Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Your Cheneyesque Plain Blogger

Andrew Sullivan wasn't thrilled with my recent post on the federal employee pay freeze:
Bernstein thinks the freeze will backfire politically, and adds this Cheneyesque remark:
Hardly anyone actually cares about budget deficits, and one group of people—federal employees (and their families, and perhaps their friends) do care intensely about federal employee pay.
That's presumably a reference to Dick Cheney's claim that deficits don't matter, not to his defense of torture and presidential (and vice-presidential) lawlessness -- so I think E.D. Kain is perhaps a bit over the top in citing Sullivan for a Malkin Award nomination.  Unless Sullivan meant that I'm well on the path to being a war criminal, but I really don't think that's the case. 

Still, I suppose a bit of clarification is in order.  I don't really know the context in which Cheney said that deficits don't matter, but if he was talking about the direct effects of deficits on electoral politics, then he was absolutely correct.  Yes, there are a few honest deficit hawks at the elite level (Sullivan most certainly included), but I'm comfortable with saying that "hardly anyone" at the mass level cares about budget deficits. 

Yes, the deficit will show up in polls once in a while.  I very much doubt that those polls are meaningful.  First of all, as always I'll refer everyone back to the famous town hall style debate way back in 1992 between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, in which someone asked about the "deficit" despite clearly meaning "the economy."  Until I see evidence to the contrary, I'll assume that most people have no idea what "deficit" means.  Moreover, even if those who show up on polls really mean the federal budget deficit and not some general notion of the economy or jobs, I very much doubt that it's a voting issue even for them. 

At any rate, I'm not speaking at all in that post about my personal views of whether deficits are good or bad; I'm talking about my understanding of the public opinion data about deficits, combined with a sense of how elections work.  As it happens (and as I've said), I'm not a deficit dove at all, so I certainly do come down on the other side of Sullivan on the substance of this one.  But my analysis of the data and the situation isn't driven by my position on the issue, on this or anything else.

Attacking Palin (From the GOP)

I think Jonathan Chait is quite right that there's a bit of a collective action problem keeping Republican politicians who are afraid of having Sarah Palin as their presidential nominee from speaking up.

However, it's worth noting that this is probably a problem that will take care of itself over the next year or so.  Nothing will change for most Republican pols: they don't want Palin as at the top of the ticket, but they also don't want to risk attacking her and then facing angry primary voters.  But for those running for president, the situation is a bit different.  Right now, it makes little sense for them to attack -- Palin may wind up dropping out of the race before Iowa, or she may just fail to rally support above the 20% or so level she's at now.  If, however, she looks like a formidable candidate for the nomination by next fall (give or take a few months), then attacking her makes more and more sense.

Of course, these things are tricky in multicandidate primaries.  It's true that, say, Mitt Romney will want Tim Pawlenty to be the one to attack the Sage of Wasilla, while Pawlenty will want Mike Pence to do the dirty work.  Still, at some point, odds are that one or more candidate will find it in his self-interest to attack.  Who?  Either the candidate running second to Palin overall (better to risk falling to fifth than to accept finishing second, which is worthless), or a candidate who is doing fairly well and believes he stands to inherit Palin's voters.

Such calculations are tricky to make in advance, and as long as there's a good chance Palin won't be running or won't have a chance to win by January 2010 2012, the best bet is to wait.  Once those conditions change, expect the attacks to begin.  Collective action problems take hold when everyone would benefit more or less equally from some action.  If one or two Republican pols have a lot more to gain than everyone else from dinging Palin, the collective action problem could dissolve quickly.

(Date corrected above)

Let It Roll?

I'm coming around to Ezra Klein's thinking on how Democrats should proceed on the tax cuts.  Klein said that the Dems should go ahead and extend everything, but package it with UI and a debt ceiling extension.  I think he might be right, but only if they go whole hog, which means adding whatever else the Democrats want to pass in this Congress, beginning with DADT repeal.

I know they put repeal on the defense bill, but that is perhaps too clever by half; it's a must-pass for Democrats as well as Republicans, so it doesn't really give the Dems as much leverage as they might have thought.  But Democrats would certainly be willing to bluff that they'll let the tax cut bill go down over DADT, no?  Seems like the perfect vehicle -- Democrats would be able to claim they support the tax cuts, and that Republicans are blocking tax cuts because of their (highly unpopular) obsession with gays and lesbians. 

Basically, I see two reasonable paths for the Dems in how to package votes in the lame duck session moving forward.  One is that they could tough it out on taxes.  No question but that the Democratic position polls well, and perhaps they might have the votes to get it done -- or at least put the Republicans in a position to spike it in the Senate.  The other path is to surrender in some way on taxes (three year extension on everything, for example), and then toss everything else Democrats want onto that bill. 

Which one is the better path?  I'm really not sure.  It depends in part on whether the Democrats actually have the votes to pass their preferred tax plan.  It also depends, if they don't have the votes there, whether they actually care about the possibility of passing no tax bill at all.  If they're willing to take that risk, however, it may make sense to give it a try.

Food -- And Why This Stuff Is Harder Than You Think

The food safety bill finally passed.

First of all, this adds to the already enormous accomplishments of the 111th Congress (assuming, as I expect, that the House passes the Senate version).  Democrats got clobbered in the 2010 elections, but they certainly put their victories in 2006 and 2008 to work.

Second, the bill wound up passing easily -- the final vote was 73-25.  The NYT story emphasizes how rare bipartisanship was in this Congress, but I think I'd put it a little differently.   The truth is that Democrats in the Senate did, in fact, find some Republican votes on lots of things.  Both Supreme Court nominees received GOP votes.  Indeed, while Republicans certainly did stall other nominations, those that wound up coming to the floor passed with GOP support, often in large numbers. 

As for legislation, begin with the stimulus bill, which of course received three Republican votes (including then-Republican Arlen Specter).  There's also the Small Business bill, supported by LeMieux and Voinovich.  There was a jobs bill which made it thanks to votes from Snowe and Collins.  Snowe, Collins, and Brown were needed to reach 60 on Dodd-Frank

The point is that as much as a lot of liberal pundits regularly take Barack Obama and Harry Reid to task for foolishly believing that bipartisanship was possible over the last two years, the truth is that there were a handful of GOP votes within reach.  Except for the brief window in the second half of 2009, at least one of those votes was needed -- and politically, each marginal Republican vote made it easier to retain marginal Democrats.  Indeed, as I've argued, just going through the motions of seeking GOP support made it more likely that Ben Nelson stayed on board.  Of course,  the last 25 or so of the 40 (or 41, or now 42) Republicans were impossible to get, but support from two, three, or even half a dozen was a realistic goal on a lot of bills.

None of which is to say that Obama or Reid always made the right choices.  Overall, however, I think any fair reading would say that they accomplished quite a lot in the 111th Congress, and any fair criticism needs to keep that in mind.

(UPDATE: awful typo fixed, reference to bill still needing to get through the House added for clarification)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Freeze! And Intensity

Good roundup of policy reaction to Barack Obama's executive pay freeze from Brian Beutler here (and do check out Beutler's new blog at TPM), and good comments from Matt Yglesias, plus a suggestion from John Sides.

I'll stick to the politics.  Yglesias says that it won't work:
I 100 percent understand the politics behind the President getting behind the idea of a freeze in federal civilian pay. If it were the case that political messaging gambits had an appreciable impact on election outcomes, this would be a smart political move. In the real world, however, they don’t and the real question is how does this impact the macroeconomy.
I think this takes what we know a little too far.  Messaging, and campaigning in general, aren't as import as the economy, but you'll note that I usually say that such things only matter "on the margins."  And yet, the 2000 presidential election was obviously won on the margins; one can argue that in some or all of 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2004 elections the presidency was won on the margins.  The same is true about House and Senate elections. 

Moreover, there's good reason to believe that there are rarely big gaps between the effects of Democratic and Republican electioneering (including messaging), because both parties and their candidates try hard to do well in those areas.  If one side abdicates, "the margins" may get a bit less marginal.  So while I'd certainly recommend simply as a matter of electoral politics that presidents place a higher priority on economic growth than on spin, that's not the same thing as saying that they should ignore spin.  Plenty of stuff that only matters on the margins is still worth doing.

This particular gambit, however, seems quite unlikely to succeed.  That's because hardly anyone actually cares about budget deficits, and one group of people -- federal employees (and their families, and perhaps their friends) do care intensely about federal employee pay.  Indeed, that's the case with just about all federal spending; cutting spending will at best get very mild approval from mass publics, but will get intense disapproval from the affected constituency. 

So unless there's another shoe somewhere (certainly doesn't appear to be the case, but one never knows), the federal pay freeze certainly looks like a loser -- again, thinking only about electoral politics. 

On the substance, my guess is that Democrats should do what they can to strengthen the capacity of the federal government to actually do the many things Democrats want it to do, and the (minor, but still real) damage the freeze will do to the federal workforce is far more important than anything else.  If the politics worked, I'd probably say it's a good move anyway; as I've said before, my basic sense is that if the White House gets the politics right, the policy will follow.  Given that I don't think it makes any sense at all on a political level, it's hard not to call this one a full-out blunder by Obama.

Polsby's 2nd Law, Spies, Diplomats, the Braves, Etc.

(A bit of a catch-all Monday post, including both baseball and politics content.  Additional warning: it's a rambling post, so the good stuff, such as it is, is mixed in with a bunch of asides.  Exercise for the reader to determine which is which.  At any rate, first paragraph is baseball-only, so skip down a bit if you're not interested.)

Rob Neyer was kind enough to link to my latest Friday Baseball Post, in which I argued that the Braves great run was caused by their willingness to jettison players.  I attributed that strategy to Bill James, but Neyer points to Branch Rickey.  I think we're talking about two slightly different things, although I'm pretty sure it's my fault in how I wrote the original item.  Rickey's rule of thumb, as I remember it, is that it's better to get rid of a player a year too early rather than a year to late.  The Bill James point I'm remembering is that winning teams tend to stand pat, even keeping the bad players because after all they were good enough to contribute to a winner.   Overlapping, but two somewhat different points.

Which brings to mind Polsby's Second Law: Famous Words Migrate Into Famous Mouths. 

It also reminds me that this (the James thing) operates in politics, as well.  Hell, it's even possible that Michael Steele is going to survive at the RNC, although at least that much probably won't happen.  I've made this point before, but it's really worth emphasizing: winners strongly tend to believe that everything they did contributed to winning, although in reality that's certainly not true.  Which in turn is related to what JFK said about victory and fathers and losing and orphans. 

(JFK?  Ah, Polsby's Second Law.  By the way, and in keeping with the rambling nature of this post, I'll note that the late Nelson W. Polsby used to like to speak in pronouncements, many of which had an annoying habit of turning out to be true soon after you dismissed them as hyberbole or worse.  The numbering system of his Laws, however, was a lot more dicey -- I remember this one as #2, and a brief look around doesn't disconfirm that, so there you go.  I believe Polsby's First Law was "Graduate Students Are Always Hungry," which is certainly a safe bet). 

Moving on to another tenuously related point, another thing I learned from Bill James was that as much as it feels really exciting to possess insider, secret, information, it's not true that such information is special in any other way.  What matters about information is whether it's true or false, not where it temporarily lies on the conveyor belt from secret to public.  Thus I highly recommend this excellent Matt Yglesias post on Wikileaks, in which he points out that finding out what diplomats say in private isn't the same as finding out secret truths.   (The other obvious point, which I'm surprised that Yglesias hasn't made, or at least not since the last time I looked, is that the problem with either effecting regime change in Iran or at least forcibly ridding that nation of nuclear capacity has never been one of figuring out whether it's a good idea; it's the practical question of whether attempting to do so will yield positive results). 

Yglesias notes that "There’s often a conceit in both the world of intelligence and the world of journalism that “secret” truths are somehow better than ordinary ones."  Quite right.  The thing is that it's very much in the interest of many people -- diplomats, spies, reporters -- to believe that "secret" vs. "known" is the important distinction, rather than "true" vs. "false."  And people are, we know, very good at believing those things that align with their interests.

(Last aside -- I warned you this was a rambling post!  Alas, the Bill James Abstracts are not indexed, and I can't tell you where the specific citations are from.  I'm pretty sure he said it, though.  Either that, or it was Churchill). 

(Also, and again only tangentially related...okay, I guess that means the previous one was only the penultimate aside...this reminds me of the promise made by the opening voice-over of the McLaughlin Group.  That show claimed to deliver "inside opinions and forecasts" -- not informed opinions and accurate forecasts, but just the opinions and forecasts of insiders.  In that, and back in the 1980s when such things were not as readily available, I thought it delivered admirably.  And usefully so, back then: it's often helpful to know what insiders think, no matter how inane or hackneyed).

Oy, Kurtz

Howard Kurtz thinks (unspecified, uncited) conventional wisdom is wrong, and Sarah Palin is running a brilliant campaign (via Goddard):
But I’m starting to believe the detractors are wrong and that Palin is executing a shrewd strategy that has catapulted her past potential rivals, co-opting the same media establishment she loves to denigrate. Even her recent hints about running for president—if indeed she’s willing to subject herself to constant journalistic scrutiny—are designed to stoke interest in her now that midterm madness has faded. 
"Catapulted her past potential rivals" -- really?  

McClatchy-Marist last week had Palin a sad third in their nomination polling, at only 13%, just a few ticks ahead of Newt Gingrich (who almost no one likes) and Chris Christie (who almost no one has heard of).  Granted, she did do a bit better on the Q poll the previous week, but at best she's right now even, nationally, with Romney and Huckabee.  

Which is about where she was, and perhaps a bit worse than where she was, in 2009.  The very first 2012 matchup collected by the folks at PollingReport was a CNN poll from February 2009, which had Palin first with 29%.  Now, these things do bounce around a lot, but she was over 20% in several 2009 polls -- and none of the 2010 polls. And meanwhile, her overall poll ratings hardly provide evidence that her media strategy is working, although she does seem to have ended the erosion of her numbers and perhaps picked up slightly over the last couple of months.

(Of course, it's hard to separate the effects of media strategy from other effects.  Still, at this point, it's not as if there are a lot of other reasons to expect changes in the rank of the top GOP candidates.  I suppose one question would be whether her resignation counts as part of her media strategy or not; the evidence seems to be that she, at least, thought of it that way).

So I think it's hard to argue that whatever Sarah Palin has done in the last eighteen months has helped her chances to win the GOP nomination in 2012.  Of course, tweeting, Facebook, a reality show and Fox News have collectively been better than hiding under a rock.  And perhaps Palin simply couldn't handle a conventional media strategy, which would involve actually talking to real reporters.  So it's possible that, given who she is, she's making the best of a bad situation.  But my guess is that she could in fact handle real interviews with real reporters (it's not that hard), and that she would be better off had she done so. 

Catch of the Day

John Sides notes two recent examples (one from the UK, one from Putin's Russia) of how bureaucracy limits executive power. Nice catch!

Of course, Putin presumably had relatively few checks outside of the bureaucracy (warning: I'm not qualified to write about post-Soviet Russia).  John Major's main checks (outside of the bureaucracy) came from his political party.  Now, consider the President of the United States of America, who has to compete with a fully independent transformative legislature, independent courts, and independent state and local governments.  Each of which compete with the president (and the bureaucrats themselves) in attempting to influence the bureaucracy.  Add it all up, and there's just no way that we can assume that because the United States government does something, the president must have wanted it to happen.  Even if, in public, he may say so. 

I'll also take the opportunity to once again plug the best means to understanding these issues: the wonderful Yes, Minister.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Of course, with a Democrat in the White House, everyone else is going to fade into the background.  Still: who would you like to see more often on TV, representing liberals?  As with the question for conservatives, I'll take anyone you like, but I'm most interested in politicians.

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Speaking of John McCain and the Sunday shows...I can't imagine too many conservatives are thrilled to have him as such a prominent voice on the right.  So: leaving out the presidential candidates, who would you like to see more often on TV (or in general) representing conservatives?  I'm especially interested in politicians, but I'll take others, too.

Still No Reason To Care About the Sunday Shows

Steve Benen continues to complain about John McCain dominating the Sunday shows; I continue to complain about his complaints. 

My main comment is that, basically, there are going to be Republicans on the Sunday shows, and it's not really up to liberals which ones get on.  If Harold Ford is asked to represent liberals, then liberals should (assuming they don't feel represented by him) make a fuss.  If John McCain is asked to represented Republicans, then it's really up to Republicans to complain if they're unhappy.  At the same time...who cares?  Sunday shows are watched by a relatively small group of unusually highly-informed political professionals and political junkies, and those shows neither set the nation's agenda nor have any chance of swaying undecided voters. 

All that said, Benen also says: "If there's a good explanation for bookers' obsession with the failed presidential candidate, I can't think of it."  So, while I don't think it matters much, I'll suggest some reasons.

Number one by far: regulars are regulars, whether it's who shows up as guests on the Sunday shows or which academics get quoted frequently in news articles, because...they're willing to do it.  Odds are that quite a few of what have been 41 GOP Senators just had no interest in spending their time appearing on Meet the Press, since few of their constituents -- and practically no swing voters -- watch that show.  Others may not be willing to talk about subjects outside a narrow area of expertise. 

McCain, obviously, is willing to claim expertise on every foreign policy/national security topic, and most domestic topics, whether or not he actually knows what he's talking about.  And he evidently likes doing these shows.  That accounts for most of it.

A second issue is that John McCain presumably is not running for president.  The networks try to avoid favoring any particular presidential candidate, mainly because it will spark complaints from the other candidates (I'd guess that McCain's dominance of the Sunday shows tailed off in 2007, during the primary campaign). 

Third, it's certainly possible that McCain gets higher ratings than would a generic GOP Senator; as a former presidential nominee (and after 2000 as a former serious candidate for the nomination), he at least is a lot better known than pretty much any other potential guest. 

Similarly, the Sunday shows also compete on prestige, and a former presidential nominee probably is, as they say, a bigger "get" than a no-name committee ranking Member.  At least in the next Congress the shows can turn to House committee chairs, but that wasn't available on the Republican side in 2009-2010. 

And, again, the biggest points are probably the first one here -- that he says yes to bookers -- and the absence of a negative, that conservatives don't complain about him being on. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

Oh, I don't know...if the hype about how important this shopping week is to the entire shopping season, then maybe that's it, but I have no idea whether that hype is true or not.  I'm pretty sure it's not the president's basketball injury. 

What do you think mattered this week?

Catch of the Day

Andrew Sullivan, on the Sage of Wasilla:
But sadly, like so many now purporting to represent conservatism, there is, behind the faux awe before the constitution, a contempt for the restraint and dignity a polity's institutions require from its leaders.

There is no maturity here; no self-reflection; no capacity even to think how to appeal to the half of Americans who are already so appalled by her trashy behavior and cheap publicity stunts. There is a meanness, a disrespect, a vicious partisanship that, if allowed to gain more power, would split this country more deeply and more rancorously than at any time in recent years. And that's saying something.
My emphasis on the best two bits (if you want the context, click the link.

"Faux awe before the Constitution": if you're only a believer in your own, clearly false, version of American history, a version designed in order to make contemporary political points, then you don't really respect the Constitution.  If you only believe in One True interpretation, you don't really respect the Constitution.  And one should add: if you support half a dozen or more Constitutional amendments, odds are you don't really respect the Constitution.

"No capacity even to think how to appeal to the half of Americans": Rovism is a horrible political strategy for lots of reasons, but fundamentally it just can't work.  Oh, one can get elected anyway; political strategy isn't important enough that it can sink all that many candidates.  But it is a reason, maybe the reason, that Republicans have been, for a long time, the natural minority party in the United States: they are willing to dismiss large chunks of the population -- of American citizens -- as not real Americans.  Not all Republicans, not all the time, but plenty of them, including their leaders, enough of the time. 

Sarah Palin is the candidate of those Republicans, the Republicans who either believe in "real America" or are willing to exploit those who do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Why were the 1991-2005 Atlanta Braves so great for so long?  I've always believed it was primarily because of one thing: better than any other team in the expansion era, they understood Bill James's great insight that winning teams invariably suffer because they stick with the players who got them there too long. 

Terry Pendleton?  Well, maybe a bit too long, since he was only OK in 1993 and awful in 1994, but it was other teams that then paid the price -- over 2000 more PAs as an over-the-hill player.  Ron Gant?  The Braves missed out on his MVP-level 1995...and a decade of him as a journeyman.  David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko, Andruw Jones...the Braves weren't going to let the possibility of a comeback season elsewhere make them keep a player a year or four too long. 

Of course, they made some mistakes along the way, but here's what you need to know: almost ever player's last year as a regular stinks, and very few players had their last year as a regular with the Braves. 

In other news, Aubrey Huff re-signed with the Giants for two more years.  


Ah, the debate about whether Republicans are deliberately trying to destroy the nation in order to win the next election, and/or whether it's okay for liberals to accuse them of the same.  It's heating up today, with an exchange between Steve Benen and Matt Yglesias, Michael Gerson, and Benen again

For the most part, I think Gerson's column is overblown and poorly argued, but I do think he has one thing right: conservatives are probably advocating the same policies they would advocate if a Republican was in the White House.  Well, more or less.  It certainly is true that between the beginning of the recession in late 2007 and the crisis in fall 2008, both the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress proposed little to combat it. 

Moreoever, it's good for the nation if the opposition party, well, opposes.  Perhaps the policies Barack Obama and the Democrats support are terrific; perhaps they aren't.  Either way, it's good that the other party searches for reasons why those policies stink.

I also think it's all too easy to selectively remember the most partisan stuff the other side says to build a narrative of an opposition blinded by crazed hatred of the president.  I don't know which one it was, but one of the conservative radio talk shows had a reel (for all I know they still play it) of vicious anti-Bush sentiments.  Some of them may have been out of context...I don't know -- but it's not hard at all to believe that over eight years of a presidency, it wouldn't be hard to find a few dozen extreme anti-Bush quotes, and I'm sure the same reel will be just as easy to put together about Obama.  These clips were meant to illustrate that Democrats were motivated by blind hatred of the president, but in fact they illustrate little other than that it's a very large nation, microphones are on all the time, and people don't allways express themselves very well.

So, overall, I think Democratic pols should pretty much avoid this line of argument.

Should Democrats bash Mitch McConnell for saying that his top goal is defeating the president?  Sure.  Should they take it as proof that Republicans will deliberately harm the nation in order to win in 2012?  Of course not. 

Regardless, the bottom line in politics is that questioning motives is always a bad idea.  I'd stick with agreeing with those who note that people tend to believe what it's in their interests to believe, and leave it at that. 

Now, at the same time, Democrats surely should be prepared for GOP opposition on everything.  Republicans in Congress have clearly chosen a rejectionist strategy in which they oppose (almost) everything using every tool available, rather than trying to bargain for the best deal they can get.  And (as Benen notes), there's no question at all here about a conspiracy; Republicans have been perfectly up front, if not always consistent, about advocating some policies and opposing others.  Which again means that there's no need to go questioning anyone's motives, or their ultimate goals.  Democrats should have no difficulty at all opposing GOP economic plans on their merits and on the nation's experience with them during the George W. Bush years. 

(Sabotage -- does it make you think about Bugs Bunny, or Star Trek VI?  I couldn't decide, so I figured I'd just go with the one-word header on this one.  Feel free to pronounce it the Bugs way, though).

Post-Turkey Griping

Kevin Drum wants to kill off the turkey pardon.  I'm indifferent about that one, but it reminds me of something I want to kill off: saying the Pledge of Allegiance in Congress.  Unless my memory is entirely wrong, the whole thing dates back to 1988...wait!  Why trust my memory, when there's search engines and, as it turns out, C-SPAN:
The Senate opened its daily session with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag for the first time on June 24, 1999. President pro tempore of the Senate, Strom Thurmond (R-SC), led the Senate in reciting its first Pledge. The House has recited the Pledge as part of its daily session since 1988. 
Kids, you may not believe this, but George H.W. Bush -- you know, the sensible one in the family -- campaigned for president in 1988 on the issue of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Don't ask.  Anyway, as Drum says about the turkey, once someone insists on saying the Pledge no one who ever wants to get elected to anything is going to be willing to oppose it.  Really, it's a mystery how the Senate managed to hold out for a decade.   

Anyway, as a seriously patriotic American I absolutely can't stand forced shows of rah-rah patriotism (yes, Bud Selig, that includes your disruptions of the 7th inning stretch, and for that matter the Anthem before games).  It's even less likely than Drum's request, but I sure wish the incoming GOP majority would get rid of it.

As it is, I'll settle for a hope that they don't change all the committee names again.  Exception (of course?) for anything involving the word "Homeland."  

So, anyone else have an American political tradition they'd like to see ended?  

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I've never been a fan of "what am I thankful for" stuff, but I will, anyway, mention that the commenters here at Plain Blog are great, and are responsible for lots of added value, and if you don't read comments you might want to give it a try. 

At any rate, I love Thanksgiving, because I love almost all holidays.  Especially if there's good food involved (and especially when it's like Dave's house, and there's two kinds of pie!).  Of the two great American holidays, I like the themes for the other one better (can't beat the Declaration), and that one also has much better music, but the food is so far superior on this one that it basically is a wash, in my opinion. 

So Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. 

(By the way, I'll probably post a little tomorrow, and then regular weekend schedule and back to normal on Monday.  If anyone has a good suggestion for Sunday questions, let me know!)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

For Palins, It's Always Feudin' Time

I'm a great believer that it's a waste of time to try to get inside the head of any politician.  As far as what I'm concerned, what they "really" think isn't our business.  What counts is how they act, and what they say.  Even for predicting future actions, it's more important to know what they've said and done (along with any relevant norms and incentives) than it is to know what they really think.  Which, at any rate, we don't get to know.

All that said...I'd really love to know whether the Palin clan is entirely driven by petty revenge fantasies for mostly imagined slights, or if it's all an elaborate act.

How Parties Work, Hill Staff Edition

I could call Dave Weigel's story about incoming GOP Members of the House hiring lobbyists as their Chiefs of Staff a "Catch of the Day," and it is that.  Great catch!

But I'm really interested in parties, and how they work.  And what's interesting about all these new House Chiefs of Staff isn't, to me, that they were lobbyists; it's that they are part of the GOP party network. 

Just as people elect a presidency, and not a president; just as elections are about candidacies, and not candidates; the careers of Members of Congress are shaped in part by the people that they hire.  Those people are generally party professionals.  They move from Hill jobs, to White House and agency jobs, to think tanks, to lobbying (often for party-aligned interest groups), perhaps even to jobs with formal party organizations, and back.  They know how Republicans (or, on the other side, Democrats) think.  They know which information sources Republicans rely on, what positions on issues of public policy Republicans take, who the various important groups within the party network are, and what those groups care about. 

That's what a new Member of Congress gets when he or she hires someone from the party network, and in turn it places that Member deeper within the party.  Of course, there are plenty of limits to this -- Members are constrained by the particular interests and political context of their districts, by whatever personal ideology or beliefs they may have, and by promises (about issues or about behavior) they made in the campaign.  But the influence of party, as exercised in part simply by who helps a Member exercise his duties, is strong.

I'd say one other thing.  Party network scholars have begun to trace out how all of this works.  What we're just beginning to document (and eventually understand) is the role of intraparty factions and groups.  I strongly suspect that choices in staff for incoming Members are, among other things, choices among factions -- and that potential staff know how to signal Members about which factions or groups they represent.  Does hiring a particular chief of staff mean a commitment on abortion and other social issues?  On Tea Party friendliness?  On support for the Speaker and the party leadership?  Again, I suspect there's some of that going on, but I don't really know.  I do hope Weigel does some follow-up reporting (and others join in).  Playing gotcha with this stuff is good fun, but I do think there's a fair amount one can tell about where individual Members and the House Republican conference as a whole are headed by the personnel choices they make.

Repeal and John Boehner

So, it pretty much bites to be John Boehner, no?  At least, that's my first reaction to the McClatchy poll showing (once again) that repeal of the ACA is not, in fact, the popular position.

I was in transit most of the day yesterday, so I'm slow in responding to this one -- see Ezra Klein for more about this specific polls.  My first response, however, is that it's a good reminder, once again, of how much trouble is ahead for John Boehner.  Really -- is there any way out of the trap that's been set for him?

After all, for lots of reasons House Republicans are going to be pushing for strong, successful action.  What they really want -- full ACA repeal, slashing spending, a balanced budget -- they can't get.  Can't.  Can't.  The reality is that Republicans are short about 13 Senators and one president from getting those things, especially since most of them are unpopular beyond hardcore GOP voters.

In other words, if Boehner pushes anything short of extreme policies, his conference is going to feel forced to denounce him as a sell-out.  If he pushes extreme policies, they'll pass the House (furnishing great 2012 ammunition for the Democrats, since these policies are unpopular) and die in the Senate.  And there's no guarantee that true believers won't blame Boehner for failing to get these things enacted, even though he has no ability at all to do that.  My guess?  He'll be the target, maybe not as much as Harry Reid and Barack Obama, but nevertheless, he'll be blamed.

(Really.  If only he had threatened to shut down the government...if only he had carried through with his threat to shut down the government...if only he had refused to negotiate after the government shut down...if only he hadn't caved after two weeks of government shutdown instead of believing those bogus polls pushed by the biased media instead of the honest polls featured on Fox News showing that the tide was really turning).

Now, the truth is that Boehner does have a few perfectly decent strategies (such as rejectionism without his own policy agenda, or cutting deals to get goodies for GOP-aligned groups), but any viable strategy is going to require buy-in from true believers.

Is there any hope at all for that?

Not impossible, but unlikely.  Republican leaders -- most definitely including Tea Party leaders, talk show hosts, all of that -- would have to agree on an alternate strategy.  Forget spending cuts and settle for symbolism, such as banning earmarks.  Forget ACA repeal and settle for symbolism; I'm sure they can generate something that Obama would sign.  Forget real deficit reduction and settle for...oh, it hardly matters, no one cares about the deficit.  Settle for phony projections.  That'll take care of the deficit.

Call those victories, and move on to investigations and tax cuts -- the former you can do just in the House, and the latter you can at pass in the House and then attack Dems for blocking in the Senate.

Toss in a few votes on Constitutional amendments, and that's your 112th House.

If GOP leaders outside the House were content to settle for investigations, blocking Obama initiatives, and passing a few symbolic things, John Boehner could certainly deliver.  If they can present a unified front in favor of that plan, the rank and file would go along.

If they demand more, it's just not going to happen, and he's sunk. 

Unfortunately for Boehner, it's highly unlikely that Republican leaders will be satisfied with what's possible.  There are too many incentives to demand the impossible -- everything from profit motives for some, to just basic momentum from a landslide election for others.  And that spells big trouble for the incoming Speaker of the House.  As I've said, I think he's a decent pol, but he's going to have to be a great one to find a way out of this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Read Stuff, You Should

I used to start by linking to things I thought people shouldn't read...I gave that up.  Instead, I'll start with Alex Pareene on Matt Bai.  No further comment necessary.

Oh, and I suppose I should say that my blogging may be a bit inconsistent for the rest of this holiday week.  I mean, in quantity.  Well, perhaps quality too...you never know.  But anyway...Now, for your Thanksgiving reading...

1. I'm not much for rants, but for Thanksgiving, I'll make an exception.  Nicole, on hunger.

2. On redistricting, two gems, from Carl Bialik and Jeremy Jacobs.  Key logic to remember -- partisan gerrymanders come at the expense of safety for individual incumbents. 

3. Fred Kaplan, always.  This time it's New START and the neocons.

4. Sarah Binder on GOP rule in the House (I love when her take is similar to mine, because it means I probably got it right).  Also, Bradford Plumer on the GOP and earmarks.

5. Health care: Austin Frakt explains what's behind changes in Medicare Advantage.

6. Rortybomb surveys GOP-aligned economists (part one, part two).  It isn't pretty.  My question, as usual: where are the hack liberal economists?

7. John Sides talks to Jim Gimple about political geography; Seth Masket likes The West Wing a whole lot more than I do, but he makes a good point about nominations anyway; and Eric Ostermeier points out that governors don't really determine presidential elections.

8. And, the Weekly Standard's Matt Labash wasn't overly impressed with the Sage of Wasilla or her Alaska.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday Movies Post

Tonight's TV show: I, Claudius.

I just rewatched it...I've been thinking of doing a post on it for a while now, but I've always been stumped by one thing: what to say about the politics of the show.  But, first, the show itself.  From 1976 (and, if I recall correctly, shown on PBS and Masterpiece Theater in about 1978). Thirteen episodes, so it's not a long commitment.  It's set in the early empire, beginning with the middle or so of Augustus's reign.  And, well, if you like Romans speaking, as all proper Romans do, with British accents...this is as good as it gets.  Not just because of all the fun (and there's lots of it, with scheming, and double-crossing, and betrayals, and such), but above all for the four great performances.  Derek Jacobi as Claudius; John Hurt as Caligula; Sian Phillips as Livia; and my favorite, Brian Blessed as Augustus.  I'm not sure that there's another series between Claudius and Battlestar Gallactica that had so many performances I enjoyed watching that much.

Oh, and if all that isn't enough...Patrick Stewart shows up for a while.  With really silly hair (production values, overall, aren't all they could have been, so don't expect too much on that end).

So, on to the politics.  Well...I don't really have much to say.  There's all sorts of interesting gender stuff; women are, throughout the series, the motivating forces, and most of them are insanely ambitious, horribly malevolent, just plain insane, or some combination thereof.  One could spend plenty of time thinking about gender and the combination of the original source material (that is, the historical record); the Robert Graves novels from the 1930s, and the TV series from the 1970s.  The other thing to have fun with is the fatalism of the series, which (just a little spoiler here) really comes out not until the very end.  I suppose one could also use it to think about one of my favorite subjects, corruption.

Really, however, what we're dealing with here is palace intrigue, sort of souped-up Machiavelli (and, for once, I'm using Machiavelli in the traditional sense, not the republican Machiavelli).  Except its a first-rate version of that, acted as well as you're going to get.  That's fine, and fun, but that part of it doesn't suggest a whole lot of things to say, at least to me.

By the way...Derek Jacobi would have been a much better Dumbledore.  I mean, you never get your dream cast, and I don't have a whole lot of casting complaints about Potter...but Derek Jacobi would have been just a great Dumbledore.

Highest recommendation.  It's not, I suppose, quite as good as TV drama at its best over the last 10-15 years, but if you've never watched it, you're really missing out on one of the best.

Catch of the Day

Matt Yglesias nails the GOP position on Fannie and Freddie:
In other words, the Bachus/Calabria plan is to: a) keep Fannie and Freddie in place as-is indefinitely, b) go fishing for scandals, c) to “bash” the bailout while keeping it going, and d) to chortle to The Washington Times about what a “political no-loser” this is for Republicans. But I suspect the quantity of actual reforming that gets done will be similar to what we saw from GOP-controlled congresses in the 1995-2006 era. 
Sounds about right to me...and, nice catch!

Newt's Lessons For John Boehner

What lessons should John Boehner take from the fall of Newt Gingrich?

I think there are three leading explanations for why Newt was a failed Speaker.  John Harwood today pushes what I think is the least helpful of these, what I think of as the Sonny Bono explanation: Newt had a terrible media image.  It is of course correct that Newt Gingrich was highly unpopular, and to a fair extent that was because of mistakes within his control.  But Nancy Pelosi has is highly unpopular, and her caucus has shown essentially no signs of jettisoning her.  Leadership elections are mostly not about what people think out in the country.

(Sonny Bono?  It's the explanation favored by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, in their terrifically reported Tell Newt to Shut Up!  They begin the book with Newt ignoring Bono's warning: "You're a celebrity now.  The rules are different for celebrities...You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities").

The second explanation is that Newt Gingrich revealed himself, especially in the government shutdown of 1995-1996 and the Lewinsky scandal of 1998 to be an absolutely terrible strategist and bargainer.  Again, this was certainly true, and probably did quite a bit to deflate his (undeserved, in my view) image as the genius responsible for the 1994 landslide.  But again, I don't think it's what cost him his job.

The explanation I've always endorsed for Newt's fall has to do with centralization and decentralization in the House of Representatives.  Unlike Senators, Members of the House have always been willing to trade their small ability to influence most issues in exchange for a stronger voice on a narrow array of issue areas.  Thus the comparatively strong House committee system.  Since the 1958-1974 reforms of the House, the (decentralizing) committee system has always had to compete with the centralizing influence of the party leadership, and especially the Speaker.  Speakers who have pushed too hard have not lasted long.

What's helpful is to see the parallels between Newt Gingrich and Speaker Jim Wright.  Like Gingrich, Wright took office after a major electoral victory (in Wright's case, the 1986 return of the Senate to Democratic control).  Like Gingrich, Wright centralized power in the hands of the Speaker.  Like Gingrich, Wright initially appeared to be very successful.  And like Gingrich, Wright was quickly dumped.  Both Speakers were accused by the minority party of ethical violations, but neither was found guilty of anything substantial; instead, it certainly appears to me that in both cases the majority party was eager to use whatever excuse it could to move on to a Speaker who would allow the committees to have more meaningful roles.

In Newt's case, the key text was the letter by Appropriations Chair Bob Livingston demanding that Newt restore the power of committees if he wanted to retain the Speakership (for more, see Nelson W. Polsby, How Congress Evolves). 

The tension between centralization and decentralization in the House is very real, and a difficult challenge that all Speakers face.  The dangers of too much control by the party (and therefore the Speaker) can be seen in the fate of Wright and Gingrich; the fate of too little party influence can be seen, I think, in the problems the House had during the Speakerships of Tom Foley and Denny Hastert.  In the modern era, only two Speakers. I think, have had much success with it: Tip O'Neill, and Nancy Pelosi.  If I were advising John Boehner, I'd tell him to look to them for role models.  Sure, you don't want the Speaker to be a buffoon on national television, and Boehner is wise to avoid the media mistakes that Newt Gingrich made.  But if he wants to succeed as Speaker, it'll take more than that. 

Presidents and Presidencies

Conor Friedersdorf returned to a favored subject of his last week in a post that I do recommend.  Friedersdorf makes the conservative/libertarian argument that the presidency is too big for one person, and that therefore the federal government should do fewer things.

That's a good argument for people to hear; liberals often underappreciate just how difficult it is to actually choose and implement policies to attack the problems they see as needing solutions.  Which is not to say that liberals have no good replies, of course.  But I'm not going to resolve any of that in a blog post!

No, what I want to talk about is the capacity of the executive.  And, here, I think Friedersdorf is mistaken.  Indeed, one can see his mistake in the title of his post: "The Presidency is 'To Big For One Man.'"  Yes, it is too large for one person -- which is why, basically from the time of Harry Truman, the presidency has grown to include (depending on how one counts it) hundreds, or even thousands, of people. 

It's true that as recently as the 1930s, we elected a president.  Now, we elect an entire presidency.  Moreover, while it used to be that these unelected/elected presidential assistants were apt to be longtime cronies of the president with few ties to their party (think Bob Haldeman or Hamilton Jordan), now they are usually longtime party professionals (such as Andy Card, Rahm Emanuel, or Pete Rouse).  Why is that important?  Because partisan elections generally work better; there's no realistic way for voters in 1968 to know who Haldeman and Ehrlichman were, but voters in 2008 could know that they were choosing between Team Democrat and Team Republican, without having to know who would wind up as second deputy chief-of-staff. 

So one can make a case that the expanded presidency -- what political scientist John Hart calls the Presidential Branch of government -- is democratic.  What of Friedersdorf's complaint, however?  Well, the idea is that a large Presidential Branch allows the presidency to influence the numerous executive branch departments and agencies, and then the president can control the Presidential Branch.  In practice, of course, both propositions are often tested, but generally I don't think that the evidence suggests that the job of president is no longer possible to do well -- it is difficult, but in my view George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and (perhaps, it's still early) Barack Obama seem to have achieved at least a somewhat adequate success at it (as did Ronald Reagan at times).

I've seen serious questions raised about how well the current style of the presidency works (if you're interested, in addition to me you should be reading Matthew Dickinson (here's a recent relevant post).  And this sort of analysis can't really answer Friedersdorf's challenge, which at heart, I think, is ideological.  But it's important, when thinking about the president and the presidency, to understand who does what, how its organized, and why.  The basic idea is that the growth of the presidential branch, since its origins under FDR, has always been intended specifically to extend the capacity of the presidency.  One can argue that it hasn't worked, but the very fact of its existence -- all those extra advisers to the president that Friedersdorf is concerned about -- is intended to be a feature, not a bug. 

Interpreting Palin's Polling Numbers

Quick: what percentage of Republicans like a typical Republican politician?

It's a bit hard, it turns out, to answer this question.  That's because most ordinary voters don't know more than a handful of national politicians, so one has to figure out what to do with all those "don't knows" if one wants a clean comparison.

But the simple answer is: most Republicans like most Republican politicians.

That's important, because I've started to see some pundits entirely misinterpret Sarah Palin's favorable ratings among Republicans.  Here's Frank Rich, yesterday:
Of course Palin hasn’t decided to run yet. Why rush? In the post-midterms Gallup poll she hit her all-time high unfavorable rating (52 percent), but in the G.O.P. her favorable rating is an awesome 80 percent, virtually unchanged from her standing at the end of 2008 (83 percent). She can keep floating above the pack indefinitely as the celebrity star of a full-time reality show where she gets to call all the shots. 
There's nothing "awesome" at all about a well-known Republican having an 80% favorable rating among Republicans.  Gallup doesn't give her unfavorable rating among Republicans in the poll Rich cites, but in the previous polling back in July, her favorable/unfavorable was at 76/20.  Let's call that a 4 to1 ratio.  By that standard, of the candidates Gallup reported then, Palin finished ahead of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, but well behind Mike Huckabee (65/10) and a bit behind Bobby Jindal (45/9). 

The whole conceit of Rich's column is that the normal rules don't apply to Palin -- for example, he notes that her endorsements of Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and Tom Tancredo should have hurt her (although outside of the Alaska fiasco, it's hard to say that Palin in particular was a loser in those races, since she was hardly the only prominent Republican to endorse those candidates, and she had plenty of winners as well).

But that conceit breaks down if one accepts that the Sage of Wasilla is not, after all, doing very well with GOP voters.  Not only is the 80% favorable number (with a 4:1 favorable ratio) nothing special, but she just doesn't do very well in ballot test questions.  She's at 16%, tied with Huck for second behind Romney, in the latest Gallup. Given her significant advantage in name recognition, it's pretty clear that a lot of Republicans who say they like her also have very little interest in voting for her for president.

As I've said before, I'm not going to predict a winner at this point for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.  What I will try to do is to interpret the evidence that we see.  And to the extent that the early polling is important, what it tells us is that Sarah Palin is a legitimate contender, but hardly a juggernaut, and hardly impervious (yes, even among Republicans) to negative stories in either the nonpartisan or the partisan press.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Where do you get your news?  Not opinions, or analysis, but basic news?

Are you reasonably satisfied with your news sources?  Do you worry a lot about bias?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Where do you get your news?  Not opinions, or analysis, but basic news? 

Are you reasonably satisfied with your news sources?  Do you worry a lot about bias?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Mattered This Week?

The continuing debate over New START?  The possible revival of DADT repeal?  The evolving Democratic strategy on taxes?  Sarah Palin's TV show?  Ireland?   I'm going to say that the budget commission stuff this week didn't matter much, but other than that, I'm open to suggestions.  What do you think mattered this week?

Friday Baseball Post

I rarely disagree with Christina Kahrl; there's no one now writing about baseball that I'd rather read.  I did, however, find her evaluation of Bruce Bochy (gated, I think)...well, I'll call it incomplete.  After singing Bochy's praises for his terrific use of positional flexibility and his willingness to use Brian Wilson in the 8th inning, she adds one caveat:
But as creative as I felt he'd been with his lineup, he owed a lot to having a rotation that was every bit as good as the Phillies, and was perhaps deeper, providing that much more freedom of action to take chances—could I credit Bochy with all of that, when so much relied on the presence of five quality starting pitchers? I decided he was my third-place vote.
I don't want to argue the vote (she went Black/Baker/Bochy, and that's fair enough), but I want to argue with the notion that five quality starting pitchers just happened.  Sure, they all arrived with plenty of talent.  But how many talented  pitchers never transition to rotation starter?  Bochy inherited Cain, so he only gets "do no harm" credit there.  And Zito?  Who knows -- I never thought he'd be as "good" as he was this year, but then again at best he's been where reasonable expectations would have put him  during his time with Bochy and the Giants (no, upper managements' expectations were not reasonable).

However, Bochy surely gets a bit of credit for transitioning the Freak from prospect to star.  I'd say he gets quite a lot of credit for riding with Sanchez to get to this point.  That one, at least, has involved some pretty active, visible, managing, as seen by the quick hook in the playoffs (yes, that one doesn't count towards the award, but he'd been at it when needed all year).  And he gets credit for elevating Bumgarner in the middle of a pennant race.  We all know there are plenty of managers who would have resisted it.

Now, of course one cannot prove anything in these sorts of cases; it's not like IBB or pitch out or bunt stats.  But I do believe that managers differ on their skills in helping pitchers transition from prospect to rotation regular, and if we don't quite want to say that the results speak for themselves, let's just say they're highly suggestive.   And were I voting, I'd have given Bochy quite a bit of credit for those five guys..

Friday, November 19, 2010

While the Cards Are Still on the Table

[Updated below]

The end of a good Matt Yglesias post on New START suggests one of the problems with analyzing events in progress:
Meanwhile, foreigners will wonder wtf has happened with US foreign policy and would-be proliferators will find their efforts somewhat boosted by the collapsing credibility of the disarmament process. And all for what? A cheap political talking point on a fourth-tier issue? A bit of extra pork?
Well, here's the thing: those last two things are very different.  If Republicans are doing the former ("cheap talking point on a fourth-tier issue") then they're horrible partisans: they're willing to hurt the national security of the United States for, basically, a tiny, tiny, political gain.  On the other hand, if they're just using the occasion of a treaty ratification to squeeze out some pork, well, that's the normal functioning (for better or worse) of the American political system.

The thing is, if what they're up to is the former, they'll block the treaty; if it's the latter, they'll cut their best deal and move on.  We don't know that yet; from their point of view, they should be playing it the same way so far either way.  One of the challenges for reporters or bloggers writing about this stuff as it happens is to keep in mind that, often, we don't know the players' real goals while the game is still in motion.

[Update: Commenter ResumeMan points out that I misread Ygleisias's post.  Oops.  Regardless, my point is the same here, but Yglesias wasn't talking about the possibility of Kyl and others bargaining their votes in exchange for more defense spending; he was just talking about reasons for them voting down the treaty.]

Shutdown Talk Returns

Grover Norquist is apparently pushing House Republicans to use the debt ceiling extension, which will need to be done early in 2011, as the setting for the big confrontation with Barack Obama over health care and whatever else.

This seems quite foolish, if the goal is to maximize GOP policy gains and GOP approval ratings while hurting Obama's approval ratings.  Not only would an early shutdown play right into the Democratic story line that Republicans are a bunch of crazy, irresponsible Tea Party goofballs (a story that many reporters are likely to believe), but it would be quite vulnerable to Washington Monument strategies (and, hey, Taegan Goddard, why isn't that in your excellent political dictionary?). 

Specifically, in a debt limit shutdown, as opposed to an appropriations bill shutdown, Obama could plausibly claim that Republicans would be putting the troops in danger by cutting off their funding. 

Moreover, the dynamics of divided Congressional control work against Republicans.  Obama wouldn't be vetoing anything.  If the House passes a debt ceiling extension larded with all sorts of Tea Party demands, the Senate will ignore it and take up a clean extension.  Either that will pass, giving the House the next move and allowing Obama to blame a squabbling Congress for everything, or it will be blocked by a Republican filibuster -- and it'll be awful hard for Republicans to blame Barack Obama for shutting down the government in either situation. 

Norquist pins his hopes on Fox News and "the internet."  It's true that the Republican partisan media would (naturally) take the GOP's side in any such confrontation, and partisans who get their news primarily from these sources would believe that Republicans were winning the confrontation.  That won't, however, change the basic logic of the situation, just as Fox News and the internet didn't prevent George W. Bush from losing spin contests on Katrina, Iraq, and the economy.  What may change from 1995-1996, and what John Boehner is no doubt aware of, is that the partisan media may make it even harder for Republicans to extricate themselves from a high-profile showdown.  That makes it more important to avoid getting into one without a clear path to victory. 

That's not to say that Republicans can't gain some policy advantages from the necessary extension of the debt limit.  They have some leverage.  But it's not a whole lot, and in particular a shutdown threat could easily backfire.

Granted, while a government shutdown, especially an early confrontation over the debt limit, would likely be a disaster for House Republicans, it stands to be a big winner for Fox News, conservative talk radio hosts, and anyone who makes money from getting grass roots Republicans angry enough to buy books, visit web sites, and give money to conservative causes. 

What Commissions Can Do

Ezra Klein believes the deficit commission failed, because
The point of the Simpson-Bowles commission wasn't full employment for budget wonks. It was consensus...[i]t's a failure given the original goals of the project. Far from showing that we can all agree, it's proved that we can't.
I disagree!  Commissions can't achieve consensus.  That requires the normal political process of horsetrading and deals, and sometimes there's no deal to be had.

I'll go back to what I said when the commission got started.  These sort of commissions can do two things.  They can give cover to something that people want to do but don't want to take credit (or responsibility) for.  The classic example for that were the base closing commissions.  And they can give cover for people who don't want to do anything, but don't want to take credit (or responsibility) for that. 

In this case, the Democrats didn't want to act (then) on the deficit -- quite correctly in my view, but regardless, they didn't want to act, and for understandable political reasons they didn't want to say that they didn't want to act.  The purpose of the commission was to kick the can down the road until after the election.  In that, it basically succeeded.

Of course, it's possible that one or more of the people who supported the commission believed that it would achieve a consensus that otherwise didn't exist.  Perhaps even the president thought that.  If  so, they were foolish.  Commissions can't do that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nancy Pelosi Is Unpopular. What Matters Is Whether She's Good.

William Galston writes about the outgoing Speaker's poor polling numbers:
This is especially significant because, other than President Obama, Nancy Pelosi is the best-known and most visible public face of the Democratic Party.
...and other than Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds Jr. was the best ballplayer son of Bobby Bonds.

It's early yet in postelection analysis, but I'll take any wager offered that at the end of the day, opinions of Nancy Pelosi will turn out to have absolutely no explanatory power on the 2010 vote.  Zero.

Now, one can make the case that the policy choices the Democrats made in 2009-2010 hurt them.  And one could even make the case that Pelosi moved House Democrats too far to the left, although I think that's a lot harder to show; I don't think there's a lot of evidence that what they actually did is far to the left of where House moderates are.  For example, as far as I know no Member of the House got in trouble for supporting radical stuff in the original House health care bill that was stripped by the Senate.  Whatever the effects of health care on the 2010 elections, it was based on a bill that won the support of Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Nelson. 

Now, I do think that Dave Weigel has some good questions about Pelosi, including:
Progressives have convinced themselves that Pelosi's Democrats were unfairly punished because the Senate didn't act on the legislation she passed. Well, sure. But I assume she could have gotten senators on the phone.to ask whether the bills she was passing had chances of success. What was the point of passing a cap and trade bill far more painful to coal country and business than the one that Democrats knew could get through the Senate? 
It's a good question -- but there may be a good answer.  It may be that Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the White House were in fact working closely on climate/energy, but someone -- not Pelosi -- did a lousy job of counting votes in the Senate.  It could be that the overwhelming majority of the House Democratic caucus knew exactly what was likely, but still wanted to take the risk of passing the bill.  I don't know, and I'd love to see good research about House/Senate relations during the 111th Congress.  I do think there's a good chance that Pelosi and Reid and the White House erred repeatedly in that area, but  we need more information.

Regardless, that's all about how good Pelosi really is at playing the inside game.  Galston considers it to be "common sense" that the public relations aspects of the job are more important, but he's going to need some evidence for that beyond Pelosi's lousy poll ratings.  There's no reason to believe that voters thought they were choosing a Speaker when they voted, and lots of evidence over the years that such things are unlikely to matter.  Even if she is the second most visible Democrat.

Public Opinion and "Access" to Health Care

Ezra Klein looks at Gallup's graph about public opinion over time and wonders why opinion about access and cost is so volatile, despite the actual situation not changing much over the time span covered.

While I don't have a specific answer, I think such an answer would lie in what we know about public opinion: it's not well informed, and it follows opinion leaders. 

First of all, Gallup's question strikes me as an odd one.  The wording is: "What would you say is the most urgent health problem facing this country at the present time?"  Not surprisingly, the responses are a mix of diseases and public policy.  Cancer, for example, is the response from 12% of those surveyed; obesity (a disease? a public policy problem?) is at 14%.  So as diseases move in and out of the headlines, they'll leave more room for policy problems.

That's especially true because the question asks only about the (single) most urgent health problem.  If something spikes up, everything else necessarily falls.  So it's possible that the downward spike for access in the middle of the last decade may be the result of the bird flu scare, and the gradual rise of public policy issues in general may be because of the decline of HIV/AIDS as a relevant issue. 

Then, we get to opinion leadership.  My guess -- and again, this is just a guess -- is that if you looked at the rhetoric of Democratic politicians, you would find that they started using the word "access" in the late 1990s, and that the rise of access as the most urgent health problem was the result. 

Hmmm...how about a little empirical research.  The word "access" was used in the 1992 Democratic platform, but it doesn't show up at all in Bill Clinton's convention speech or his 1993 health care speech to Congress.  In 2000, "access" is a bit more prominent in the platform, with the platform section entitled "Accessible, Affordable, Quality Health Care,"  compared to 1992's "Affordable Health Care,"  but it isn't in Al Gore's acceptance speech.  By 2004, however, John Kerry wants health care that is "affordable and accessible" in his convention speech.   Now, that's just a quick look -- to really do this, we would want to see word usage for ads and other candidate and surrogate speeches -- but for what it's worth it matches the increase in people reporting "access" as the most urgent problem from 1992 through 2004.

The story behind this is that most people, most of the time, don't think about public policy questions surrounding health care.  They do think about their own health care, and about health care stories highlighted in the press, but not about policy issues.  So it's not surprising at all that answers jump around a lot, probably driven by short-term changes in news coverage and political rhetoric. 

Name Recognition Won't Help Romney

Name recognition is not an asset in presidential campaigns.

I mentioned this last week, but I stuck it at the end of a longer post, so I'll repeat it here.  Name recognition is, in fact, important in American politics.  But its importance is limited to contexts in which there are significant gaps between how well candidates are known.  That happens all the time in House contests, and even in elections for Senate or governor, and it certainly happens in downballot races.

But not in presidential elections.  At least not among major candidates.

Here's Philip Klein making the case for Mitt Romney:
[D]espite his weaknesses as a candidate, he also brings a number of advantages. Romney would enter the race with far higher name recognition than he did his first time around and a broad national political organization that has been building up good will by helping Republican candidates in key states. He also enjoys a vast fundraising network.  
He's correct about the importance of a national organization, good will among GOP pols, and the fundraising network.  Those are good points.  But name recognition?  Nope.

Look, no one right now knows who Tim Pawlenty or Mike Pence is.  So if you take a poll, they'll lag behind -- they're behind, for example, formerly famous person Newt Gingrich.  And both of them may wash out as presidential candidates; in fact, I give Pence little chance of winning.  However, the public portion of the campaign is starting now.  Candidates are starting to travel to Iowa and New Hampshire.  They'll soon start advertising in those states, appearing on local TV and radio, and spreading hired staff and volunteers around.  The national public campaign is beginning, as well; candidates are turning up on conservative talk shows, and in spring 2011 debates will begin.  Endorsements will follow.  All of that will produce plenty of name recognition for those who do well at those stages.

If Pawlenty and Pence do what they need to do to win this year, then by February 2012 they'll be well known among Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.  If they do what they need to do this year and in Iowa, they'll be well known among Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.  And if they do what they need to do this year, in Iowa, and in New Hampshire, they'll be well known nationally -- just as unknown Gary Hart became well known after winning in New Hampshire, just as Bill Clinton went from unknown to having 100% name recognition over the year ending with the New Hampshire primary.

Of course, if they don't do those things, they'll remain unknowns, and their campaigns will not last long (although even there, I suspect that name recognition for also-rans in Iowa is pretty high; I'd guess that most people who bothered to show up on caucus night in 2008 knew about Fred Thompson or Bill Richardson, and probably even Duncan Hunter or Mike Gravel).  Once you get to Super Tuesday, name recognition can be the immediate explanation for why the also-rans remain also-rans -- or why they drop out.  But those who do succeed early will receive (and generate) plenty of publicity, more than enough to make them household names.

So, when you do see early primary polling, remember that name recognition is a big factor in the results so far -- and that by the time the voters get involved, that factor will wash out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mandates Are Fictional

Therefore, the answer to Joshua Tucker's question -- Is there a Republican mandate? -- is no.

If you really want to push it, one could say that a mandate is whatever a party or a politician can convince everyone that the voters are saying.  Polling might be useful for that, but so might campaign rhetoric -- really, it's just whatever works.

But, no, if you're talking about some sort of specific instructions from the voters, as a whole, to politicians, as a whole, you're going to come up against the fact that voters don't know or care much about about specific issues of public policy.  And even if that wasn't the case, the ballot is an incredibly poor tool for expressing much more than a preference for one candidate over another.  Mandates are fictional.

In Partial Support of Partisan Hack Debate Moderators

Fascinating exchange today between Andrew Sullivan and Alex Massie about Republican presidential debates, which are coming way sooner than you think -- just a few months from now, in fact. 

In response to Hugh Hewitt's suggestion that conservative talk show hosts act as moderators for the first debate, Sullivan was unimpressed: "It's like Stalin being grilled by the Politburo."  Massie, however, thought it might be fun, besides that it would be a good chance to see candidates fail to stand up to Rush or Hannity, and the resulting obsequiousfest would mean that
Hewitt's notion could produce a debate that might actually reveal something useful and even important about the field. Just not, perhaps, in quite the way he imagines. 
I think they both have decent points.  On the one hand,  there's really no shortage of chances to have Republican candidates play up to the world view of Republican talk show hosts -- they're all going to go on Rush, Beck, Hannity, and Hewitt, and we all know in advance that none of them is going to dare contradict any goofy thing that those hosts ask them.  On the other hand, that's a good reason for Republicans to avoid that sort of debate, because it's not clear what it would accomplish that normal interviews wouldn't also produce.

To step back a bit: what's the point of these pre-primary debates in the first place?  Surely not to amuse bloggers, as much as I hope that they'll do so.

No, for the parties, the point of debates is, in part, to test whether the candidates are up one aspect of the fall campaign; and, in part, to pressure candidates to go on record on issues that matter to important party groups or factions.  The party also wants partisans, rank-and-file voters and activists, to learn about its candidates  In addition, the debates are, at least potentially, a general advertisement for the party to those who are not serious partisans.

The debates certainly are not a competitive event in which the party seeks to crown a winner.  Nor are they, from the point of view of the party, an opportunity to subject their leading candidates to tough grilling and its sad but common cousin, gotcha questioning.  The latter might be costs the party is willing to pay, but they aren't goals the party holds.

So, what gets a party to its goals?  For passing information along to party activists and voters, it doesn't matter who the moderators are; you want to maximize ratings among those groups, so the question becomes a pragmatic one of whether partisans are more interested in watching Rush and Hannity or Brian Williams. 

For advertising the party to independent or marginal voters, I assume that the best plan is partisan moderators serving up softball questions -- although, again, if that drives away marginal voters, a party might have to think of the tradeoffs involved.

For getting candidates on record, reliably partisan moderators have the advantage of (perhaps) having a better sense of what key party groups care about.  If I were a GOP leader, however, I'd be careful to limit this to solid hacks; you don't want to further empower rogue conservative hosts who have their own agendas which may not match that of the party in general -- or give the moderators a platform for whatever idiosyncratic issues boost ratings, whether or not key party groups care about them.  Of course, that can be a problem with the neutral press, as well.

For showing the candidates' ability to deal with questions from the neutral press and to handle the general election debates, it's pretty obvious that moderators with no partisan affiliation are best. I can say that were I a Republican leader thinking about which candidate(s) to support, I would want some reassurance that Sarah Palin is now capable of dealing with a Wolf Blitzer type without sounding like a complete idiot. 

On that last point: Massie says that "Lord knows, there will be plenty of opportunities for Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams and the rest to ask dumb questions," but that's just Sullivan's point: it's not at all clear that GOP presidential candidates in 2012 will give what were once standard interviews with the nonpartisan press.  Once upon a time, the nonpartisan press controlled such a large share of the information market that candidates had no choice but to submit to whatever interviews those outlets demanded.  That's no longer true.  Party leaders would be well advised, I think, to take steps to avoid the party's tendency towards closed information loops, and the debates offer an opportunity for that.

Looking at the various party goals, it seems to me that there are advantages for both approaches -- and since there are typically quite a few debates, there's plenty of room for variety.  The truth is that it's just historical happenstance that outside reporters moderate these things and not, say, formal party officials (it's not unusual for local party organizations to host candidate fairs before local election primaries, nor does anyone think that strange). 

So sign me up for Hannity on the Republican side, and Maddow the next time the Democrats have to do it, at least as part of the mix. 

Catch of the Day

Yesterday, actually, but anyway: Greg Sargent nails Rassmussen.
With the Bush "nostalgia" tour in full swing, Rasmussen releases a new poll with a rather amusing headline that seems designed to suggest the former president's reputation is looking up:
A Majority Now Sees Bush As Somewhere in Between Best and Worst Presidents
It turns out 37 percent of likely voters think Bush was one of the worst presidents ever, more than four times the nine percent who think he was one of the best.

But no matter: Fifty-three percent now say he's somewhere in between the best and the worst!
Nice catch.  

I'll note that Bush appears to have rallied just a bit in CNN's version (which had a whopping 4% saying Bush was "one of the greatest."  His favorable/unfavorable is definitely up from where it was when he was president, but it's still lousy; Gallup's latest, earlier this month, is 44/53.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beaudrot's Rule

I completely agree with this tweet from Nick Beaudrot (quite appropriate shouting is his)::
The first rule of 2012 General election polling is DO NOT TALK ABOUT GENERAL ELECTION POLLING UNTIL THE GENERAL cc @daveweigel
Which was a response to Weigel's:
Obama leads potential GOP prez candidates by 5-10 points in Virginia. #demsindisarray #pagingdougschoen http://slate.me/d2resL
If you want to know about Barack Obama's chances in 2012, I recommend two things: pay attention to his approval ratings, and pay attention to the economic results and forecasts.  Really, you can completely, totally, absolutely ignore head-to-head polling matchups until Labor Day, 2012.  I know, we won't, but I'll strongly urge everyone to pay no attention to such polling until at least the GOP candidate is chosen.


I usually blog a fair amount about budgets, but haven't said anything much about the Simpson/Bowles plan.  (Plan?  Chair's mark?  Whatever).  That's because I really don't think it matters very much.  It's not going to get the supermajority required by the commission, and it's not going to be the basis for Congressional action.

The best thing I've seen about this recently was what Matt Yglesias said a week ago:
It’s definitely true that in principle a country should always have a specific plan for returning to long-term balance. But does that ever actually happen? The budget deficit isn’t currently a problem, but it almost certainly will be in the future and that’s when congress will act to deal with it...

The big deficit reduction deals of the 80s and 90s didn’t just happen for no reason. They happened because the large structural deficits of the Ronald Reagan administration were creating serious economic problems. Today we have serious economic problems, but none of them are caused by the deficit...It would be wise and just and moral for the 112th Congress to pass a judicious long-term debt reduction program, but it doesn’t seem even remotely realistic. Is there any precedent for a country doing deficit reduction pre-emptively in the way everyone seems to be suggesting we should? 
We don't know what the budget situation is going to look like when it comes time to actually deal with it.  Two questions overwhelm everything else: will the economy grow at something resembling a health pace for the next few years?  And, there are lots of essentially starter cost controls in ACA; will they appear to be working a few years down the road, and if so can they (technically and politically) be ramped up? 

The deficit commission was never likely to produce anything, and it's just as unlikely now.  

One and Done (Done Right)

The problem for Republicans in 2011 is obvious.  The base wants confrontation, but John Boehner knows what happened the last time Republicans tried to shut down the government: the president won the confrontation, and Newt wound up as bantha fodder.  The logic is inescapable: Barack Obama holds steady, and the GOP conference winds up splintering between those who are being egged on by Rush, Beck, and the Sage of Wasilla, and those in marginal districts who see their re-election hopes shattered.

And that's not the only dilemma facing Congressional Republicans!  The bottom line for them is one in which there's really nothing they can do to fight off the inevitable accusations that they've Gone Washington and Sold Out.

However...there is, just perhaps, one option available that might do the trick.

If they play it right...

January 5, Congress convenes.  John Boehner, Speaker of the House.

January 6:


That's right.  Walk out.

Every single Republican. 

Just imagine the glow of the Tea Party parades greeting each of their heroes at the train stations!  Just imagine how much it would leave the Democrats and their media friends in utter confusion! 

Finally, real citizen-politicians, proving, without any doubt at all, that they're not just in it for the power and the perks.  Finally, at long last, a party that puts the people first, not Washington.  Finally, a group who really get it.

Resistance? Futile.  Just think how bad the Democrats would look if they frustrated the public will and stayed in office.  I can just imagine the impassioned editorials calling for statist liberal Democrats to follow the moral example of the 21st century Cincinnati. 

Congress, without a quorum in the House, would be paralyzed.  Ideally, this would coincide with a short extension of appropriations through, say, January 15, so that Democrats would be left running the entire government when it shut down.  Blame the Republican heroes?  How?  They're not even there!  The massive inconveniences would clearly be the fault of Kenyan anticolonial ideology.

For once, conservatives wouldn't have to worry about their leaders selling them out.  How could they, when they weren't even there?

And then, in the special elections that would eventually follow, comes the bonus: a chance to purge all the moderates and RINOs from the party for good.  Yes, some good Tea Party candidates would be lost, but with them leading the way real conservatives could make it clear that the way to remain a hero is to stay home.  With all those entrenched, compromising losers gone, it would be a simple matter for actual conservatives to sweep into office.

After which I suppose they would have to resign again, but I haven't quite gamed that part of it out. 
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