and Mr. Sestak and scores of other primary candidates this year.
It's probably fair to say that Lamont's campaign did serve as something of a model, or inspiration, but time didn't begin in 2006, nor did primary challenges.  We are talking here about Arlen Specter, right?  Specter jumped  to the Dems because he was afraid of a repeat primary challenge from Pat Toomey.  And Toomey was inspired by, among other things, Reagan's 1976 challenge, which was in turn inspired by conservative challenges going back to Taft vs. Dewey and beyond.  Yes, the White House supported Specter, and that's not nothing -- but the idea that it's Arlen Specter (or, in 2006, Joe Lieberman) who represents the traditional Democratic party is a joke.  The better way to understand it is that these things are contested between party groups, and the way that they are contested and (to some extent at least) resolved is through nomination battles. 
A final truism to emerge from Tuesday’s primaries is that the politics of issues, the stuff of which parties have most often crafted their core identities, has now been largely displaced by a politics of personal conviction. In other words, Tuesday’s results were less about the ideological purging of either party than they were about a rejection of the culture of both, a sense that Washington acts from expedience and little else. 
A truism?  Perhaps.  True?  I have no idea, and neither does Bai.   How much of Specter's loss was from "a sense that Washington acts from expedience," and how much was from memories of his attacks on Anita Hill...I don't know, and Bai doesn't know.  How much of DeMint and Palin and outside groups endorsement of Rand Paul was issue-based?  Again, I have no idea, and neither does Bai, at least from his reporting.  He's just talking through his hat here.  I won't bother quoting in full the next two paragraphs, but he has no idea, either, of whether Blanche Lincoln's stand on the banking bill helped her, hurt her, or made no difference at all.  He's just guessing when he says that it hurt her because it "appeared calculated for political gain."  My guess is that among those who heard about and liked the specific policy, practically none of them nevertheless turned against her because she was pandering to them.  I like my guess a lot better than Bai's guess, but unlike him, I'm not going to imply that it's anything more than a guess.
What all this probably means is that we are living in the era of the upstart. Thirty years ago, when you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office, taking it to the establishment was quixotic venture undertaken on the national level, where a Jesse Jackson or a Pat Buchanan could at least make a powerful statement along the road to obliteration. (Recall Jimmy Carter’s indictment of Jerry Brown in 1976: “Don’t send them a message, send them a president.”) 
It seems that Bai has heard of Jimmy Carter.  That's good!  Now, my assignment for Matt Bai: go back and read about Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign.  And then try to argue that Barack Obama, backed by Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy (and established party insiders such as David Axelrod and David Plouffe) was anything like Carter in '76.  What you're going to find is that "thirty years ago" was the era of the upstart, not now.  Citing Jimmy Carter to make a point that thirty years ago "you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office" is like citing Spiro Agnew to make the point that at forty years ago, only seriously accomplished politicians with a deserved reputation for personal integrity were considered for the Vice Presidency. 

Might as well do the last paragraph...
Those days are gone. The intraparty rebellions now will be increasingly local, sufficiently financed and built around credible candidates — the kind of campaigns that made Barack Obama president and that may yet give us Senator Paul or Senator Sestak. My gosh, these people in Washington are in for it now. 
Here's the thing: there's nothing "increasingly local" at all about Rand Paul or Joe Sestak.  I really don't want to read much into a couple of results, but if they symbolize anything, it's national influence on state and local elections.  Paul is all about national Republicans -- Palin and DeMint and his father -- reaching in and influencing a state primary. 

There is something different about contemporary parties than older parties, which is that national element.  If I had to generalize -- and as with all generalizations, there are numerous exceptions -- what I'd say is this.  In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, local parties were able to control their nominations.  Over the course of the twentieth century, and probably bottoming out sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, those parties lost control of nominations to candidates, who formed their own personal the extremes, parties were relatively empty labels that independent candidates battled over.  Over the last thirty or forty years, however, parties have evolved, developing strong national components that never existed in previous strong-party eras, and once again parties generally control their nominations.  I certainly don't see anything in any of the cases this year (not just Sestak and Paul, but also Rubio, and the NY-23 special, and others) that seem to be about parties losing control over their own nominations, as opposed to party groups battling over those nominations.

Of course, no matter how strong parties get, as long as they are permeable and not strictly hierarchical they will still feature internal clashes, which will often play out in nomination fights.  To the extent that independent candidates are also strong, they will sometimes clash with party choices.  Really, I think that's the best way of looking at Arlen Specter.  He obviously wasn't a creature of the Democratic Party establishment; he was, in many ways, a great example of the strong, independent candidates of an earlier era in American politics.  The political system can still produce such creatures, but we're in a more partisan era now, and if it symbolizes anything, the demise of Arlen Specter is probably best seen as a sign of the strength of the new parties.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

That Old-Time, Old-Fashioned, Old-Old Senate 2

I've posted a couple of times about how old our current Congress is, especially the Senate -- the current 111th Senate is the oldest ever.  My last update focused mainly on retirements, and likely replacements.  Quick summary: the ten retiring Senators averaged 65 years old; the ten most likely candidates to replace them at that point averaged just under 49 years old, but the next-most-likely winners in those contests averaged 55 years old. 

So, what's changed?  And how does it affect the superannuated Senate?

Well, the big development is the demise of two ancient Senators, Bennett and Specter.

UT Bennett (76) -> Lee (38) or Bridgewater (46)
PA Specter (80) -> Sestak (58) or Toomey (48)

and the likely loss of a younger one:

AR Lincoln (49) ->? Boozman (59) or Halter (49)

The other big development since I last wrote about this is the decision by Beau Biden to pass on the Delaware race (and I saw he's been released from the hospital today, so that's good news).  I thought Bidne had a slight edge over Mike Castle; now Castle, who is 30 years older than Biden, is now a solid (but not unbeatable) favorite.  Also, Kay Bailey Hutcheson is has moved from planning to resign when I first visited this issue in October, to possibly resigning in January, to staying put now, so that possibility of getting younger has evaporated.

And while Richard Burr is more likely than not to be re-elected, I should probably mention that he's 54, and the Democrats in the runoff are 64 (Marshall) and 36 (Cunningham).

(I should say that I'm taking ages from various sources, and one or more could be slightly off).

Overall the big news is that Utah and Pennsylvania are major gains for (relative) youth.  Arizona, anyone?

Degrees of Bennett/Specter

With Specter going down to defeat last night, I get to use this one:

1960: Kennedy/Nixon, one of the closest elections in United States history. 

OK, folks, what does that have to do with Bob Bennett and Arlen Specter?  What's the connection(s)?


Arlen Specter, as most people know, worked for the Warren Commission, and was responsible for the "single-bullet" theory that Kennedy assassination buffs know a whole lot more about than I do.

Bennett...I'll go ahead and quote Fred Emery:

Robert Bennett had left DOT to take over the Mullen Company, a public relations firm in Washington.  This was the firm where...E. Howard Hunt had been placed since he formally retired from the agency in May 1970 after twenty-seven years service.  So Hunt, who was an old chum of Colson's, and Bennett, deemed a Colson ally, were now working together.  
The gist of it is that Bennett did some work for the White House, and was part of the network that wound up with Hunt working for the White House as one of the Plumbers.  Also, Bennett  became a lobbyist for Howard Hughes, who was all over the shadows of the Watergate story.  And that's not all!  Bennett is also, according to a deposition that he gave later, the person who told Bob Woodward in the days just after the break-in that Hunt, who still had an office at the Mullen Company (and, alas for the conspirators, still had a safe at the White House, but that's a whole 'nother story) worked for the CIA.  I should add: as far as I can tell, or at least as far as the sources I have say, Bennett didn't do anything wrong in any of this.

And that, as they used to say, is the rest of the story.  Two Senators defeated in 2010; forty or so years earlier, one was involved in the investigation of the Kennedy assassination, the other on the fringes of Watergate.

Cutting Strings Update: Specter, Lincoln

Arlen Specter has cut strings!  What can we expect from him now?  Here's what I said a few weeks ago:
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.
On reflection, I expect Specter to still be more resentful of the Toomey right than liberals who delivered the final blow, and to continue voting as a mainstream Democrat as a lame duck.  In fact, if he doesn't change, that's a gain for the Dems -- because if he was now the nominee opposing the very conservative Toomey, Specter would certainly have shifted to the right for the remainder of the session.  On the other hand, I would also expect Specter to indulge in one or more "not proven" moment, and it's possible that one of those will be a key vote for the GOP on some issue. 

Odds are that Blanche Lincoln will soon have her strings cut, but I think it's far less likely that she would react to primary defeat by voting to punish the liberals who will have defeated her.  Lincoln will be 50 in January 2011; unlike Bennett, Specter, and (if he loses) McCain, she'll be looking for a job, and I'd expect that to replace the electoral incentive in influencing her votes on the Senate floor.  I don't see her cut out for a Zell Miller role on Fox News, although I'm sure that's available for her if she wants it; I think it's much more likely she would spend the time auditioning for a role (Ag Secretary?  Chicken industry czar?) in the Obama administration -- also something presumably available to her if she wants it.  Indeed, as with Specter, she could have been counted on to shift right after being nominated; if she is defeated and no longer has to worry about an Arkansas electorate, she might drift left a bit for the rest of the year.

Primary Postmortem

I don't have a lot to add to what you already know about the results of last night's elections.  I basically agree with Jonathan Chait that it was a good night for the Democrats.  Of the four possible matchups in Kentucky, I think this is the one that gives the Dems the best chance to pick up the seat; I'm not certain that Joe Sestak is a better general election candidate than Arlen Specter, but I agree that the odds are that he is.  Winning the special in PA-12 is obviously nice for the Democrats.  The one sour note for the Democrats -- the need for a runoff in the Arkansas Senate primary -- would be, in my view, a negative, except that I don't think anyone expects the Democrats to keep that seat anyway. 

Which points to the sort of double context that these things need to be placed in.  On the one hand "good" news for Democrats would be indications that they'll only lose historically normal numbers of seats this year: 20-30 in the House, a handful in the Senate.  So that's not really good, is it?  But on the other hand, Republicans can make that sort of gains and still fall well short of taking control of either House of Congress.  If the GOP picks up 25 House seats and 5 Senate seats, and Democrats control both bodies, then declaring a winner on election night will be about spin and semantics. 

Beyond those issues, I probably agree with what I believe is the conventional wisdom.  Yes, it's a bad environment for incumbents, as the New York Times headline this morning says., although of course incumbents will win the vast majority of the races they contest, as usual.  Still, two Senators defeated for renomination (so far, with Lincoln in Arkansas hanging by a thread, and McCain still in trouble in Arizona) is unusual. 

There's also the general sense that Republicans may eventually be harmed by their inability to nominate electable candidates.  To me, that's the story of Rand Paul.  Of course, Paul may well win the general election, but I continue to think there's a good chance that Republican gains this year will be harmed overall by the nomination of ideologically extreme nominees, and in some cases less capable candidates, and by the pressure in other districts for mainstream conservatives to act as if they were ideologically extreme.  It will be interesting to see how Paul in particular fares in a general election context; Kentucky is a good state for Republicans, and with a mainstream conservative candidate I don't think it would have been a contest, but now I'd expect a fair amount of uncertainty.  The question is how many districts around the nation are having similar results.  Hey, reporters!  More about 2010 House nominees, please!  (And by the way, reporters -- I'm guessing that at the lower levels, state legislative races for example, you'll find some great stories of very fringe candidates getting nominated).

So, while I wouldn't make too much of any one set of primary results: good day for the Democrats.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blintzes, a Link, and a bit of Housekeeping

Yup, it's poor neglected Shavuot, the holiday that comes too late in the year to learn about it in Hebrew School.  Ah well; any holiday that gives me an excuse to eat blintzes is a holiday that I'm going to celebrate.  Gut yontif to all those observing.  And not only do I get to eat something good, but blintzes were also featured in a worthwhile profile in the Sunday NYT; if you missed it, you may or may not want to read through, but you definitely want to click over to see what a future Chair of the Fed looks like at college in 1975 (it takes a bit of work, but it's worth it, and the pre-college shots are good, too...or go find the Sunday Business section in your recycling pile if it's still there).  No wonder Ron Paul is freaked!

Meanwhile, I want to thank everyone for the terrific comments to Plain Blog recently.  I continue to be impressed and, actually, flattered, at the quality, especially since I've had some experience lately getting comments elsewhere.  Keep 'em coming!  I'm afraid I don't have time to respond to all, but I do read everything (and that applies to emails, too).  Also, thanks to all for the Twitter follows.  Although I'm still behind Masket, but then again he has a exceptionally good picture and the by-far best Twitter name ever, and I, uh, don't.  But, thanks!

Silly Pols

Why do pols make fools of themselves so often?  Mostly because they're human, plus two things: they have cameras following them around, and opponents who have an incentive to dig out things that most of us are able to keep hidden.

Of course, most of us haven't cheated on our spouses, or embellished our resumes, or done anything else that would look bad if people knew about it.  Right?  Uh, anyone still here?

Well, there's also the whole motive, means, and opportunity thing.  On cheating...not only are they (often) rich and (what passes for) powerful, which from what I hear helps on the opportunity side, but the business of having two residences with the spouse only present at one of them certainly is a major plus on the means side.  My guess?  I'm confident that a lot more ballplayers cheat than do pols, who probably are around the rates of corporate CEOs.  CEOs don't get in the newspaper when they get caught, however, unless something truly ugly happens.  Remember: we hear about pretty much every single Member of Congress who gets caught cheating.  

As for embellishing their life stories...I think that one is harder for most people to understand than the cheating thing.  Think of it this way.  People in job interviews are always advised to put the best light on everything they've done, while making sure to stay clear of going over the line and actually saying something that isn't true.  Pols are, among other things, salespeople who are constantly selling themselves; their lives are perpetual job interview.  It doesn't surprise me at all that they sometimes get it wrong.  From what I've seen so far from the Blumenthal story, it doesn't appear that he's just a flat-out fabulist or scam artist, like this guy; it sounds more like a case of a carefully rehearsed sales pitch that he tweaks this way or that to fit the occasion, and sometimes veers off and winds up in the wrong place.  You know, like the way that you can see that your product is good for you, or that it's been recommended by doctors, or that studies have shown that it might be a good defense against X, the condition that causes disease Y...but you can't say that your product cures disease Y.

No, for me what's harder to understand is something like this: Michele Bachmann, Member of Congress, hanging out with the birther crowd (and in this case, the queen of the birthers).  Granted, I'm bitter at Bachmann because she didn't fulfill my prediction about her.  Still, that she "pals around" (as Alex Pareene nicely puts it) with those even more dedicated to the crazy than herself is, well, a little nuts.  Silly pols.

Oh, and the cure for moping about pols?  If you think they're all depressing,   I recommend this  (via Sides).

That McConnell Thing

All the smart liberal bloggers -- Chait and Drum and Yglesias, and I'm sure E. Klein would too if he wasn't under the weather today, and I'm sure there are more if I looked harder -- are sort of beside themselves at how those wacky Kentucky conservatives foolishly think that Mitch McConnell is, as Chait puts it, a "Democratic Patsy."  Now, they're all good posts, but really...couldn't one of them have pointed out that this is basically exactly the same situation as Democrats on the left faced during the previous decade, and Democrats on the left reacted exactly the same.

No, Dems didn't have 60 in the Senate -- but Republicans didn't try anything as difficult as health care reform, preferring an eat-dessert-always program of tax cuts, increased spending, tax cuts, wars of revenge, and tax cuts.   And, yes, Dems didn't always react by filibustering everything (and as everyone knows many Dems voted for various Bush things, but generally for things that would have passed anyway), but they did filibuster quite a bit...that's why the Bush tax cuts were set to expire, because the threat of a Democratic filibuster forced the GOP to use reconciliation.  I'm confident that had the Democratic leadership followed the strategy that Republicans have followed in 2009-2010 that basically the same things would have passed, and liberal activists would have reacted the same way: by blaming Democrats for being too weak. 

Here's my sense of it.  Given a Madisonian political system and a very large nation, the winners are always going to be frustrated because, well, they won, and why isn't everything they wanted getting enacted?  And the losers are always going to be frustrated because their side has all the energy and it sure feels as all those people with all that conviction that the governing party is wrong must surely count for something in a democracy. 

Me?  I tend to feel sorry for the pols who have to put up with such stuff.  But I'm funny that way, I guess.

Just How Bad Was the Bush Administration?

Seriously.  What got me thinking about it is (via Sullivan) this George Packer post about another impending disaster: this time, it's the fate of Iraqis who worked with Americans during the occupation.  Packer notes the problem:
A lot of these Iraqis will be in danger, and some of them will probably be targeted, during the long period of waiting for their applications to be reviewed. Iraqis who work with Americans are at the top of the death list of jihadi groups, whose umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, recently declared its intent to settle scores as the Americans leave...The U.S. government has no idea of the identities and whereabouts of all the Iraqis who work for Americans there, or of which ones feel so insecure that they will want to be resettled here.
Packer has been writing about this disaster in the making for some time now.   Good journalism...but a disgrace.  I think it's a mistake to see it in isolation, however.  It reminds me immediately of another disgrace, which was the condition of basic record-keeping at Guantanamo; recall that part of the reason that the Obama Administration was unable to keep its promises was that they realized (at least according to published reports) that no one had any idea who most of the people were down there. 

What's striking to me about both of these stories is that if there was any part of the government that the Bush Administration, including George W. Bush himself, cared about getting right, one would have thought it was detention of terrorist suspects and prosecution of the war in Iraq.  Of course, we've also seen reports of the president's passive indifference in the cases of New Orleans and the financial crisis.  It does raise the question of just how many more of these types of stories have not yet been uncovered, or at least publicized.  There are a lot of federal agencies, and a lot of them aren't exactly going to be in the news unless something terrible happens on their watch.  Just how much disarray was there?  I can't emphasize enough that I'm not talking here about ideology, or even positions on issues of public policy.  This is about basic competence in managing the government, and strong signs that it was sorely lacking for eight years.

A couple things...first, about Dick Cheney.  I was talking to a staunch Republican former student a couple of weeks ago, and mentioned that one of the biggest surprises to me during the Bush years was that Cheney had turned out to be a lot less capable than I had expected.  My student was utterly shocked that anyone could think that.  This depressed me no end.  He's an open-minded guy, and certainly not prone to believing that whatever Republicans do is always correct.  But it was clear that within his information bubble, the possibility that Cheney just wasn't very good at his job had never been raised.  Bush, too.  He did recognize that things had gone wrong, but saw it more as policy choices and, to some extent, ideology.  In my view?  Even something such as torture, which I think was a (outside of the morality of it) disastrous policy, was far more a case of incompetence than it was ideology.  What scares me about that is that if my former student represents the view of establishment Republicans, it's possible that they don't quite realize how damaging it was to them to have had a president not up to the job, and how dangerous it is to nominate another one.

The second thing is about information and the president.  I'm hardly the first one to raise this, but: remember the infamous interview George W. Bush gave in which he explained that he didn't bother with newspapers because he got the real truth in his intelligence and other briefings?  Does anyone believe that "we've lost track of the Iraqis helping us and they'll probably all die unless we do something" was included in any of those briefings?  Here's the thing: most of you reading this post, reading this far down in this post, remember Packer's original reporting...maybe you read it in the New Yorker, maybe you read blog discussion of it, maybe you were talking politics with someone who read it.  Now, I have no way of knowing whether Bush knew about it or not; for all I know, someone flagged it for him, and he took (ineffective, apparently) action.  By his own testimony, however, there's a good chance that Bush never knew about it. 

Being president is hard.  People don't tell you what you need to know.  They don't tell you enough that you even know which questions to ask.  And you really can't be an expert on very much of what's going to come across your desk.  Really -- what does Barack Obama or George W. Bush know about how to stop an insurgency, or how to help locals who assisted your occupying army, or how to respond to an earthquake in Haiti, or how to cap an offshore oil leak, or how to properly regulate complex financial products, or whether it's a good idea to put a permanent settlement on the moon, or whether anti-missile systems actually work, or what's the best way to fight drugs, or to drive down hospital costs, or to use federal incentives to get local schools to work better...can I stop now?  They can't; there's still agriculture and trade and climate and inflation and AIDS/HIV (here and abroad) and housing and transportation and just go down the list.  The brutal reality is that our presidents have very little expertise in almost everything they deal with.  Take Obama: he knows Constitutional law, and worked on non-proliferation and some other issues in the Senate, but that's about it.  Bush?  Even worse; maybe some education policy, and perhaps a bit about business...that's about it.  So presidents are constantly dealing with and relying on people who know far more than they do, even if they're quick studies (as Obama and Clinton are said to be) or incredibly hard workers (as Nixon was).  And those people cannot, whatever Bush thought, be counted on to tell you things that reflect badly on them or the things that they're trying to get you to do.

Information is the weapon that presidents must use to compensate for their expertise deficit: information, and political skills and instincts.  Information allows presidents to know which questions to ask, which questions his experts need to be asked.   A president who believes that he gets the real scoop from his staff and the bureaucracy while the media is just a bunch of biased nonsense is one that is going to wind up with failure on the battlefield, war crimes and chaos in the detention camps, and a drowned city and drowned economy. 

Of course, that doesn't mean that reported stories are always true.  They are, however, almost always useful clues about something: either policy problems, or interest group stirrings, or bureaucratic clashes.  And that gets to how information must be deployed by a president.  George W. Bush should have -- a competent president would have -- known about Packer's reporting, confronted this generals about it, and followed up to make sure that if it was a real problem that it was solved.  To do so effectively, to know when to confront and when to have someone ask around about it and when to find yourself another expert...well, that takes political skills.  Most of what I've said here is from Richard Neustadt; I'll just quote him here on
the one sphere of expertise where "experts" were laymen: the shere of personal power for the President himself...When it comes to power, nobody is expert but the President; if he, too, acts as layman, it goes hard with him.  
Expertise in power terms is not a substitute for expertise in policy; it offers some protection, though, from errors and from bafflements in policy appraisal.  From those a President needs all the guarding he can get...And he, himself, the layman in most areas of policy, has no better protecter than concern for his own power. (Neustadt, Presidential Power, 124-125).*
What Neustadt means here is that presidents can aggressively use the information available to them, both inside information (such as staff briefings) and outside information (such as press reports) to sense and avoid policy disasters.  They'll do so, he believes, because policy disasters for the nation are political disasters for its president, and what presidents are really experts in is avoiding political disaster -- and the same thing goes, of course, about policy and political triumphs.  Presidents, and not generals or economists or other wonks, are likely to be good at sensing threats to their electoral coalitions or to their governing coalitions on the Hill and on K Street.  They're supposed to be able to read a newspaper story and realize which interest groups it threatens, and whether it's likely to be a major or a minor problem for those groups, and figure out what to do to avoid the problem, whether it's changing the policy or working with the group.  They're suppose to have excellent political antennae.  Presumably, they wouldn't have made it to the White House without them. 

Unless, that is, the president isn't an expert.  And so back to George W. Bush. 

We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess.  We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening.  He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster -- whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else.  We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him.  And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years.  One last time: I'm not talking about ideology or policy, just the basic skills of the presidency.  Frankly, I think Republicans and conservatives should be more angry about it than Democrats and liberals.  Not because he deviated from pure conservative thought, but because his poor management of the office threatens to discredit their ideas just as Jimmy Carter's poor management of the office tended to discredit liberals and Democrats.  Even more than they should be angry with Bush, they should be angry with the Republican governors and others who handed him the nomination in 1999-2000.  They should take as their lesson from this never again to hand the nomination to someone who hasn't demonstrated the political skills, including the governing skills, needed to succeed in the White House.

Just how bad was the Bush Administration?  As bad, alas, as its president, and I'm afraid that all evidence to date points to him being one of the very worst.

*For those who have not read Neustadt, it might seem odd to think that the problem with George W. Bush is that he was insufficiently interested in building his own power.  To fully explain that would take another long post, one that I suppose I'll get to at some point, but the short version is: Neustadt wanted presidents, working within the Constitutional system, to amass as great an ability as possible to influence the government.  Cheneyism, and the variants practiced by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, especially, but all presidents are prone to it, is about working around the Constitution to amass great authority for the government to do all sorts of things...but not necessarily about personal influence for the president.  The former (I would argue) is what gets good government; the latter yields Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Gitmo.  But as I said, that's the conclusion, not the argument, which I'll have to save for later.

Election Day

Voting in primaries in PA, KY, AR, OR, and in special elections for the House in PA and HI.

The headlines, and rightly so, are going to be about the Senate primaries, especially the challenges to Specter and Lincoln...Specter's race is a toss up going in; Lincoln is leading, but perhaps not enough to avoid a runoff.  It's hard to tell what difference either one makes...the Dems are probably doomed this year in Arkansas either way, and I don't think it's predictable which Democrat would run better in Pennsylvania.  But the two specials are also significant, especially the one in Pennsylvania.  The GOP is expected to win the Hawaii race and then probably lose the seat in November, but in Pennsylvania it's a toss-up -- but the winner probably will hold the district for a while.  Also important and close is the Kentucky Senate primary on the Democratic side.  Rand Paul is going to be the Republican nominee (barring a surprise), and could be vulnerable in November, in my opinion; my guess is that Jack Conway is a stronger general election candidate than Dan Mongiardo for the Dems.  If 2010 turns into a GOP landslide, the Republicans should win Kentucky regardless of the candidates, but if not, this remains a possible Democratic pickup. 

Plenty of other stuff to look at today.  TPM has a rundown on some of the second-tier contests.  Via Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, polls close at 7PM in KY, 8PM in PA, and 8:30 in AR, all Eastern Time.  As usual, Oregon is vote-by-mail and usually takes a long time to count, and Hawaii is nine or ten time zones over, so we won't get the results there until a week from Thursday or something like that (it's a joke, ok?).  I'm not sure that it quite lives up to the "Super" Tuesday hype that the cable nets seem to be going with this morning, but since I like the hype, that's fine with me.

And I'll close with a cut and paste rerun, with a bit of an edit, from my standard election day comment....

You know, a lot of my academic work and interests, and a lot of what I write about here, are all about how small a portion of democracy is occupied by today.  I think democracy is found in the complex workings of elites within party networks, and in Congressional committee rooms, and in interactions within issue networks, and in White House showdowns between the president and a reluctant Senator...all those things, to me, at an intellectual level, are democracy just as much as today's events. But nothing beats the rituals of Election Day. Hey, I even like the annoying and useless "What Does It All Mean" stories, as long as I can restrict my intake enough. I love watching the spin.  I love the weather stories, and the cheesy shots of the candidates voting, and the oh-so-careful anchors not revealing what they all know from the exit polls.  I'm one of those people who could easily do without the National Anthem, and the Pledge doesn't do much for me -- and I really dislike the Selig-imposed 7th inning GBA. But then today comes around, and I know that I'm a very patriotic citizen of the USA.

So, Happy Election Day, everyone! Vote early, vote often!

Read Stuff, You Should

I'm still thinking the same thing about Ross Douthat: excellent blogger, bit of a dud as a columnist.  Ezra Klein liked yesterday's Douthat column a lot more than I did...he thought that it was fine except for some tricky ducking of issues at the end, while I thought it played partisan and ideological games throughout.  Douthat has the panic of '08 as a result of public and private interests "too intertwined," but doesn't even mention the possibility that underregulation was at fault.  Also: for Douthat, Robert Rubin is apparently the only public official identified with the causes of the crash...but if I recall correctly, Rubin had actually been out of office for almost a decade -- and to say that the American reaction was to install "more of the same" with Geithner and Summers, as if that intervening decade never happened.  To me, that's just cheap rhetoric.  But then his similarly themed blog post I found to be quite a bit more interesting and straightforward.  Great blogger.  Really weak far, at least.

OK, on to the good stuff:

1. Kagan links: Jamelle Bouie on careerism and gender; Noah Millman makes the best case I've seen against cautious careerism.

2.  Health care: Sam Stein goes behind the scenes about how it passed, with an emphasis on White House involvement.  And the future of health care? Since I've argued that it won't be repealed, I really have to link to this research that might give reform opponents some hope, although I don't think it predicts repeal even in the case of a GOP landslide.

3.  Marc Ambinder on detention under Obama.

4.  On the other hand, sometimes elections mean fairly dramatic change.  Harold Pollack assesses Obama's drug plan.

5.  Don't miss Eric Alterman and Garry Wills on the bomb and democracy (I haven't read the book yet, but it's on my list).  Or Andrew Sprung reading Gates.

6.  Amanda Marcotte is smart about what is and isn't America (you all know I'm from Phoenix, right? So yeah, I'm gonna like that piece), and also takes aim at the Sage of Wasilla.

7. I don't mind a little hypocrisy, but Stan Collender sure does.

8. And closing with a baseball link: if you miss Joe Sheehan on a daily basis as much as I do, you might want to know about this.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Defending Hatch

Regular readers know that I like politicians, as a group, and that includes hack pols.  So it isn't just knee-jerk contrarianism at work when I say: c'mon, Steven Benen and Matt Yglesias, give Orrin Hatch a break. 

The story, if you've missed it...It seems that Hatch went  on the radio and (horrors) inveighed against The Washington Establishment on behalf of the little folks such as, well, himself.  Now, Yglesias and Benen found that ridiculous (something about how Hatch has been in the Senate since Bobby  -- not Barry -- Bobby Bonds was only on his second team, which for you non-baseball fans is also known as since Hector was a pup).  And, of course, it is.  But so what?  That's what politicians do.  In fact, Richard Fenno's discussion of Members of Congress who run for re-election by running against Congress predates Hatch's Senate career. 

Benen's second point, I think, is also on the weak side.  He thinks it's unfair of Hatch to bash the current administration, when after all it was Republicans in the previous decade, Hatch included, who botched everything up so much.  Well, yes...but again, what else is Hatch going to say?  Voters may choose to buy it or not, but it's hardly unreasonable of someone in the out-party to blame the in-party for all manner of troubles.  That's how it works. 

I do think that Hatch acts the partisan hack pretty often -- but I like the ability to do that in a politician.  Surely, he's no more so than Bob Dole or Ted Kennedy, and both of them were (in my opinion, I guess I should say) first-rate Senators.  Now, Hatch is a bit too sanctimonious for my tastes, but on the whole I think he's been a fairly serious Senator over the years.  At least when the cameras are looking the other way.  He just saw the junior (ha!) Senator from his state get trounced.  Seems to me he's exactly correct to do a little rabble-rousing, and what he said was about as harmless as it gets.  I suppose it's also part of the game that liberals will give him grief for it, but in my view there are plenty of pols handling the current tides within the GOP a lot less reasonably, and they're the ones who deserve the snark.
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