Saturday, July 17, 2010

Train Wreck 2011?

Via Yglesias, John Quiggan at Crooked Timber predicts a government shutdown if Republicans win the House this fall.  Nick Beaudrot thinks not; he thinks the memory of 1995-1996 is strong enough to prevent Republicans from seeking a repetition.  Yglesias takes a different angle:
[I]f John Boehner has the courage of my convictions, he’ll believe that a government shutdown will risk sending the economy into a double-dip recession and that ultimately Barack Obama will be blamed for the bad results regardless of what polling says in the moment...To an extent, I think the functioning of our political system depends on the key actors not fully understanding how it works. 
I'm not sure that's correct, however.  A two-to-four week shutdown of the government sometime between the beginning of the fiscal year in October 2011 and, say, January 2012 isn't, I don't think, especially likely to push the economy over the brink.  A devious Speaker Boehner would be smarter just pushing for a Hooverite balanced budget -- a blend of middle-class tax increases and spending cuts guaranteed to lower aggregate demand, preferably in emergency legislation rushed through in late winter 2011.  If Barack Obama vetoed, the GOP would be able to claim the moral high ground on deficits, with support of the scolds and schoolmarms on elite editorial pages; if he signed, well, that really would make a double-dip likely.  Of course, it's not even remotely possible that House Republicans would do such a thing.  (But if they were to propose it -- would they get Blue Dog votes so they could claim it was bipartisan?  Could be!).

The thing is that if we're talking about a government shutdown, then what we're talking about is an inability to get appropriations bills signed into law by October 1 -- and an inability to agree to (routine) temporary measures to keep agencies funded while negotiations continue.  The form this has to take is either Congress doesn't produce anything -- in which case they'll take the immediate blame -- or they produce something that Obama vetoes.  It's not an easy trick for Congress to manage to pass something that is generally popular but so unacceptable to the Democrats that Obama would have to veto.  In the case of a divided Congress, even if Democrats only hold a very slim margin in the Senate, I'd say it's just about impossible. 

As far short-term fallout, I agree with Beaudrot that it's difficult to see a shutdown hurting Obama.  Yes, within the GOP echo chamber, he'll obviously be blamed for it...but within that world, he's blamed for everything.  But for everyone else, it's very hard for "Congress" to win any public relations battles.  Everyone hates Congress; everyone always hates Congress.  If government offices are closed, if national parks are closed...does anyone really believe that John Boehner is going to win a contest with Barack Obama in the battle for public opinion?  Especially since reporters have been primed by the 1995-1996 confrontation to blame the incoming GOP Congress and not the Democratic president.  Of course, this gets even easier for Obama if the stalemate is within Congress, with a Democratic Senate refusing to accept budget cuts pushed by a GOP House.  And, really, is any pol better positioned to go on TV and play the above-it-all, willing-to-compromise president than Barack Obama?  In sorrow and rather than in anger, he'll go before the cameras and say that he'd love to cut a deal but he just can't throw grandma out of her nursing home and close down Johnny's we know, as unpopular as it is in the abstract, most federal spending is extremely popular when it comes to specifics, and it won't be hard for the White House to find all the tragic stories in any package of cuts. 

Now, if the economy were derailed, it might be worth it for the reasons that Yglesias suggests -- at least for the Republicans, in the aggregate.  For individual Members of the House, the calculations might be different, at least when looking to the general election.  But, yes, an economic crash in 2011 would presumably help Republicans win the White House in 2012.  However, as I said, it's a bit hard to see a the kind of shutdown that happened in 1995-1996 really having that effect.


  1. I still do not understand why people are taking seriously the notion that the Republicans can take back the House. It is simply nonsense. It is more likely that the Democrats will gain seats (not that that will happen either).

  2. William Ockham

    I still do not understand why people are taking seriously the notion that the Republicans can take back the House.

    It is simply nonsense.


  3. The simple answer is that the 538 post you point ignores the changing demographics of the American electorate. There are simply far more partisans who won't change their vote based on economics. Everyone has missed the fact that economic voting has been declining dramatically since the 90's.

  4. I just don't think Boehner is anywhere near as crazy as Gingrich, who had a self-destructive streak that was a sight to behold.

  5. William Ockham:

    The simple answer is that the 538 post you point ignores the changing demographics of the American electorate.

    How does that affect Nate Silver's analysis? This is the key assumption:

    'Although analysts debate the precise magnitude of the difference, on average the generic ballot has overestimated the Democrats' performance in the popular vote by 3.4 points since 1992. If the pattern holds, that means that a 2.3-point deficit in generic ballot polls would translate to a 5.7 point deficit in the popular vote -- which works out to a loss of 51 seats, according to our regression model.'

    I suppose demographic changes could affect the relationship between the generic ballots polls and the actual vote, but it's not obvious why or in what direction.

    Btw, Silver has another post arguing that district by district analysis supports a similar conclusion.

    Everyone has missed the fact that economic voting has been declining dramatically since the 90's.


    If this is true, again I don't immediately see how it affects Silver's analysis.

    If your analysis is based on observations you believe others have missed, why did you begin by saying you don't understand why others disagree with you? Was that just for rhetorical effect?

  6. The passage you quoted is exactly why Silver's post is nonsense. His whole premise is that the Dems are going to drop to about 47% of the vote. That would be down from 58% of the vote in 2008 and 56% in 2006. Just go look up the data and tell me the last time there was that big of a swing in a midterm election.

    To have that big a swing, the only possible explanation is a huge number of people voting on the basis of economic performance. That just doesn't happen anymore. Look at the graph here:

    I don't completely agree with Gellman's analysis, but his graph is very instructive.

    Finally, the reason I say I don't understand why people accept this nonsense is that it seems rather obvious that if you look at the data, you should be able to see that the error terms on Silver's analysis are huge. Go back to the his post and click the link on the word "debate" in the first sentence you quoted.

    People in the media (and that includes Silver now) have a huge incentive to sell the horserace narrative. Just go back and look at all the stories had the presidential race in 2008 "deadlocked" or even McCain ahead long after it was clear to me and anyone else paying attention that the Dems were going to win. The hope of the Republican party taking back the House is much more interesting for pundits, bloggers, and even poli sci profs. The truth is that unless they make serious changes, the Republican party is pretty much doomed. By 2016, there will be enough Hispanic voters in Texas that my home state will become competitive. When that happens, the Republican party is pretty much doomed in a two-way Presidential contest. It will be harder and harder to sustain the illusion that they will get back in power.

  7. >People in the media (and that includes Silver now) have a huge incentive to sell the horserace narrative.

    Silver came to prominence because of his remarkably accurate predictions about the primaries and the general election in '08. If his estimates of the '10 elections are off, it will hurt his reputation.

  8. Well, I expect that the generic ballot question percentages will turn around for the Dems right before the election, Silver will tweak his model and his reputation will be intact. The scam is almost perfect. Because the very last polls before an election are generally fairly close to the actual result, we are treated to an exciting and completely false horserace narrative. Because he gets the final prediction correct, Silver will be perceived as retroactively right for his April prediction. The fact that I can confidently predict that the Dems will lose no more than 30 and more likely 15-20 seats will be dismissed. Nobody agrees and nobody even thinks it is possible to predict the outcome this early. I'll just say this. Until about 6 weeks before the election, the polls don't do a significantly better job of predicting the outcome of a House election than the outcome of the previous comparable election (2006 in this case). If you have to make a bet today, bet that the outcome of this election will be exactly like 2006.


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