Thursday, September 30, 2010

Future of the Public Option Update

I've been convinced for a year now that the future of the public option was bright.  Liberal activists love it, which means that Democrats are going to be pressed to support it in contested primaries.  It polls well generally, meaning that Dems will feel it's a relatively safe way to make liberal activists happy.  And as a bonus, the CBO loves it, which means that supporting a public option allows liberal candidates to support spending or tax cuts and still claim that their proposals are deficit neutral.  (The other piece, not relevant here, is that adding a public option could be done under reconciliation, so it could easily happen the next time Democrats have unified control of the House, the Senate, and the White House).

So, how's that predication working out in the 2010 election cycle?  I've looked at the twenty Democratic candidates in Senate races considered competitive by Charlie Cook.  I started with each of the candidate's web pages, and then did a quick search on "[candidate name] public option."   I also looked at whether the candidates had competitive primaries or not; competitive primaries should push Democratic candidates to support public option.  All in all, I'd say that I found plenty of good news for public option supporters. 

Of the the twenty candidates, I only found one, Blanch Lincoln, who explicitly opposes the public option, which of course was her position during Senate debate.  I'm pretty sure one other, Charlie Melancon in Louisiana, opposes public option as well, although I didn't see a clear statement.  Lincoln of course had a tough primary; Melancon did not.  I should probably mention as well that neither of them is likely to win this year, anyway.  Continuing with the twenty candidates:

Five, including Lincoln, are incumbents.  Four, as far as I can tell, support a public option; of those, three mention it on their web pages.  None of those had primaries.   Lincoln did have a primary, and she highlights her opposition to the public option (and support for the bill that passed) on her web page.

Seven challengers or open seat candidates had competitive primaries.  Every one appears to support the public option.  Four mention it on their web pages.  A fifth, Conway, apparently did last time I looked at this question, but doesn't now -- he now has no health care issue page at all.  Seven for seven. 

Eight challengers or open seat candidates (including Melancon) did not have competitive primaries.  Of these, two are definitely for a public option, with only one of those featuring it on his web page.  One, as I said, is probably against.  For the other five, a quick search did not turn up anything for or against.

To be fair, we're basically talking about mentions of the public option for these candidates; they don't, from their web pages at least, appear to be campaigning on it at this point.  Only one candidate did something like that (with a public option position in bold type).  It's also fair to say that party pressure is not strong enough to force candidates to take a strong stand on the issue just to win activist support for the general election.  Still, that's a fairly eye-popping effect: every non-incumbent with a competitive primary appears to be an explicit public option supporter, compared to only a quarter of those without such primaries.

So what does that tell us about the future of the public option?  As I said up top, it looks like good news for public option supporters to me. Granted, in terms of immediate effect, I wouldn't expect anything in the 112th Congress; even if the Democrats wind up at the far upside for them of the plausible range of electoral results, it's hard to see them pushing any new health care initiatives in the next two years beyond whatever is needed to get the ACA up and running.  But if things go well for them, then I could very much imagine the public option being a campaign issue for aggressive Dems in 2012 and legislation moving in the subsequent Congress.  All in all, six months after the passage of ACA without a public option, I continue to believe that it's in the cards next time Democrats win an election and have unified control of Congress and the presidency.

This is Not a Beltway Story

One more thing about the Rahm Emanuel exit.   I've been seeing some comments to the effect that this is one of those Washington stories that no one out in the rest of the country cares about, one of those things that people obsessed with Washington status get obsessive about instead of caring about What Really Matters.

I think that's entirely wrong.  Well, it's true that no one out in the rest of the nation cares about who the White House Chief of Staff might be, and it's true that people in Washington might care about this because they're inappropriately obsessed with status.  And of course the buck stops with the president, and all of that.  But, in fact, the White House Chief of Staff is typically one of the half-dozen or so most important people in the United States government.  People spend a lot of time worrying about who will be president, but the truth is that Ronald Reagan 1981-1984 (James Baker) and 1987-1988 (Howard Baker) was a much better president than Ronald Reagan 1985-1987 (Don Regan).  Bill Clinton from mid-1994 (Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, and John Podesta) was an effective president; Bill Clinton before that (Mack McLarty) was ineffective.  Jimmy Carter was a terrible president, and but perhaps things would have been a lot different if he had a CoS like J. Baker, Panetta, or Podesta instead of Hamilton Jordan.  Yes, the presidency is constrained in all sorts of ways, but to the extent that presidents are important, then their chiefs of staff are important.  It really does matter whether the White House runs well or badly.  It can affect who (if anyone) fills open posts in the government, and which options the president even considers, and, well, just the capacity of the presidency to tackle multiple areas of public policy at once.  And whether the White House runs well or badly is going to be the immediate responsibility of the chief of staff.  The press is quite right to be paying attention to this one.

Catch of the Day

I blamed the appointments mess on Rahm Emanuel.  Brad DeLong corrects me:
  1. Blame is not zero-sum. Jonathan Implies that the blame should be taken off of the Senate and placed on... Rahm Emmanuel. No. It doesn't work that way. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are blameworthy, and should be blamed.
  2. The COSSACK WORKS FOR THE CZAR!! THE APPOINTMENTS %^$#@$% SCREW-UPS IN THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ARE NOT RAHM EMMANUEL'S FAULT BUT BARACK OBAMA'S. In a sane system of government--a parliamentary system, for example--Obama's failure to take appointments seriously would be proper grounds for his immediate elevation to the House of Lords and exclusion from any and all levers of power. Nobody should accept a senior appointment to the cabinet or the White House staff until Obama names somebody else as Deputy President for Personnel--Chris Edley or Erskine Bowles or John Podesta or whoever--and agrees to rubber-stamp their decisions. If Obama isn't interested in that part of the job, fine: he shouldn't do it. But he needs to let somebody else do it--and do it now, and blaming Rahm for this is not accurate.
He's right, in both cases.

Well, not about the parliamentary system of government, at least not in my view.  And I think that Emanuel deserves plenty of blame -- also.  But about blaming Obama and the Senate: yes.  Absolutely.  Good catch.

In Which I Was Totally Wrong (The Rahm Exit)

It's time for me to call it: I was totally, completely, wrong about Rahm Emanuel's exit from the White House.  I figured that he was most comparable to Sherman Adams and John Sununu, both of whom were strong Chiefs of Staff who served in that role after independent political careers.  My analysis and prediction (slightly edited for clarity):
Sherman Adams and John Sununu resigned after scandal both cases the scandal was [probably] a result of the enemies created by their style in office rather than a result of particular ethical shortcomings (I'm confident that's true of Sununu, but I'm only really guessing on Adams -- I don't know the history well enough to say).  I think it's an fairly safe prediction that Rahm ends up more like Adams/Sununu than like Panetta/H. Baker. He's most likely an excellent chief of staff, but odds are he's making plenty of enemies, and when he does something dumb they'll all pounce. Just the nature of the job.
Making plenty of enemies?  Check.  Leaving to run for office, instead of under a (deserved or not) ethical cloud?  Uh, missed that one. 

So, what can I say about it?  I can think of two things.  One is the possibility that something's changed, so that strong, politically independent White House Chiefs of Staff no longer absorb potential anger at the president, thereby leaving them with few friends, many enemies, and ready for the trash heap at the first whisper of scandal.  A second is that the dynamics were the same, but that Rahm Emanuel is a far superior pol compared to Adams and Sununu, and managed to survive unscathed through brilliant maneuvering.  Or, Rahm was heading for the demise I expected, but saw it coming and jumped before the process could really proceed very far.  You won't be surprised to learn that I believe the correct answer is #3.  I'm not saying he was about to be ousted, at all; I'm saying that the normal instinct for most White House Chiefs of Staff is to try to hang on to power as long as possible, and that Rahm, in choosing not to do so, avoided being forced out down the road.

By the way, I'm looking at the list of WH Chiefs of Staff, and just from memory I believe the only ones who left on their own terms outside of the waning months of an expiring presidency were James Baker (the first time, when he swapped jobs with Don Regan), Leon Pannetta, and Erskine Bowles.  I think it's generally not a bad idea for the job to rotate every couple of years, following the Clinton administration's example, and perhaps that's what's going on here.  Of course, it's always possible that it will later be revealed that Rahm was in fact forced out and given the mayoral campaign as a face-saving thing, but otherwise I think it's a generally positive development.  One that I, obviously, did not see coming at all.

Two For the Fed

The Senate apparently cut a deal yesterday, approving a long list of executive branch nominations, most notably Janet Yellen and Sarah Raskin to the Fed (but not the third Obama nominee, Peter Diamond).  Presumably in exchange for that, and for GOP co-operation on some technical stuff that would have been a (minor, I think) hassle for the Democrats during the lame duck session, Harry Reid agreed to hold pro forma sessions through October so that Barack Obama cannot do any recess appointments.

Brad DeLong's reaction is that "we need a very different Senate."   It's certainly fair to criticize the Senate for taking forever to confirm nominations that are not controversial -- the Fed appointments were approved by voice vote, and the other 52 nominations were by unanimous consent, so I think it's safe to call these, at least, uncontroversial.  And it's true that with a "very different Senate" those types of nominations might be processed a lot faster.  Still, I think a lot, and perhaps most, of the blame for this should be place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The nominations were announced on April 29 of this year, so it took the Senate five months.  That's not great...but if I recall correctly, two of the openings here go back to the beginning of Obama's presidency (the third, which Yellen was elevated to fill, only dates to this spring).  So far more of the delay is the responsibility of the president, not the Senate.  Moreover, by taking so long to nominate people for executive and judicial positions, the White House is sending a signal about priorities to the Senate.  If the signal was different, with Obama emphasizing the importance of getting these nominations done (including earlier and more frequent threats and use of recess appointments), I think there's every chance that the Senate would act more quickly.

Now, granted, part of the reason that nominations are taking so long in the first place is presumably because of how hard they are to confirm (and certainly because of the paperwork requirements that Senate committees, some more than others, have instituted).  Still, I put a lot of the blame here on the administration.  By all accounts, Barack Obama is in the market for a new chief of staff; I've mostly thought that Rahm Emanuel has done a good job in many respects, but the appointment process is definitely not one of them, and Obama should keep that in mind when he's putting his new team together.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The DeMint Reign

I suppose I should say something about Jim DeMint's kidnap of the Senate.  Mostly, though, I would say that this is exactly what Greg Koger predicts:: at the end of the session, minorities maximize whatever leverage a legislative chamber's rules give them to stall things.  Since the Senate gives minorities lots of chances to stall, we would expect those opportunities to be exercised when leverage is highest.  Bingo.

Could the Democrats have fought this battle better?  Throughout the 111th Congress, Harry Reid and the Democrats have placed time back home as a higher priority than Senate floor time.  We don't really know how valuable district campaign time is for re-election (as far as I know it's never been studied systematically), but clearly Members of Congress believe it's very important.  We can guess that they probably overrate its importance...but then again, spending more time in Washington and passing more legislation and confirming more nominees probably would not have helped get Democrats re-elected at all, and so it's understandable that their demands on the Senate leadership are to protect district work time above all. 

In the short term, what Harry Reid could have tried is a pure bluff, claiming that the Senate would stay in session until specific important work was done, even if he was intent on getting out of town by a date certain.  In the longer run...hard to say.  The White House could have, once they realized last February or so that Senate floor time was a big deal, commissioned a study and rigged it (if needed) to show that district time was actually completely irrelevant to re-election, but that confirming the nominations of assistant secretaries of various departments was highly important.  OK, maybe not that last thing, but perhaps numbers of bills passed or something like that.  And then they could have gone to the Democratic caucus last spring and tried to convince them to buy into it.  Would it have worked?  Maybe a little bit, if not all the way.  And after all, as it turned out shaving a couple of week off of August recess, 2009 might have been a fairly big deal if it meant that more things passed during the Democrats' short 60 Senator window.  On the other hand, perhaps five or six fewer weeks back home could have made the difference for Murray, Boxer, and Feingold.  Overall, I do think that Reid and the Democrats in general (including the White House) have done a poor job of finding aggressive, creative ways to fight back against the Republicans' aggressive, creative use of Senate rules -- that doesn't really affect the bills and nominations for which the Dems fell short of  60 votes, but it has, I think, meant that they've been less successful than they could  have been on bills and nominations for which they had 60, and in many cases far more than 60 votes.  At this point, however, Koger's arguments about leverage and the end of the session are what I'd think about, and that's going to be true even with quite a bit of Senate rule reform.

All Politics is Local, Except When...Oh, Wait

I hate to make this blog an all-Bai, all-the-time, debunk-o-fest, but really, sometimes he just asks for it -- and today's article is also a good peg on which to hang a couple of important points, which I'll get to below.  Anyway, today he takes his special Bai-eriffic mix of solid reporting skills and analytic disaster to the three-ring circus in Delaware's Senate race, in which he finds that Christine O'Donnell isn't actually campaigning there, at least not in person.  That's interesting!  With all the O'Donnell hoopla, I didn't actually know that, although I'll admit I'm pretty O'Donnelled out, and not following the details all that closely.  But somehow or another he manages to use the O'Donnell story to tell us that Tip O'Neill's famous aphorism that "all politics is local" is "as much a part of history as he is" without mentioning anywhere that Christine O'Donnell is getting clobbered.  In a great Republican year, in an open seat, Nate Silver now gives her a 1% chance of winning, ranking her even with whatever Republican is taking on Daniel Inouye in Hawaii.  In other words, all politics in Deleware is local, in the sense that nominating some nationally-based movement conservative has been an apparent fiasco for Republicans there.  Tip O'Neill didn't mean that nothing happened at the national level, just that anyone who wanted to win had better pay attention to what their districts wanted.  I could see an argument that O'Donnell doesn't prove that Delaware is hostile to national movement conservatives who don't have a history of talking about witchcraft and the rest of it, but she's hardly evidence that O'Neill's advice is dated.

Oh, I said I had some important points in addition to the Bai-bashing, didn't I?  Better get to them, as much fun as Bai-bashing is.  I mean, really -- this is the New York Times, not WJM-TV or WNYX radio.  They shouldn't be getting things this wrong this regularly.  Now, where was I?...oh, yeah, the important points.

First, Bai is actually quite right that national politics is new, and different.  In the strong-party nineteenth century, the national parties were basically non-existent.  National parties were little more than loose alliances of a whole bunch of state and local parties, which were entirely autonomous, and had little to do with each other unless they had to nominate a presidential candidate.  As parties weakened in the twentieth century, what was weakening were those state and local organizations.  There was no national party to be weak or strong.  That's no longer true.  Over the last fifty years or so, both the Democrats and Republicans have been putting together true national parties. 

Second, and as I've talked about many times before, these national parties (just like the modern versions of state and local parties) are only partially found in formal organizations, such as the Republican National Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Those formal organizations may sometimes be important, but they're not the whole party.  Often, what matters far more are informal networks including campaign professionals, governing professionals and issue experts, the partisan press, activists, party aligned-interest groups, and candidates.  That's what Bai is talking about when he sees outsiders such as Rush Limbaugh tout O'Donnell, or national online groups such as MoveOn supporting Ned Lamont against Joe Lieberman in 2006.  Bai is correct that this is a new and interesting development, but he's wrong to think that there's no political party operating in these cases (and here he's just plain ordinary wrong, I suppose, but still...).  It is party action, but it's national and not local, and it's not happening in the buildings with the words "Democrat" or "Republican" on the door.  But it's party action nonetheless, even if as yet we only partially understand all of its implications. 

Catch of the Day

Jonathan Chait notes that Matthew Continetti blames higher Obama-era taxes -- taxes that have no actually happened yet -- for the economic performance of the last couple of years.  Nice catch!

However, I invite Chait to review my post on GOP economics, explained, so he can understand that all economic growth is a direct result of tax cuts; all recessions are caused by tax increases.  In this case, no doubt the recession that began in late 2007 was caused by concern that President Obama would impose steep tax hikes taking effect in January 2011. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Still catching up on GOP presidential nomination politics...

Andrew Sullivan responded to my questions about Palin's candidacy by asking:
And who, I ask again, can beat her? That's the other side of this equation. Obama did it against the Clintons. Why couldn't Palin do it against ... no one?
Good questions!  Time for a speculative post about some of the possible answers.

As I look at the GOP field, what I see are two kinds of candidates up against Palin, who as I've said I see as a personal factional candidate.  The first is what I think I'll call Empty Suit coalition-style candidates.  These candidates -- Tim Pawlenty, John Thune, and Mitt Romney -- draw their strength from the oddball field of Republican candidates in 2008, which featured an array of people who drew vetoes from some part of the GOP coalition.  So for this group, being an Empty Suit is a feature, not a bug; the problem in 2008 and perhaps in 2012 for Mitt Romney is that he's not empty enough, what with having a possibly problematic religion, a past that draws questions from social conservatives, and a past that draws questions from small-government conservatives.  Among these candidates, the current boomlet is for Thune, although Dave Weigel believes finds him not empty enough too, because he supported TARP.   Is he right?  Well, Weigel is an awfully good reporter, and that's the kind of information we need to analyze what's going on in the invisible primary.  My question about Thune would be: do GOP leaders in general like him, in which case they would tend to downplay TARP as an issue, which might well mean that it gets less traction if he's attacked over it in Iowa and New Hampshire?  Or is the interest in Thune really more of a Washingtonian, Capitol Hill thing, with GOP leaders out in the rest of the nation having little interest in him.  If the latter, well, Thune wouldn't be the first candidate who seems imposing from the United States Senate Press Gallery who turned out to have nothing going on elsewhere.  In other words, while I do respect Weigel's judgment on these sorts of things, I guess I see TARP more as a weapon to use in public than something like taxes, missile defense, guns, or abortion which disqualifies a candidate with the leaders of crucial GOP factions.  Presumably, one of the things that happens as the process moves forward is that we find out whether or not that's true -- we'll see if GOP activists, at least, consider TARP a litmus test issue.

And speaking of factions, and again I'm not a reporter, just a consumer of news, it sure seems to me that Jim DeMint is the current leader of the hard-core conservative faction of the Republican Party.  He's far more consistent with his endorsements than any other conservative leader, and unlike Palin he can claim that he's actually been doing something effective for the cause.  For the conservative/Tea Party faction, presumably the trick is to be as far to the right as possible without actually sounding crazy to those outside the faction (and thus perhaps drawing vetoes from more pragmatic conservatives, and possibly some GOP-aligned interest groups).  At least as I read the reporting, DeMint seems to be pretty good at keeping to that line, and he certainly must be more reliable both for that crowd and for more pragmatic types than Palin.

To know more, we need more solid reporting.  Hey, reporters!  We know activists hate TARP; is it a make or break issue for them?  What about other important groups within the GOP?  And, while of course Tea Partiers and conservatives generally are fond of the Sage of Wasilla, do leaders of those groups seem more likely to turn to her or to DeMint (or perhaps to another candidate) for leadership?  How much good will did DeMint buy with his endorsements and support in primary season 2010? 

Matt Bai Historical Lapse of the Week

[Updated, see below]
[T]his is Connecticut, my home state, where the business of campaigns and governance used to be a predictable, serious affair, the province of mostly estimable public servants who worked their way up through town councils or local party machines. Sometimes called the Land of Steady Habits, Connecticut was never a place for garish campaigns and outsize characters with bank statements to match.

Until recently, the closest thing Connecticut experienced to an overturning of the political order, at least in modern times, was the revolt over a state income tax in the early 1990s. So incensed were the voters then that they replaced their moderate governor, the former longtime senator Lowell Weicker, with a more conservative career politician, a three-term congressman named John Rowland. Take that, status quo! (Matt Bai, NYT Magazine).
OK, I'll give him a pass on Weicker's defeat of Tom Dodd in 1970; we'll call that before "modern times."  And then there's Chris Dodd's victory in 1980, which I'd agree was not about upsetting the status quo; Dodd, son of a Senator, replaced retiring Democrat Abe Ribicoff.

However.  Lowell Weicker...yeah, he was a "longtime Senator."  But he was defeated for reelection in 1988, a real barnburner of an election, by insurgent Joe Lieberman.  That's one "overturning of the political order" for you.  What happened next, however, was even more off-the-wall.  After losing in part because conservatives abandoned him, Weicker then ran for Governor as a third party candidate, and won.  He might have been a familiar pol, but I just can't see any way of characterizing a defeated US Senator forming his own party, running for governor, and winning as anything other than "an overturning of the political order."  Indeed, it's hard to see John Rowland's victory in 1994 as an isolated event, rather than part of a sequence of upheaval going from 1988, to 1990, to 1994.

Nice job, Matt Bai!

(I'll add, although it's I suppose a bit less clear cut, that neither Weicker nor Lieberman is exactly a button-down country club type, the type which Bai tells us dominates Connecticut politics and from which Linda McMahon would be a break.  Lowell Weicker, in particular, always struck me as an "outsized character," although I suppose that's a question of judgment, not of fact.)

[UPDATE: OK, I admit it; I wrote the item without finishing the article.  But Steve Kornacki did read the whole article, and (back on Monday) had a far more serious critique of it.   Basically, Bai got the political parties portion of the story completely backwards.  Yikes]

How to Think About Palin

Last week, I never got around to doing some of the presidential nomination blogging I meant to do in response to an interesting exchange between Ross Douthat, DiA's R.L.G., and Douthat again about whether the Sage of Wasilla is or is not the frontrunner.  It's a good discussion, although one correction is needed; R.L.G. claims that the nomination contest begins in November, but in fact it's already been going on for almost two years.  Certainly that's the case for Sarah Palin, whether or not she winds up running in 2012 -- she's been running for 2012 since (at least) election day, 2008.  That's not something unique to Palin; Hillary Clinton and John Edwards started running for 2008 no later than, well, let's say the day after the election in 2004.  Ronald Reagan began running for 1980 immediately after the 1976 convention; indeed, one might argue that Reagan did nothing but run for president from the time he first gave his famous speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, with time outs only for his two campaigns for governor of California (it's just a bit of an exaggeration; he probably put the presidency on the back burner from the end of his nomination campaign in summer 1968 through the 1972 election, more or less).

At any rate: Sarah Palin.  I've been thinking about how to think about her candidacy, and what I've realized is that the best way is in the terms Nelson W. Polsby used in his classic Consequences of Party Reform.  Polsby believed that the new party nomination system put in place forty years ago gave advantages to factional candidates over coalition-forming candidates.  Now, as a former Polsby student, I have to say that I think his analysis was useful for the 1970s, but is now dated.  At first, parties did not know how to control nominations after reform, but soon they learned, as demonstrated by Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller in The Party Decides (or see my article about Howard Dean and 2004).  But regardless of whether she will win or not, characterizing Palin as a factional candidate is, I think, helpful.  In the 1970s, observers as first believed that George McGovern's nomination in 1972 showed that reform favored ideological extremes, with purist Democratic activists inevitably favoring the left-most candidate regardless of what would happen in November.  Jimmy Carter, however, was no left-winger.  Polsby realized that what McGovern and Carter had in common was that they were mobilizing factions, except that in Carter's case his faction was a purely personal one.

I think that's how to think about Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate: she'll be mobilizing the Palin faction.  Yes, she's embracing conservative issue positions to the extent that she talks policy, but her endorsements are more idiosyncratic, and she (pragmatically?) endorsed relatively moderate candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire during this election cycle.  She's a factional candidate, with a personal faction, not an ideological or group-based faction.

How does that affect her chances of winning?  Parties -- that is, party leaders such as elected officials, party-aligned interest group leaders, the partisan press, and others -- have (see above citations) learned how to stop factional candidates they do not want to win their nominations, whether it was Pat Buchanan or Steve Forbes or Jesse Jackson.  That is, parties can do so if they collectively choose to do so.  It could be that some party leaders opt in to the Palin faction for whatever reason, and a split result would give her a much better chance of winning.  It does strike me that personal factions are, over time, a lot weaker than ideological or group-based factions.  Democrats had to be exceedingly careful with Jesse Jackson because they needed the faction he represented.  I'm not sure the same will be true of Palin.  On the other hand, factional leaders who represent groups within the party can be bought off by offering something substantive that the group wants (I should emphasize that I don't mean "bought off" as a pejorative; it's how coalition politics works, which I think is a very good thing).  The problem with buying off a personal faction is that it gets down to what the individual candidate wants, and individuals are a lot more unpredictable than are groups.

This doesn't mean either that Palin can't win or that she'll definitely's easy for me to imagine either scenario.  I do think, however, that thinking of her as a factional candidate with a personal faction helps to clarity what's going on.

Fun with Kennedy/Nixon

John Sides has a good item up today responding to Ted Sorenson's op-ed from Sunday about the Nixon/Kennedy debates.  I have a partial not-quite-dissent, and a comment.  The former is about the question of whether the debates affected the election results.  John cites a study of tracking polls that shows no immediate effect from the debate, and I agree with him that "Debates rarely lead to significant changes in public opinion about the candidates. They occur too late, and too many people have already made up their minds."  Still...we're talking about a very close election here, and it seems not entirely implausible to me that a handful of voters could have flipped.  So, while I don't exactly disagree, I wouldn't want to say anything too strong about it (as opposed, say, to the 1980 or 1984 elections, in which the idea that one-liners from Ronald Reagan were responsible for landslide results is just silly).  Of course, to say that any one particular thing "made the difference" in a very close race is a bit of a trick, since by that standard lots of factors made the difference.  I'm just not completely ready to say that the debates weren't one of those...I guess I have a bit less confidence than John does about whether this myth is really a myth. 

As for the comment: John quotes a study of differing perceptions of the debate by Jamie Druckman, who says: "This is compelling evidence that television-by enhancing the impact of image-can make a difference in overall candidate (debater) evaluations."  Isn't that a bit odd?  It seems to me that radio -- by eliminating visual cues found in traditional human communication -- would be the thing that was the "difference"  (I can see people thinking otherwise in 1960, but this is a study conducted and published a few years ago).  So, interesting study, and I don't think that the way its framed should affect the results (which are that, indeed, Kennedy did better in the TV version than the radio version), but I just thing it's a bit strange for anyone after, say, 1955, to think of audio-only as normal and ask how adding video changes things.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday Movies Post

It's been a while, but I'm going to try to get back to doing these.  This week, how about another Ronald Reagan movie?  It's an obscure one, but I saw it recently and it's on Turner Classic against this week (very early Thursday AM -- set your DVR), so I figured I should do an item.  It's Juke Girl, from 1942, with Reagan getting second billing behind his Kings Row co-star, Ann Sheridan.

I need to get a couple things out of the way first.  You probably know Alan Hale, who apparently had some sort of world's record for most times playing Little John (including in the Errol Flynn version), besides from being the Skipper's father.  He's in it, as sort of a happy-go-lucky guy who befriends everyone.  But the real find here for those of us raised on TV is that the main plot is about a struggling farmer called Nick the Greek, who is played in fine ethic form by, of all people, George Tobias.  Coming up blank?  I don't blame you, and there's no way you would guess it if you saw the movie, either...he's Abner Kravitz!  You know, the guy who's married to Gladys Kravitz, the woman who suspects something's odd over at the Stevens house.  Now imagine him as a poor Greek farmer in Florida...yup.  Same guy.

OK, back to the movie.  Ronald Reagan and his buddy are drifters, more or less, and they settle down in a fly-by-night Florida company town, run by an evil capitalist who exploits the farm workers.  Reagan's character sees injustice and sides with the poor & downtrodden; his friend is ambitious and goes to work for the Big Boss.  Meanwhile, Ann Sheridan is the title character, a cynical "juke girl," one of the women provides the entertainment for the town.  As a movie?  It's OK, nothing special...I like Ann Sheridan, and she's fine here, and the supporting cast is fine, but nothing to write home about (original NYT review here, BTW). 

As far as the politics of it are concerned, it's mainly interesting because it fits so well with Reagan's ideology.  He immediately picks a side (clearly the correct one, within the movie), and fights for it.  He's on the side of the little guy against big bad greed.  However, the solution for the little guy isn't, really, collective action -- I believe there's a word starting with a "u" that does not make any appearance in this movie.  Nor is it government, represented by an ineffectual local lawman.  When we do see co-operation among the little guys, it's more in the spirit of barn-raising than in political action.  Except, that is, for the time that they become an ugly mob (easily manipulated by the Big Boss) and try to lynch our heroes

At any rate, the moment to watch this movie for, Reagan's big moment in the movie (not the movie's climax; the plot mutates after this) -- is when he takes a bold, decisive action to "win" a negotiation.  Let's see...Nick the Greek is trying to sell his crop in Atlanta because he's feuding with the big boss back in Florida, the packer who dominates the local farmers and farm workers.  Alas, the guy in Florida has called ahead, and no one in Atlanta will buy his crop, either.  But then Reagan dramatically takes the wheel of the truck and blocks traffic coming into and out of the market, and the buyer has no choice but to agree to Reagan's terms.  It's really a perfect Reagan moment.  Clear good guys, clear bad guys, bold action, and never mind whether any of it makes sense or not. 

So: recommended for Reagan fans (that is, anyone who finds him interesting).  If you're only going to see one Ronald Reagan movie, you want Kings Row.  After that, probably Hellcats of the Navy (for Ron & Nancy), Knute Rockne, or Murder in the Air.   But beyond those, I found more to enjoy in this one than in some of the others I've seen.  I'm not sure how strong a recommendation that is, but if you give it a try, enjoy!

Senate Projections, Now in Stereo

Like Nate Silver's stuff, but don't want to cough up the price now that he's at the NYT?  Go discount, with Tom Holbrook's -- hey, wait!  They're both free!  So dial up both sets of projections.  Quick comparison: Holbrook,  a political scientist, is only using district-level polling, and he bases his projections on the past relationship between past polling and past election results.  Silver (whose PECOTA baseball forecasting system is letting me down this year but helped me win my fantasy league twice in recent years) throws a lot more stuff into the pot, including the national generic ballot question and expert projections of individual districts.  Which approach is better?  Both.  What I like about Silver's projections is that he presents them as probabilities, not only as specific point estimates (it's much more useful to know that Silver projects a 57% chance of Angle winning than to know he projects her to win 49/48, and the best thing is he gives both).  Silver has projections for every Senate, House, and Gubernatorial race; Holbrook so far only has point estimates, and only for Senate elections, but he says he's working on the House, too.  And don't forget about, which has the best simple poll-of-polls out there, at least in my opinion.

Via yet another tweet from Brendan Nyhan.  You do follow him, right?  (And while you're at it -- you do follow me, too, right?).  And, yes, face it, holdouts -- if you're a political junkie and want to really follow elections these days, twitter is, if not absolutely necessary, certainly highly useful. 

Wasting a Good Reporter

I'd like to give useful advise to Marc Ambinder, who is about to become a White House reporter and is, to his credit, self-aware enough that he's asking how to do it.  I'd like to, but because I think he's a good reporter, my inclination is to say: Just Say No.  Don't do it.  White House reporters aren't in a particularly good position to learn important things that aren't otherwise reported, and so I'm not really very happy to see someone who I think is a talented and interesting voice move to a position in which he'll be obliged to follow a lot of stuff that everyone else reports on and which, in many cases, has to be reported but just isn't very important. 

Yes, we need someone to tell us what the president will do next week (even though, you know, we'll know he's doing it when he actually does it).  We need someone to tell us which White House aids are more or less important.  We need someone to ask the questions to get the administration on record about things and to pass along signals the White House wants to send -- those are very important functions in a democracy.  It just doesn't take, as far as I can tell, all that much skill (and, no, forget the idea that if only the WH press corps was a bit more clever they could trip up Robert Gibbs or Ari Fleischer or Dee Dee Myers or whoever -- that's a nice armchair fantasy, but these people are professionals, and even a third-rate press secretary knows how to deflect a question she doesn't want to answer).  I understand that these are highly regarded positions within the Washington media food chain, but it's no accident that the reporters who became famous for Watergate were not part of the White House press corps.

So, I could say some trite stuff about keeping a focus on things that have long-term importance, and avoiding hype in favor of substance, and other things in that line of thinking, but really, I don't think there's all that much point.  I guess I would stick to this: don't try to be a good White House reporter; try to be as good a policy and politics reporter as possible, and treat your beat as an unavoidable inconvenience.  If your bosses will let you get away with that, it's about the best you can make of the situation.


Over the weekend, I tried out a new regular feature in which I ask everyone to step back and think about what actually matters, instead of just focusing on the hype and all.  Speaking of that topic, here's one: new projections about which states will gain and lose in the reapportionment following the 2010 census. 

A few things to keep in mind as you look at the linked Richard E. Cohen article, which I thought was pretty good.  First, Cohen is focused on the effects for the House, but of course reapportionment matters for the presidency, perhaps even more.  Texas adding four seats is a big deal, with New York losing two.  That's a nice gain for the GOP.  The other two multiseat states are a wash, with swing state Ohio losing two and swing state Florida gaining two.  The other gainers are GOP states UT, SC, and GA; Dem state WA; and swingers NV and AZ.  Losing a seat each are Democratic states IL, IA, MA, MI, and NJ; Republican LA; and swingers PA and MO.  Add 'em up, and it's clearly a net gain for Republicans...although that is balanced, perhaps, to the extent that increased Latino voting in Florida and Arizona push those states away from the GOP.  Indeed, my guess would be that Arizona may be on its way to moving into the top tier of key states in the battle for the presidency -- or perhaps a better way to think of it is that Florida (projected EV 29) will increasingly be in a tier by itself, with Ohio (projected EV 18) and Pennsylvania (20) dropping back into a pack that includes Arizona (11), Colorado (10), Virginia (13), and a few others. 

As far as effects on the House, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  One is to remember that we're mostly interested in changes from new redistricting, which involves knowing just how the old districts played.  So remember that Texas is beginning from the DeLay gerrymander that helped Republicans, not from the 2001 Democratic gerrymander, when speculating about how many seats will be won or lost for each party.  Another is that most gerrymanders tend to be bipartisan gerrymanders, which protect all incumbents.  Parties that try to maximize seat gain by keeping their winning margins down (and thus allowing their voters to have the majority in more districts) risk losing a lot very bad years, and at any rate incumbent Members of the House are usually all too happy to exchange larger party goals of maximizing seats for the very different goal of maximizing their own safety.  Bipartisan incumbent protection gerrymanders such as California's ten years ago don't result in very many close elections, but because politicians tend to like them they are often enacted, meaning that redistricting usually isn't nearly as big a deal as some believe.  So it matters, but don't get carried away.

By the way, for an argument for the democratic advantages bipartisan gerrymanders, see Justin Buchler's "Case Against Competitive Congressional Districts."

Presidents Act on Party Priorities

(See Update below)

Via a nice tweet from Brendan Nyhan, I see that Jay Cost is continuing to try to link the Democrats' problems (which are, of course, very real) to their decision to act on health care reform:
Rather than focus on doing what the voters elected them to do, they instead focused on a longstanding ideological goal of the party elite. On the other hand, if  [...] Obama had focused on restoring the economy - just as Franklin Roosevelt did in the historic 73rd Congress of 1933-34 - they might still be set for losses, but I think they would have been greatly mitigated, as at least they could claim they did everything that could be done to restore the economy to health.  Similarly, if FDR had decided to pursue the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act rather than stabilizing the economy during the First New Deal, I think the Democrats would have suffered serious losses in the 1934 midterm.  Instead, FDR wisely saved those sorts of reforms for later years.
That's all very well and good, except for two things.  First,  the big difference between FDR 1934 and BHO 2010 isn't whether they focused on the economy -- it's how successful they were.  If the economy was growing at a rapid pace now, as it was during Roosevelt's first two years, then GOP attacks on Obama's main economic actions (the stimulus, the auto bailout, the rest of administering TARP) would be entirely ineffective.  Now, there are lots of reasons why the economy grew more in 1933-1934 than it did over the last two years, only some of which have anything to do with actual policies of the president.  But I think it's impossible to make a case that Obama ignored the economy [see Update below].

Yes, Cost might say, but health care distracted from Obama's message or image of focusing on the economy, while FDR was smart enough to ignore distracting party issues.  But that's not true!  In fact, what the Democrats did as soon as the took office was to launch a major campaign on a social issue that had nothing to do with the economy at all but everything to do with pleasing their urban constituencies.  That's right, one of the very first bills that Roosevelt signed, just days into his presidency, was the repeal of prohibition (in legislative form; passing the 21st Amendment took longer the rest of the year, and of course didn't require presidential action, but was still a case of the Democratic Party focusing on fulfilling a non-economic plank in their party platform.  Oh, and if that's not good enough...guess what else the 73rd Congress did?  How about: gun control

Of course, repeal of prohibition was presumably a lot more popular than health care reform (I have no idea how popular machine gun regulation may have been) -- but the ACA would, I believe, be a lot more popular if the economy was growing and Obama was generally more popular.  Cost's continuing theme has been that the unpopularity of health care reform is hurting Obama and the Democrats, but as I've said I think the evidence is stronger that it's the other way around. 

More Nyhan's tweet said a lot more concisely than I'm capable of, presidents try to enact their party's platform.  They have to.  Ignoring party priorities is a sure road to disaster for any president.  Of course, that doesn't mean that they never disagree with their party -- see Obama on civil liberties issues -- or that they're always successful in implementing party plans, as Obama has been unsuccessful on climate/energy so far.  Had Obama, however, said in January 2009 that he was going to put off health care and climate, he would have immediately faced a serious revolt from his own party, and might not have even managed to get anything passed through Congress -- and he'd probably now be looking at one or more liberal Senators or governors starting to think that Iowa and New Hampshire are great states to get to know better.  Or, even worse, if he had abandoned health care reform after the August Crazy of 2009 despite having the votes in Congress to pass it, he would have severely injured his reputation, with all sorts of costs down the road.  Presidents do have some ability to manage the party agenda.  If Obama had chosen to emphasize climate instead of health care, Democrats would have gone along...although there's a good chance that neither would have passed, which certainly wouldn't have helped keep rank-and-file Dems happy going into the midterm elections.  To fully reject action on Democratic priorities despite the largest Congressional majorities in a generation?  No president would do that, and no president could do that and retain support of his party.

[Update: see Jay Cost's interesting response below, and my response to him.  I think he may be right that I overstated my description of his position...he certainly hasn't claimed that Obama ignored the economy, just that he and the Dems focused on health care instead of the economy, which isn't quite the same thing, although I disagree about whether he's right about it.]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

It's the reverse of the question for conservatives: which Senate candidates do you really care about?  Two parts...of the endangered Democratic incumbents, and ignoring strategic questions and anything about the opponents, which ones do you care most about saving?  Which ones would you not mind losing?  I'll leave Lincoln out of this (since it's a question for liberals)...the other endangered incumbents are Boxer, Murray, Feingold, Reid, and Bennet.

OK, how about the challengers and open seat candidates?  Again, put aside anything other than which ones you think would make great Senators.  The Democrats in contested races are Blumenthal, Manchin, Coons, Giannoulias, McAdams, Meek (or Crist?), Ellsworth, Carnahan, Conway, Hodes, Fisher, Sestak, Marshall, and Melcanon.  If you could pick three to be Senators, which ones?  If three have to be left behind (and, for Democrats, that's of course a very optimistic scenario, but...), which three?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Leaving aside strategic questions and what you think of their opponents, which of the US Senate candidates do you especially want to win?  That is, which of the Republican Senate candidates would you really like to see in the Senate? 

Here's the list for the competitive seats: Fiorina, O'Donnell, Boozman (I guess that counts as a competitive seat), Coats (ditto), Angle, Rubio (or Crist?), Miller (or Murkowski?), Ayotte, Kirk, Raese, Buck, Blunt, Paul, McMahon, Portman, Toomey, Rossi, Johnson.  Which would be, say, the five you most want to have in the Senate?  Which three are you least excited about?  (Feel free to include Burr and Vitter, although it looks like neither is going anywhere).

Remember, the question is about these people as prospective Senators, not the difference between them and their opponents (in which case the answer might have to do with the biggest changes in voting records) or just how much you don't like the opponent.   

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

So here's how this happened.  Ezra Klein sent out a fun tweet on Thursday:
@annielowrey describes my typical blog post: "something happened, but it doesn't matter."
To which I responded: "I thought that was my typical post."  

And I figured that John Sides could have said the same thing, and perhaps others, as well.  Which got me thinking...of course, in neither case is it really true.  Klein's a terrific blogger, and he's excellent at writing posts about things that matter but aren't being talked about all that much.  I try to do the same.  But I also (as we all do) focus especially on things about which I believe I have something to say that others aren't saying.  It's not quite the same as "it matters/it doesn't matter."  And yet that matters/doesn't matter distinction is actually a good one.  On top of that, I really have been enjoying the threads coming out of my Sunday Questions (just wish I had more conservative readers who would participate, but that's how it goes, I guess).  

The upshot is: I'm thinking of trying a new feature: What mattered this week?  Now, it's a bit tricky...what "matters" depends on which outcomes we're interested in.  Say, Barack Obama gives a major's possible that it will both not matter (to election outcomes) and matter quite a bit (in signals it sends to Washingtonians about the administrations positions on some issue).  Anyway, I'm thinking of this as a question to everyone, rather than as something I want to make pronouncements about.  We'll see how it goes this week.  I ask the question, and suggest one answer, and then I'll toss it out to readers to see what they propose.  If it produces interesting comments, I'll do it again next week  Thus:

What Mattered This Week?

I think I'd say the DADT vote really does matter.  It's a substantive policy issue, and the vote could have gone, I thought, either way...I've thought all along that the Democrats were going to get this one done, but now I think the odds have dropped dramatically, although it is still very possible it will happen.  (By the way, I wasn't thinking of including "what didn't matter" as part of this, but even though I wrote a bunch about it, I don't think the GOP Pledge mattered much at all).  But: what do you think mattered this week?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Here it is: 0, 0, 3, 3, 3, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 0, 2, 0, 1.  That, as I'm sure those reading this have figured out, are the runs the Giants have allowed over the last eighteen games.  Just unreal.  I don't really have anything to say about it...I just want to sit back and be amazed.

Let's see...I'll just toss out a little background.  Tim Lincecum was a first round pick, 10th overall.  In the rest of the first round, the best players so far have been Max Scherzer, Travis Snider, Danie Bard, Chris Coghlin, and Joba Chamberlain.  Not bad.  Matt Cain, also first round, 25th overall.  That's the Moneyball player taken after Cain so far have been Mark Teahen.  Zito, you know how the Giants got him.  Jonathan Sanchez was a 27th round draft pick.  Yikes!  If you're wondering, only one other 27th rounder that year made the majors, at least so far -- Tyler Flowers, a catcher who appeared in 15 games.  And Madison Bumgarner was like Lincecum the 10th pick overall.  It's too early to say much about that class, but I will note that Sabean might have done better here...the Braves had the 14th pick and took Jason Heyward.  Still, that's either just fantastic drafting, or terrific development, or both.  Not to mention good choices about who to keep and who to trade.

That's all I have for now.  Pennant race time.

The Framers and Constitutional Values

Via Ezra, I very much enjoyed Lexington's discussion (in the Economist) of Framer worship, Founder worship, and Constitution worship (second link is to his print column, which I won't discuss here until the end, but it's really highly recommended -- excellent stuff).

Lexington leans on a lecture by Michael Klarman of Harvard Law.  Having not read or heard the lecture, I'm reacting only here to Lexington's summary, so my apologies if I don't do justice to the original.  It's an interesting argument to think about, but I think I have a bit of a dissent.  Lexington:
Professor Klarman made four main points about what he calls "constitutional idolatry". They are (1) that the framers' constitution represented values that Americans should abhor or at least reject today; (2) that there are parts of the constitution America is stuck with but that are impossible to defend based on contemporary values; (3) that for the most part the Constitution is irrelevant to the current political design of the nation; and (4) that the rights that are protected today are mostly a result of the evolution of political attitudes, not of courts using the Constitution to uphold them.

Point (1) is surely unarguable: the protection of slavery, the restriction of suffrage and so on.

OK.  Point two I think is certainly correct, and as Klein points out is actually shared by the amendment-happy Tea Partiers and other Republicans, even if they might disagree with Klein, Lexington, and Klarman about which parts are hard to defend.  Point four is an empirical argument about the effects of court decisions...I know of the academic debate about that, but don't know enough to really endorse either side (I suspect the truth is in the middle, but, you know, isn't it always easy to say that?)  That leaves points three -- the relationship between the Constitution and the actual functioning of the government today -- and point one, the alleged abhorrent values embedded in the document.  I'll take #3 first.

Is it true that "for the most part the Constitution is irrelevant to the current political design of the nation"?  Here Lexington (for Klarman) talks about the administrative machinery of the government, but he might as well be talking of political parties, or the press, or interest groups, or the ways that the each of the Constitutional branches performs legislative, executive, and judicial tasks.  That's true. Add it all up and the actual functioning of the American political system isn't easily recognizable from a literal reading of the Constitution.  And yet...the reason that things work the way they do, with dispersed and multiplied power, and separated institutions sharing powers, and all the rest of it, is in my view fundamentally tied to Constitutional design.  For example, the fact that the American bureaucracy is more political (in the sense of partisan and electoral politics) than bureaucracies in other democracies is a direct consequence of the mixed masters the Constitution gave the "executive" branch.  So while plenty of our current institutional arrangements evolved over time, I would strong argue that the core political theory embedded in the Constitution is quite relevant to how they evolved, and the institutional arrangements detailed in that rulebook are quite relevant today.

Now, to the much harder case, regarding the values of the constitution.  Do "the protection of slavery, the restriction of suffrage and so on" mean that "the framers' constitution represented values that Americans should abhor or at least reject today"?  I'm not so sure.  It is certainly the case that many of the framers had values Americans today abhor and should and do reject.  I tend to support those who argue, however, that most of those values were not, in fact, found in their Constitution (and are certainly not in ours, which contains the Civil War Amendments, among other improvements). 

Steering away for the moment from race, think just about the question of democracy.  Yes, the Framers as a group were afraid of what they thought of as democracy; feared the masses and did nothing specific in the Constitution to enfranchise them; and had ideas about citizenship and virtue that were interesting but also deeply problematic (interested?  Want to read something terrific?  Try Hanna Pitkin, Fortune is a Woman).  Yet it's also the case that the ideas of self-government they derived from liberalism and republicanism turned out, in practice, to be intensely democratic.  In other words, whatever they thought about "democracy" at the time, and whatever their own personal prejudices about elites and masses may have been, what they actually put into the Constitution was extraordinarily democratic.  That's not only true in the sense that it was amazingly democratic for its time (which it was), but in that whatever they thought they were doing, what they actually did was to create self-government.  In other words, the values of the Constitution are in my view democratic, even if we should and do reject the anti-democratic side of the Framer's values. 

But, yes, race.  The Constitution protected slavery, no question about it.  Still...I'd argue that even there, the values of the Constitution are not values of racism and dehumanization -- not even the odious 3/5 clause.  The values of the Constitution are pragmatism and compromise in the spirit of self-government among real people in the real world.  The values of the Constitution say: in a democracy, in true self-government, one sometimes has to learn to work with bigots, with really hateful people, and find a way to keep things together anyway.  Now, that's a tough lesson, and it will without a doubt lead to mistakes...there's no question but that Americans who were not themselves bigots have, over time, made many mistakes of pragmatism and compromise that never should have happened.  But I'm not unhappy that the Constitution forces us to see that self-government involves making terrible choices.   The alternative is a kind of happy-talk democracy, in which we pretend that The People are good and pure, and that if only we properly listened to The People then everything would be hunky-dory and flowers and rainbows.  Democracy, by that conception, is equivalent at all times with what's good and right.  The Constitution, however, says: no!  Self-government means nothing more than self-government, and sometimes that's going to mean tragically horrible choices.  Believing in democracy -- really believing in democracy -- means accepting that abhorrent things are going to be done in your name, because you are a citizen, not a subject.  Even worse, believing in democracy -- really believing in democracy -- means that sometimes you will have to grudgingly support abhorrent things because the alternative is something even worse, and because, as a citizen, you have to choose. 

Of course, that's not the final word.  It's also a Constitutional value of self-government that if you lose this round (or find yourself having to "win" a terrible compromise), you can move forward and try to do better.  You can find better politicians, convince more, you, can try to improve things.  Self-government doesn't mean that the bigots lose, but it does mean that you can educate people, you can find allies, you can choose the party that you believe fights for justice, and if it doesn't you really can stand up and change things.  Or at least you can try.  The Constitution reminds us that actual people, part of We the People, supported slavery and "had" to be bought off if the United States of America was going to happen.  That actual people, part of We the People, have been bigots and won plenty of battles, with terrible and terrifying consequences.  But also that actual people, part of We the People, fought back and won some battles of their own.  And we can remember the specific elections and candidates and political parties in which those battles took place.

Last bit...I want to think a bit more what Lexington says about one aspect of the Constitution:
[Tea-partiers] say that the framers’ aim was to check the central government and protect the rights of the states. In fact the constitution of 1787 set out to do the opposite: to bolster the centre and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republic’s Articles of Confederation of 1777.
I think that's somewhat, but not completely, true.  Madison and Hamilton may have wanted to weaken the power of the states.  What the Constitution actually does, however, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, isn't to weaken anyone's power: what it does is create power.  That's the secret of "separated institutions sharing powers," and the secret of federalism; by creating many different institutions that matter and that can do things on their own (and/or with the cooperation of or in rivalry with other institutions), the system as a whole is far more energetic and dynamic than any one hierarchy could be.  Not to be too sappy, but in this sense "Yes we can" is one of the most important values of the Constitution of the United States of America.  We the people can do all these things (Establish justice! Promote the general welfare!), by creating a government that represents us and can do all these things. 

So, yes, the Framers had all sort of values that we can and do reject.  But for whatever reasons, the Constitution they created through a spirit of pragmatism and compromise doesn't, I don't think, stand for those values.  The real values of the Constitution?  Those, we can admire.

Not a Cave Man*

I think there's a lot to be said for Jonathan Zasloff's analysis of the decision to put off votes on the tax cut until after the election.  Zasloff figures that neither Nancy Pelosi nor Harry Reid had the votes to actually win, and figured that the message of "Republicans block middle class tax cuts because they insist on tax cuts for the rich" would work better over the next couple of months without a vote to show that Democrats were divided on the issue. Could be.  Is it the correct choice?  No idea.

I would say one additional thing against the accusations that postponing the vote means that Pelosi and Reid are caving in; the real cave here would have been to go ahead and pass the bill the GOP wanted.  That may well still happen after the election, but then again it may not.  Let's say that neither side has the votes to get their preference -- Democrats don't have a working majority in at least on House of Congress on the issue, but Republicans don't have the votes to overturn a presidential veto.  Before the election, with plenty of time remaining before tax rates actually go up, it's likely that the result would be stalemate, because there are no real policy consequences of inaction at that point, and because if both sides agree about the likely of any compromises, then the side that would prefer inaction to compromise won't take the deal, while the other side is likely to perceive inaction as preferable to simply losing.  After the election, however, not only are the zero-sum electoral effects probably not going to loom as large for everyone with the next election two full years away, but the policy consequences of inaction loom much larger, giving everyone who favors some tax cuts a strong incentive to reach a deal. 

*"Cave Man"?  Yeah, I know -- a lot of you have never watched the last season of NewsRadio, which of course was never the same after Phil Hartman's death.  The reference is to one of those episodes.  The final season is, to be sure, inconsistent.  Still, I think it's well worth watching through anyway; as with something like Buffy's season four, there's enough good stuff to be worth your while and a few real classic moments.  Helpful hint?  You know how Lisa dealt with Bill's death by drinking all week?  My theory is that she never sobered up; she's drunk the entire season.  And Dave is simply insane (and may have been from "Security Door" on).  Watch it keeping those things in mind, and it works a lot better.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Democrats, Mostly Just as Hypocritical as the Other Side.

I think I lean towards Kevin Drum's view that the Democrats have been sufficiently ruthless and hypocritical about manipulating the rules of the game to get their agenda passed, against Matt Yglesias's argument that Democrats treat "procedural rules...holy writ to which policy objectives should be subordinated."  Drum doesn't mention that Harry Reid and the Dems, while they have not unilaterally changed the filibuster rules, have been aggressive about filing cloture, and fairly aggressive about other manipulations of Senate rules (such as "filling the amendment tree").  And Democrats have been, in my view, fairly creative about loading up bills that were going to pass with lots of policy goodies that might not have otherwise passed -- that's especially the story with both ACA and the stimulus.

One might think that Drum is wrong to raise recess appointments ("Obama has made increasing numbers of recess appointments"???  Well, yes, compared to last year, but not compared to most presidents).  However, I think the evidence there is that for whatever reason, the Obama administration just doesn't care very much about executive branch positions.  I think that's a mistake, but it doesn't appear to be a mistake caused by overly legalistic respect for the rules, especially since no one thinks that a somewhat higher rate of recess appointments would be at all unusual.  The same goes for Senate procedures to overcome holds on those nominations; there, it would in fact take more aggressive "Calvinball" use of the rules, but again there just doesn't seem to be much interest from the White House, as seen both from their silence about it most of the time and from the extremely slow pace of appointments in the first place.

But the real issue is whether Democrats have refrained from filibuster reform because of either a foolish respect for the sanctity of Senate rules or because of a foolish believe that consistency on these questions is more important than passing one's agenda (since after all almost all Senate Dems were pro-filibuster from 1995 through 2006).  I really don't think that's it.  As I've said before, I think that there are strong incentives in the composition of the Senate and how Senate elections work for individual Senators to fight hard to retain individual influence.  And, after all, the same thing basically happened when the GOP was in charge.  That surely doesn't make partisan and ideological Democrats very happy, but it's about the nature of the Senate, not about differences between the parties.

I said I lean towards Drum's point of view...but I would say that I think that the Tom DeLay Republicans, or perhaps just DeLay in particular, seemed to be actually different, in that they had an unusually small amount of respect for norms that were previously thought to be in everyone's interest to maintain (such as, for example, waiting until the census to redistrict, or only impeaching presidents for serious matters, or threatening to have a state legislature overturn the results of the presidential vote in that state).  In contrast, while I think that Republicans have generally taken the lead in ratcheting things up in the Senate on the way to today's 60 vote requirement on everything, I don't think there was any specific point of discontinuity where I'd say, Aha!  That's where norms were violated!  The jumps in 1993 and 2008 were real, but at least in my view not quite the same thing.

Catch of the Day

One more from the Pledge: the Catch goes to TNR's Alexander Hart, who noticed some funny business in the way the Republicans scaled a key graph in the Pledge.  Paging Andrew Gelman!  Plain Blog policy prevents me from showing it to you, but that's OK; you'll want to click over to it anyway.  Nice catch!

(I suppose I should say in the spirit of full disclosure that Hart's post appears at Citizen Cohn, and while I'm not sure I've mentioned it here, I've been crossposting an item a day to Jonathan Cohn's blog.  Nevertheless, I assure you that we here at Plain Blog maintain a rigorous firewall (note intentional awkward wording) between our "catch of the day" department and our "get people to read more Bernstein" department). 

Dogs Not Barking (GOP "Pledge" Edition)

What's not in the Pledge?

1.  Trade.  No free trade, no trade deficits, no imports, no exports...nothing.

2.  Term limits.  I've been wrong about this; I thought term limits would make a big comeback this year, but nope.  Nothing on Congressional pay, either -- Congressional spending is in it, but not the salaries of Members of Congress.

3.  I said it earlier today, but it's pretty shocking that a political party would put out a platform that entirely ignores a current shooting war. 

4.  The Fed.  Nothing for Ron Paul here -- no Federal Reserve audit or new restraints.  No mention at all.  Virtually no mention, by the way of banking or financial regulation at all...also, virtually nothing on housing (although there is rhetoric on Fannie and Freddie).

5.  Guns.  Also, Fairness Doctrine.  But mostly guns.  Nothing about second amendment rights.

The Pledge's Bizarre Foreign Policy

It's GOP "A Pledge to America" day.  On the politics, see Marc Ambinder, who points out that the 1994 "Contract" didn't help Republicans then, and the Pledge won't help, and could possibly harm around the margins, Republicans now.  On the budget proposals in the Pledge, see...oh, everyone: Chait, Yglesias, Klein.  It's a deficit-increasing plan, pure and simple.  I have nothing to add to that.

No, what really struck me as I went through it the first time was the foreign policy section, which should I say this...amateurish and pathetic.  What's the current Republican foreign policy?  Stripping out the immigration stuff from that section of the document, what remains is (1) Gitmo; (2) Missile defense; and (3) threatening Iran.  That's it.  Iraq and Afghanistan are referred to once, in passing.  There's nothing at all about what the United States should do in those nations.  Nothing about Pakistan.  Nothing about Russian, or China (China at least gets one mention, in the context of the deficit).  Nothing about Europe. The rest of the world?  Obviously not.

The document does mention terrorism, quite a few times.  But there's nothing here about catching, and virtually nothing about stopping, terrorists...apparently the only thing that really matters when it comes to anti-terrorism policy is where captured terrorists are held and under what conditions they are tried.  Should we be expanding or contracting the use of drone assassinations?  You won't find that here.  Is spreading democracy in Muslim nations still important to Republicans, or is nation-building a mistake?  No idea.  What should America's mission be in Afghanistan?  Apparently, that's not very important to this crop of Republicans.  We are, to be sure, told that defense spending can never be cut no matter what, but there's really nothing at all in here to indicate anything at all, not even a hint, of why it's important, why current levels are the proper ones, or what (other than missile defense) any of the money should be spent on.

Now, of course this is a campaign document for House candidates, not a presidential platform...but still, I'm pretty sure that there are high school students who could do a more professional job of spitting out Republican rhetoric.  I don't know what the thinking was that went into it...I suspect it was just amateurish carelessness, although other possibilities are that either a lot of standard GOP rhetoric on foreign policy doesn't test well, or that there were internal divisions that couldn't be papered over easily.  All I know is that it's a sad piece of work that really does not reflect well on the party.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Really Can't Skip Iowa

John McCain is now advising presidential candidates to more-or-less skip Iowa just like he did (well...I should be fair.  He doesn't quite say that he skipped Iowa, or that Iowa doesn't matter at all, but as I read it that's basically his meaning).  Ed Kilgore basically has the goods on why this is a foolish strategy:
McCain might have added that this strategy works best if your main NH rival does run in Iowa, and loses there to an underfunded social conservative who goes on to split the vote against you in South Carolina and Florida. But then that would have involved acknowledging that his 2008 nomination was a crazy three-cushion shot that is unlikely to be replicated in the foreseeable future.
Kilgore, alas, misses one little detail that McCain sort of missed, too, so I have to do this item to correct it: John McCain did campaign in Iowa.  It's true that McCain devoted more resources to New Hampshire, but that's not the same thing as skipping Iowa.  I know someone was tracking campaign days, but I can't find it right now...I did find a useful November 20, 2007 article quoting candidate McCain:
But asked by reporters Monday if he was moving out of Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, McCain answered, "That's not true. We are not moving out of Iowa."

"We are just going to work harder in all three [early voting] states: New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Iowa."

So six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, McCain was denying reports he would pull out of Iowa...which implies that he had a campaign there to fold if he chose.  Indeed, McCain then surged in the Iowa polls, finishing basically in a tie for third with Fred Thompson. 

If McCain hadn't contested Iowa -- if he had really skipped it -- he almost certainly would have finished behind not only Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson, but also behind Ron Paul (who took 9% to McCain and Thompson's 13%).  That's not all!  McCain voters would have gone somewhere else...probably not to Huck, and almost certainly not to Paul or to 6th place finisher Rudy Giuliani.  Odds are they would have gone to some combination of Romney and Thompson.  Would that have affected New Hampshire?  There's no way to know for sure, but I suspect it would have.  McCain won New Hampshire (over Romney) by just five would have taken only a handful of McCain voters thinking he was out of it and switching to Romney or Thompson.  And if McCain narrowly lost New Hampshire, would he have edged Huck in South Carolina later (given that Romney won the next two contests in Michigan and Nevada anyway)? 

Let me go back and make a more basic point.  One of the key reasons that it's important to do well in Iowa is that if you don't, and I'm going to emphasize it because it's important and oddly overlooked sometimes, someone else will.  Suppose that John Edwards had passed on Iowa.  Sure, he wouldn't have wasted his resources finishing third there, but someone else would have finished third, and might well have shifted some of the attention Edwards received in New Hampshire to Richardson, or Dodd, or Biden.  Wouldn't have mattered much on the Democratic side, since the two frontrunners were genuinely strong candidates, but on the GOP side?  Hard to predict.

McCain, in fact, got the best of both worlds  By clearly focusing more on New Hampshire, he was able to get away with finishing relatively far back in Iowa -- without actually finishing all that far back.  In short, what he did extremely well was playing the expectations game.  Given that, a genuinely weak candidate field, and a bit of luck, he was able to survive a weak finish in Iowa.  As Kilgore says, however, it's not something we should expect to see again any time soon.

When It Was 60/Coalition Politics

Two topics here: questions about how the Democrats handled their temporary 60 seat supermajority, and some thoughts about party politics, issue advocacy, and DADT.

Kevin Drum reminds everyone of how brief that supermajority in the Senate really was:
Until Al Franken was sworn in on July 7, the Democratic caucus in the Senate stood at 59. After that it was technically up to 60, but Ted Kennedy hadn't cast a vote in months and was housebound due to illness. He died a few weeks later and was replaced by Paul Kirk on September 24, finally bringing the Democratic majority up to 60 in practice as well as theory. After that the Senate was in session for 11 weeks before taking its winter recess, followed by three weeks until Scott Brown won Kennedy's seat in the Massachusetts special election...there's a very limited amount you can do in the Senate in 14 weeks.
Of course, the problem for the Democrats with their own disappointed constituencies is that "we only had 14 weeks" sounds pretty lame as an excuse, even if it is true.  And of course another part of the problem is that the Democrats didn't realize until very late in the game that they were working under a 14 week deadline, since none of them took seriously the possibility that Republicans would win the Massachusetts Senate seat; that's to some extent their fault, but also to some extent excusable.

So what did they do with that 14 weeks?  Well, they moved to the health care bill just before Thanksgiving, and basically stayed on it for the rest of the year.  That's five of the fourteen weeks, right there, and whatever some liberals think about the bill or the choice to put health care before climate, surely no one thinks that was wasted time.

What else did they do?  Lots of routine, but important, stuff.  Appropriations bills.  Nominations.  Those things have to be done (indeed, they didn't do enough nominations in my view), and they take time.  The week that ended with cloture on the motion to proceed to health care, the Senate passed a noncontroversial veteran's bill; took a cloture and final vote on a nomination; and completed work on an appropriations bill.  The week before that they did an unemployment benefits extension, the "HIRE Act" jobs bill, and more nominations. That's November.  In October...I won't do it week-by-week, but it was mostly more of the same: appropriations, nominations, and earlier work on the jobs bill and unemployment extension.  (I'm just looking at bills that required votes; they do process plenty of noncontroversial stuff without votes, but that's not relevant to the question of what the Dems did within their 60 vote window, although it's possible that some of the things that were passed and noncontroversial when the GOP didn't have the votes to stop them might have been blocked after the 41st Republican showed up). 

Could they have scheduled a few more things?  Perhaps, but not much.  My biggest complaint was that they could have used their window to push through more nominations, especially once the window was in danger of closing.  Large legislation, such as cap-and-trade or immigration?  No way. not enough time, even if the votes were there.  Smaller bills?  Yes, that was possible, especially by adding those things to other bills that were going to be passed anyway.  If, that is, they really had the votes.  So I think complaints about DADT or DREAM Act (could have been done quickly enough as stand-alone bills or added to something else) are a lot more legitimate than complaints about comprehensive immigration or energy/climate.  There just wasn't the time for those two. 

Of course, the next question is whether it's reasonable to blame the Dems (or Barack Obama in particular) because they couldn't hold their last couple of votes, or because they made an error in assuming they would hold Ted Kennedy's seat and thus had plenty of time to work through their agenda.  I'm a bit agnostic on this, specifically on DADT repeal.  On the one hand, I thought that Obama's take-it-slow, build-a-consensus strategy was a smart one; indeed, I still think repeal is more likely by 2012 than if Obama made it a priority item in spring 2009, without doing the groundwork at the Pentagon, and lost.  On the other hand, I do understand the frustration of repeal supporters.  One of the dangers of coalition politics, or party politics, is that your issue will wind up further down the list of coalition priorities than you would like, and I think that's certainly the case here in a sense: surely, if DADT repeal was as important to the Democrats as passing health care or the stimulus, then it would have passed.  Beyond that, things get's awful hard to know whether one's group would be better off threatening to bolt (or actually bolting), and when it's best to charge ahead and try to move up the priority list by demonstrating loyalty and the ability to bring assets to the party.  

A Bit More on NEC Chair

I think Matt Yglesias makes a good point here, saying that "the larger issue is that influence in a White House staff job comes from the President deciding he wants to listen to what you have to say" (his emphasis).  Fair enough.  Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, wasn't going to join the administration unless he was going to be a major player, and as Yglesias points out the details of how the National Economic Council chair job worked in the Obama White House were designed with that in mind.  So it's fair to say that whoever replaces Summers might be a lot less influential.

However, one can take that line of thinking too far.  It's also true that the job actually does have responsibilities; this isn't the Kennedy or FDR White House, in which a bunch of presidential assistants have relatively undefined responsibilities.  As I said earlier, the core of the job is to try to keep the dozens of departments and agencies that have responsibility for some piece of economic policy to actually work together successfully, preferably in an attempt to formulate and carry out the president's policies, despite the obstacles of bureaucratic inertia, policy differences, and simple confusion and chaos.  In other words, while I think Yglesias is correct that the president will listen to whoever the president wants to listen to (although part of the NEC chair job entails affecting which of the many voices the president hears in the first place), the job of coordinating policy is critical even if the NEC chair acts more as an honest broker and does no policy advocacy at all.

This also gives me an excellent opportunity to link again to Keith Hennessey's wonderful description of exactly what everyone involved in White House economic policy actually does.  I suppose I should also link to Bruce Bartlett's dissenting view (he thinks the NEC is a bad idea) and, why not -- to my defense of the NEC.

I'll also add a link to Andrew Samwick's endorsement of former Xerox CEO Ann Mulcahy to succeed Summers.  While I continue to think it would be incredibly foolish to select someone for this key job based on how it would look -- the choice should instead be based on who would do the job well -- it is of course possible that Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel believe that Mulcahy's management skills make her the best possible choice, and the public justifications (at least based on press reports) about what the business community will think are just spin.  Nothing wrong with that.  However, I continue to think that White House and government experience is more important for success in this job than is general (corporate) executive skill.  If they like Mulcahy, I'd suggest Treasury Secretary for her, if that job is opening up soon.

CEO? No Thanks

If this is true, I'm significantly downgrading my opinion of the Barack Obama presidency:
As several outlets have reported, top administration officials want to replace Summers with somebody from the business community--i.e., a current or former CEO. (Ideally, they'd like to get a woman, since Romer's departure means the economic team is nearly all-male now.) The idea is to disarm critics who say Obama is reflexively anti-business--or that, at the very least, he's getting bad advice because none of his top advisers come from the business community. 
That's Jonathan Cohn, in an excellent post about Summers and liberals, referring to reports such as this one.  But getting back to the main point here: this is a remarkably stupid plan, if true. It will not "disarm" critics who say that Obama is reflexively anti-business, any more than having Bob Gates at Defense "disarmed" critics of Obama's approach to terror -- indeed, actually expanding the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and killing a lot of terrorists didn't slow down those who were intent on claiming that Obama was some sort of secret bin Laden sympathizer.  It doesn't work like that.  Critics will say what they will say, and it mostly doesn't matter, and at any rate there's nothing you can do about it.  What you can do, however, is have a well-run White House and do your best to have a well-run government.

We're talking here about a very serious job, one of the most important ones in the White House, both for substantive reasons and, moreover, for political reasons; after all, the condition of the economy two years from now will likely be the single most important factor in whether Obama serves a second term or not.  That's the actual condition of the economy, not the spin version of it.  Not the short-term reaction to White House personnel announcements.  Even if "the business community" goes all gooey-eyed over Obama's new National Economic Council chair on announcement day, they aren't going to stay that way if the economy tanks -- and no matter how much they might hate some other potential NEC chair candidate on the first day, they'll be (relatively) happy soon enough should the economy perform well.  Now, obviously, there's more to good economic results than White House personnel...but this is an important job, and it should be filled by someone with serious government, and preferably White House, experience.  Indeed, ideally one would prefer someone who has worked in both the White House and Treasury or some other executive branch department or agency; we're talking about the person who is responsible for coordinating the actions of several competing pieces of the government, so the more he or she understands the government the better.  Indeed, if after Summers the job is returning to more of a coordinating and honest broker role, knowing in depth how the White House and the government work might actually be more important than in-depth knowledge about the economy. 

Now, if these reports are simply a nod to an important constituency on the way to choosing whoever is the best available man or woman for the job, well, no harm done.  But if the administration is really more concerned about the short-term reaction to the selection -- how it plays in the press, rather than how it will help the president govern as well as possible -- then it's both a terrible mistake and a sign of real screwed up priorities.  It will certainly be interesting to see which it is.
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