Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

Well, you know what I'm going to say didn't matter: the birther junk. Also, the Trump campaign. I'm not sure how to classify Ben Bernanke's press conference, so I'll farm it out to Matt Yglesias.

But it was a very newsy week, it seemed to me. Started with the Gitmo information dump -- I'm really not sure whether to put that in the "matters" side or not. Then there was continuing developments in Syria, Libya, and other spots around the Middle East. Special mention for reconciliation among the Palestinians, which I'd say could wind up being quite important (as was the Egyptian role in making it happen). We also had the Obama administration's national security shuffle. And a disappointing GDP number -- economic growth not only being important for electoral politics, but also for people's lives, in the meantime.

That's a lot, no? What am I missing? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Death Star

Oh, you know I'm not going to pass on a good Star Wars thread -- this one begun by the good folks at Overthinking It, who explore a good question:
What’s the economic calculus behind the Empire’s tactic of A) building a Death Star, B) intimidating planets into submission with the threat of destruction, and C) actually carrying through with said destruction if the planet doesn’t comply?
As expected, Death Star cost expert Seth Masket responds by pointing out the importance of factoring in actually building the Death Star and wondering how Palpatine handled the budgeting; my brother David, however, moves the discussion along by pointing out the importance of the absent press corps.

I think the question about why there's no press corps has to do with whether the Republic is more similar to Rome, or to the government under the Articles of Confederation, which is what I've argued before (although I've also noted that the Republic lasted a long time, which makes it more Rome-like). If it's like the Articles, we're talking about basically a weak central government overseeing, but basically irrelevant to, an unimaginably large area. Why no noticeable press in such a galaxy? Perhaps because, for those outside of the capital, the "federal" government really isn't all that important. Oh, it helps out when there's a trade dispute with another planet, but other than that, it's mostly irrelevant, even to the point that in some of those planets the federal money isn't even any good. Why bother to keep an eye on what's happening there?

As for those in the capital, it wouldn't be surprising if the focus is much more on personalities and gossip than on the serious business of government -- after all, in the USA a lot of the press coverage is about personalities and gossip, even though the central government is quite important in people's daily lives. It's just not really clear that the Galactic Republic actually does very much real governing.

(And, yeah, it's not hard for me to believe that Palpatine could lay his hands on quite a bit of money. First of all, the guy is able to manipulate Yoda, so imagine how much he might be defrauding, say, his friends in the Trade Federation, if he needs the cash. Second...remember, we're talking about some very large number of entire planets, all of them incredibly far advanced in technology. I'm guessing that a tiny sliver of Gross Planetary Product in taxes from each of them could buy a lot of clones, and even a Death Star or two, without anyone really noticing much).

Of course, once the Empire takes over then it does make sense to know what's going on, but you're not going to start up a free press then, are you?

I'd expect very little press coverage of the central government under the Republic until the Clone Wars break out...and even less after they end.

Want more? All the nerdy you can handle here.

Too Kind To Ryan Update

I think this is worth a separate post. Jonathan Chait dissents from part of my earlier criticism of the Ryan budget. I'm willing to question Chait, or Jonathan Cohn, or even both...but Chait cites his conversations with the folks at CBPP, and I'm pretty reluctant to take on them along with the two main TNR Jonathans. Still...

Here's the gist of it. In my earlier post, the second of my five points against the seriousness of the Ryan plan were accusations that his numbers were "based on" those infamous Heritage projections. Chait, basically, says that they're not based on anything at all:
Ryan did have Heritage 'score" his budget to project massive economic gains. But, as I confirmed with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the day Ryan's budget came out, he did not use those assumptions to conjure up new revenue out of Lafferite magic. Instead, Ryan just conjures up new revenue out of a magic asterisk. Ryan basically declares that he's going to keep current tax cuts in place, and then lower rates farther still -- to 25% -- and replace all the additional lost revenue by closing unspecified tax deductions. He didn't have Heritage score the tax plan because there really isn't a tax plan at all. It's just a set of goals that he almost certainly cannot meet. What Bernstein's describing is a reliance on unrealistic economic assumptions. Ryan instead relies on unrealistic political assumptions.
Fair enough, and see Paul Krugman for more on the magic asterisk.

But I'm not going to back down all the way on this. To me, the entire exercise of asking Heritage to run the numbers, and then featuring those numbers in his budget document, clearly indicates than when (and if) Ryan gets around to specifying those unspecified tax deductions, he's going to be trying to fill a hole that he's measuring using hocus-pocus. And therefore, he's going to come up short, since we know how that sort of measurement works.

In other words, he may not yet base his estimates on supply-side nonsense, but he's essentially telling us he's planning to. Indeed, it would be inconsistent with thirty years of movement conservative dogma for him to do anything else. Nothing I've seen convinces me he's rejecting that dogma.

For that reason, I'm more or less sticking with what I said.

Jonathan Cohn is Far Too Kind To Ryan

(Updated...Updated again)

The House Republican Budget is a fraud, pure and simple.

Jonathan Cohn has run a great series this week on what the House Republican Budget (also known as the Ryan Budget) would actually do, outside of ending Medicare-as-we-know-it. The final segment is about the deficit, and Cohn is right that the Ryan budget's bark is far more impressive than its bite. But Cohn understates what's going on here. The Ryan budget is far more of a shell game than Cohn lets on; indeed, there's every possibility that it will make deficits much worse far into the future.

Nothing here is original, but I haven't yet seen all of it put together in one place. If you add it all up, you wind up with a plan that just wouldn't come close to doing what House Republicans say, and probably think, it would do.

First step: This is what Cohn has. He runs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities table about what the Republicans would actually do over the first ten years (see the updated CBPP numbers here*), which show that once you take into account tax cuts and accounting games, the Ryan plan only projects to cut the deficit by $380B over the next ten years.

Still, a deficit cut is a deficit cut, right? Well, not necessarily. Again, as far as I can tell, CBPP's estimate simply accepts Ryan's numbers at face value. Fair enough, but -- second step -- we know that Ryan's numbers are based on [SEE UPDATES BELOW] completely discredited Heritage economic projections -- you remember, the ones that predicted an implausible unemployment percentage for the future, and then "revised" that number while claiming it was independent of employment and unemployment numbers, or something like that. Actually, even economists couldn't do estimates, because Ryan doesn't tell us enough. Basically, he keeps Bush-era tax rates in place (that's the $4T budget hit he claims), makes a bunch of other specific tax cuts, and then says he'll make it up by curtailing tax expenditures. If economic growth is lower than Ryan projects, it's likely that his estimated revenues will also be lower, and it wouldn't take much to wipe out that $380B over ten years.

But at least it lowers the deficit over the long run, right? Hard to say! Future spending cuts are tricky things to think about. It's very possible (as Republicans charged in the debate over scoring ACA) that cuts made today will be restored by future Congresses; indeed, Ryan is only able to show the deficit reduction he has in the first decade by flipping and accepting ACA's Medicare Advantage cuts.

In my view, the proper way to do this, however, is to give the party making the cuts credit for those cuts they now say they want. Still, it's worth noting that it's very difficult to believe that if the plan passes and is fully implemented, there wouldn't be tremendous pressure on Congress years from now to increase spending on the MediVouchers to keep up with the pace of medical inflation. But I'll give Republicans the courage of their convictions on this one, and assume that if they were in charge then they'd opt for impoverishing old people (and the younger family members who would step in to help -- anyone want to project the economic effects of that?) rather than paying more out of the Federal treasury. I can't fault those who believe that's unrealistic (and make this a third step), however.

But one cannot do the same for programs that Republicans themselves have no intention of cutting. Fourth step: the problem with the long term "deficit reductions" in the House Republican plan is that, as CBPP reported, they depend on shuttering virtually the entire government outside of Social Security, health care programs (even as modified), and defense. That is, the entire government outside of Social Security and health care (and interest payments) would, House Republicans claim, be down to 3.5% of GDP by 2050 -- but defense alone is usually over 3%, and Republicans have no plans to cut it. That means no National Parks, no FBI, no veterans programs, no anything. It's not going to happen; Republicans don't intend for it to happen. I'm sure that if Democrats started running ads claiming Republicans were either going to slash defense or eliminate, say, the FBI and the FDA, that Republicans would object. They would be right -- but that means they have no real intention of achieving the cuts they claim (and just voted for).

Oh, and if you want to call it a fifth step: there's no particular reason to believe that GOP tax policies in the long run would yield the revenues they claim, given that their long-term reliance (not just in this budget, but consistently for the last thirty years) on fairy tales about taxes and revenues. In some ways, this is the biggest problem with the GOP budget, and the main reason I disagree with Ross Douthat about whether there's a "seriousness" gap between the parties.** Suppose that steps three and four are both wrong, here, and that in fact Republicans are dead set on getting their Medicare and Medicaid cuts, and then shuttering all the things they would have to shutter to meet their spending goals. It still won't produce a surplus if they're using fraudulent economic projections based on supply-side hokum. Instead, their tax revenues will be systematically lower than they expect, and spending systematically higher.

To sum up: the House GOP budget doesn't actually cut the deficit much in ten years even if you accept their numbers, properly understood; even that ten year estimate is based on phony projections, so it almost certainly yields larger deficits over that period; in the long run many would argue that the Medicare savings are unrealistic; in the long run the other proposed savings are certainly unrealistic given that Republicans right now would not support the cuts needed to achieve those savings; and regardless of any of this, relying on supply-side hokum yields a process that is systematically biased towards producing deficits, just as it did ten years ago and in 1981.

I don't understand deficit idealists, so I'm not surprised -- but I am puzzled -- about why they give any "serious" points at all to something like this.

*Cohn uses, unless I'm missing something, an older CBPP projection based on the bill reported out of committee; see here for their analysis of the bill that wound up on the House floor, which had additional cuts for the first ten years.

**To his credit, Douthat wrote perhaps the best short critique, and certainly the best conservative critique, of the Ryan plan's shortfalls in this extremely hard-hitting and spot-on post.

[UPDATE: Jonathan Chait believes that "Ryan's revenues are made up, but they're not based on dynamic scoring. Just says, 19% of GDP, 25% rate, we'll make it work." I think that's a reasonable interpretation, although I still disagree; the problem is we don't quite know enough to know. Chait's interpretation assumes that Ryan doesn't actually have specific plans to hit those numbers; my interpretation assumes that Ryan does -- but that if he doesn't, he's already telegraphed how he's going to score them, and that will produce the problem I believe is already there -- see Step 5, above. The relevant documents are Ryan's budget document (see especially Appendix 2) and a Heritage memo Ryan posted. I'll update further if anyone has a more definitive conclusion.]

[UPDATE 2: Chait in more than 140 characters, and my longer response. Bottom line: the above probably should read "are based on, or promise to eventually be based on," or something like that. Note however that Chait is basing his views on his conversation with CBPP, and I have a lot of respect for them, and for Chait for that matter.]

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The President's Partisan Job

I have a new post up over at Greg's place agreeing with Fred Kaplan that Barack Obama made good choices in his national security reshuffle.

Two additional points. Kevin Drum highlighted one of the more interesting bits of Kaplan's article: the apparent lack of a strong "bench" in national security. It's worth mentioning that developing the party's farm team -- in both governing and electioneering -- is actually one of a president's most important partisan tasks. Not only is it important for future same-party presidents (I've talked many times about Bill Clinton's problem with finding experienced White House personnel), but it's presumably quite important for a president's second term, as well. Of course, an inattentive attitude towards executive branch staffing is not going to produce good results, there.

The second point is about Ezra Klein's question about why it's so hard to get budget cuts through the Pentagon:
This seems both perfectly plausible to me and completely insane. No one asks whether the Department of Health and Human Services will accept budget cuts, or whether the Labor Department is willing to downsize. But the Pentagon gets treated differently.
Well, yes and no. All departments and agencies, HHS included, resist budget cuts and changes to standard operating procedures; the Pentagon is just (perhaps) better at it than others. We know, certainly by reputation at least, some of why this is: contracts carefully arranged for maximum political benefit; the high esteem in which the military is held by the public, especially in wartime; the advantages of legitimate (and plausibly legitimate) secrecy. Add to that, for a Democratic president, fear of an issue "owned" by the other party, and you can see why it's hard to effect change. But the truth is that it's always hard to get the bureaucracy to go along with what the president wants.

And to tie these points together: it's presumably easier to get the bureaucracy to bend to the intent of the White House when political appointees are enthusiastic about carrying out the president's policies. Not certain, by any means; there are plenty of stories of bureaucratic capture of even the most gung-ho appointees. But easier. And for a Democratic president, it's not hard at all to find lots of enthusiastic nominees for Interior, or EPA, or Justice's Civil Rights Division. It's an important part of the president's job to develop an equally strong group in national security and other areas that might not spark quite as much natural passion.

Interest Groups and Democracy

Just a terrific item from Matt Yglesias this morning about why politicians listen to interest groups:
This is something that I think a lot of intra-left discourse tends to miss about why policy reform is so difficult. Any time you want to disrupt a coalition of entrenched incumbent rent-seekers, be they in the oil industry or the health care industry or the financial services industry or what have you, you’re going up against a strong team. And it’s not strong simply because the CEOs have access (though they do) or because the firms can give money (though they can) it’s strong because big companies have employees. And those employees have spouses and kids and siblings and they pay taxes that support local government and shop at nearby stores. And this entire trail of dependents fears change, and deems itself entitled to whatever economic privileges the industry in question currently receives.
Absolutely right. Indeed, the whole reason that folks like this have access to politicians is at least primarily because they represent a whole lot of constituents.

Now, it's a funny kind of representation, because of course management wants lots of things that their workers don't want, but the important thing to get here is that when it comes to subsidizing industry, management and workers are often on the same side: they want more subsidies. No Member of Congress want to see an item in the hometown newspaper* with a headline like "Senator Snubs CEO of Local Company." Even a Member who specializes in anti-business rhetoric.

But Yglesias is also right that partisans (and I don't think it's just on the left) tend to think of any interest they don't like as a "special" interest that only gets Congressional attention for illegitimate, corrupt, reasons. And, sure, not all groups have equal access. But, yes, a big part of American-style democracy (and, at least in my view, any reasonable flavor of democracy) is going to involve what Robert Dahl called "a high probability that an active and legitimate group in the population can make itself heard effectively at some crucial stage in the process of decision" (Preface to Democratic Theory, 145). In my view, those upset about what they consider the outsized voices of some groups are better off focusing on how to make sure that their own groups, and others they believe are being ignored, get their own chance to be "heard effectively," too.

*Yeah, yeah, I know, but there still are some local newspapers, and I'm willing to bet that their readers are massively disproportionately likely to vote.

The Effects of Deficit Talk

I agree with Greg Sargent's general point about public opinion and the deficit:
No one is saying the deficit isn’t a valid topic of conversation. But we’re increasing caught in a “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop,” in which the relentless bipartisan focus on that one topic to the exclusion of others is leading more and more people to tell pollsters they’re worried about it. That in turn reinforces a sense among public officials that it should continue to be their number one focus. And people aren’t hearing anyone talk to them about the economy, even though it’s far more likely than the deficit to influence their vote next year.
Exactly right. If Barack Obama says the deficit is a big problem, and John Boehner says that the deficit is a big problem, then practically everyone is going to agree tell pollsters that the deficit is a big problem. Remember, just as people don't know very much about politics, they don't know much about economics, either. Tell 'em that the "deficit" is the source of all the problems, and they're likely to believe it. Even if they don't really know what it means (and, yes, I'd still like to see a pollster find out what people think of when they hear "deficit").

However, I think Sargent shouldn't be surprised that Obama's deficit speech last week didn't move public opinion. We're talking about a mid-day speech on a fairly dry topic; it's hard enough to move public opinion, even temporarily, with a major prime time set piece. Not only did practically no one watch the speech, but I'd guess that very, very few Americans really even heard about it.

But he's right about the constant drumbeat of deficit talk.

Economic Voting is Rational

John Sides wrote another excellent post about (actual) independent voters, noting that they tend to vote based on whether they believe times are good or not; Jonathan Chait complains that this is irrational behavior:
Of course voting on the basis of economic growth in the two or three quarters leading up to an election plus military casualties is irrational. That's Kazin's point. The point that it can be predicted doesn't make it rational. Short-term economic growth and military casualties are related to good governance, but only very, very vaguely.
Would Sides vote the way independents vote? Would he even want to be friends with anybody who did? I suspect the answer to both is no.
Chait is correct that there's only a loose relationship between what politicians do and short-term results. But that doesn't make it irrational to reward good results and punish bad ones! Voters who do that provide extremely strong incentives for politicians to pursue good policy (that is, policy that tends to result in solid economic growth and peace, and avoids disasters such as Katrina).

Strong partisans are also rational, even though they will support their party regardless of performance. How can that be? Because strong partisans (usually) want something that independents don't want: specific policies, and they're willing to basically swap their vote for party loyalty on those policies.

I'm not saying all voting is rational, but I certainly don't think that providing politicians with incentives to produce peace and prosperity would be high on my list of suspected irrational behaviors.

Update: Don't miss John's response.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

As Long As You're Editing...

Will Wilkinson does some Article II editing:
Here's how it ought to go:
No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
I'm mostly indifferent to the "natural born Citizen" clause, but I am, as you know, by nature a logroller, so I'll support him if he'll support dropping the age requirement:

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
And, while we're at it, I'd drop the minimum age requirements for the House and the Senate, too. Frankly, I don't see the need for any requirement at all; there are plenty of places where I don't trust the common sense of the voters, but I'm not at all worried that they would elect my four year old nephew to the open Senate seat in Connecticut next year were it not for the Constitutional prohibition. There's really no reason for straight-out age prejudice in the Constitution. Nor does it make sense to tell  Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Ezra Klein and Reihan Salam, or any of the other millions of 18-34 year olds that they aren't really full citizens yet.

Could we foolishly elect some unqualified 16 year old to the House under the right, freakish, conditions? Sure -- but it's not as if it'll be worse than this guy or this guy. Or, for that matter, the final terms of Robert Byrd or Strom Thurmond. The Republic won't fall.

Senate Will Now Be 18% LDS or Jewish

Dean Heller, a Republican Member of the House, will be the newest United States Senator -- he's been now announced to replace the resigning, scandal-ridden John Ensign.

Heller will be the sixth LDS Senator in the current Congress, while his upgrade will lower the number of Mormons in the House to only nine (assuming these data from Pew are correct and up to date). There are also 12 Jewish Senators, compared to 27 Jews in the House. Combined total: 18% . Both of course are massively overrepresented compared to their population in the nation as a whole, where both are just at 1.7%. 

Who is underrepresented in Congress? That's easy: "unaffiliated." That category makes up 16% of all Americans, but absolutely no one in Congress (there's one refuse-to-state Senator). 

Both Catholics (24 Senators, 24% of population) and Protestants in general (56, 51%) are well matched. The flip side of the Jews and Mormons are Anglicans and Episcopalians, who make up 8.5% of the House but have only 4 Senators (compared to 1.5% of the population, although it is true that readers of the Sunday NYT Weddings listings might expect that Jews and Episcopalians to be closer to a combined 50% of the population, not 3%). Among Protestants, in general, it's the mainline denominations that are overrepresented in the Senate (in addition to the Anglican/Episcopalians, lots of Methodists and Presbyterians, relatively few Baptists and no Pentacostals).

No major point to be made about this; I just like Congressional demographic information, so I figured I'd pass some along. I suspect that the Jews & LDS differences between the House and Senate are just random luck, although the differences between Congress and the population at large are certainly systematic.

Obligatory Birther Post

To begin with: I missed all the fuss. Mid-morning nap. No, I'm not proud; I just didn't sleep much last night, and that's how it goes.

Now, I wake up, and find that Chuck Todd is calling today "a sad day in American political history" and Adam Serwer is saying "this marks a level of personal humiliation no previous president has ever been asked to endure," and my reaction is mostly...jeez, this kind of stuff happens, just move on to the next thing. A sad day in American political history? More like a silly day. Sad is when our pols make terrible decisions with terrible consequences; this is just a bit of fun. And Serwer, who I normally love reading, needs to download the Starr report, or perhaps just google "Bill Clinton distinguishing characteristics." Or just realize that "Bill Clinton dist..." is enough for Google to know where you're going.

Heck, I can think of more humiliating junk that was thrown at pretty much every president in my memory.

Someone else over the twitter was acting all embarrassed about what to tell future know what? They ain't gonna be asking about this. They aren't going to be asking about OJ, and that was a multiyear soap opera that took up hundreds of hours of cable news time. This is a blip, and no one is going to care about it down the road. Yes, the president got involved in something stupid, but really they get involved in stupid spin stuff all the time, and if not this it would have been something else.

Here's my advice: when the circus comes to down, either show up to enjoy the preposterousness of the whole thing, cotton candy and all, or just ignore it and it'll be gone in a week. If you want to criticize it for being a lame circus, fine, but I don't want to hear you complaining that it isn't the ballet or the opera or, I don't know, Bonnoroo.

Position Taking, Health Care, and Iraq

To Ezra Klein's argument that Barack Obama is a "moderate Republican from the early 1990s" because the roots of his health care plan and other policies can be seen in GOP policies of that time, both Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum have the correct pushback. Drum:
The individual mandate and cap-and-trade may have originally been "Republican" ideas in some technical sense, but they were adopted under duress. They never truly represented things that Republicans supported. The same was true of the Bush tax hike, which even at the time conservatives viewed as the work of an apostate. So it's only natural that they haven't supported any of these things under the Obama adminstration. They never really did, after all, and this time around they felt that flat-out opposition was politically feasible. So that's what we got.
See Yglesias here. I forget the policy area (was it guaranteed income? health care? Someone in comments will help me, I'll be) but I recall that there's a White House tape of Richard Nixon explicitly saying to Chuck Colson or Bob Haldeman or someone that his pretty liberal alternative to a Congressional initiative was just for show, and that if Congress actually agreed to it he'd have to veto his own plan, or something to that effect. But usually this sort of thing isn't venal; it's just the regular, healthy, ebb and flow of how politics and policy works. If you're afraid that the other party is going to pass something that hurts your party's constituency groups, you try to formulate an alternative that appears to -- and may actually -- reach the same goals but protects those groups.

For what it's worth, that's I think that's the best way to understand Democratic "support" for the Iraq war in 2002-2003. Yes, there were some Democrats who really wanted an invasion. But for the most part, Democrats were formulating an alternative that, had they actually been able to set the agenda, they would not have carried out. That is: a policy of inspections and threats eventually leading to an invasion was preferred by many Democrats to immediate invasion, but had a Democrat been in the White House Iraq would likely have been on the back burner if at all possible. Just as it was during Bill Clinton's presidency.

All of which goes back to something we've known at least since David Mayhew, which is that it's often tricky to tell the difference between the positions that politicians take and the policy they (would) make.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jumping in Late

Paul Ryan? For president? In 2012? Really?

Not gonna happen. Or at least: there's no precedent for anyone jumping in this late and seriously contesting for the nomination.

Yes, I know that some candidates have declared their candidacy later than this, but Bill Clinton (for example) hardly started running at the last minute. Ryan, as far as I know, has done basically nothing in the way of campaigning so far.

I mean, really: James Pethokoukis has this late entry coming...I don't know, after the Ames straw poll?
But if Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich — maybe Mitch Daniels, too — fail to catch fire, expect the pressure on Ryan to run to rise.
Let me explain something. There are lulls in the presidential nomination process during every cycle, more or less built into the process, but the press on the presidential beat has to keep writing about it. And they're not going to keep writing "Romney and Pawlenty are likely to win, unless Huck or Palin or maybe Daniels becomes a full active candidate" over and over again. So we get wild speculation during the lulls. New candidates! Brokered convention scenarios! Third party candidates!

And then the next round of visible events happens, and one of the boring old candidates "wins" that round, and the press will go all goofy in the knees about how that candidate has "grown" or whatever, and everyone forgets about Paul Ryan or Donald Trump or Colin Powell or Warren Beatty or whoever else was supposedly going to enter and upset everything. Until, of course, the next lull.

Stimulus Fight Revisited

Ezra Klein has a very smart post today about the 2009 stimulus, in mostly defense of Barack Obama's team: Klein makes the reasonable point that at the time the policy was developed, the size of the bill they asked for was at least within range of what seemed reasonable; it was only as winter and spring of '09 wore on that it became clear that the economy was in much worse shape than most people realized. I think he's right about that. Klein asks what the correct "what-if?" is on the stimulus, and there I think it's important to remember that Bill Clinton was defeated -- completely -- on his stimulus bill in 1993. In other words, the people in the White House had to know that one of the serious possibilities was a $0 stimulus bill.

The other part of it is that Obama's legislative team was entirely reasonable in assuming that the "stimulus bill" wouldn't be the end of new stimulus spending during the 111th Congress. And, after all, it wasn't; there were small things along the way, and then a whopping big stimulus bill (that is, the tax bill) during the lame-duck session. One can certainly criticize the Obama White House, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid for how they handled the add-on portions of stimulus...the lame-duck bill didn't exactly show up in time to help the Democrats in the 2010 elections, did it?

In retrospect, the obvious move would have been to follow ACA, which passed in March 2010, with a deal that looked an awful lot like what the Democrats agreed to after the election, but would have taken effect in June. Would Republicans have gone for it? Hard to say; they had an incentive to avoid making the president look good, but they also sure like those Bush-era income tax rates. Or perhaps the Democrats should have pushed through a tax deal -- at that point, leaving out the upper-income cuts -- when they had 60 votes in the Senate in fall 2009, if necessary taking a short-term hit in the polls in order to get more money into the economy. The point is that the key mistake wasn't in February and March 2009; if there was an important mistake (and I think there's an excellent argument that the WH did err) it was in the follow-up, not in the original stimulus bill.

Catch of the Day

Adam Serwer had a very nice post up about the Prop 8 supporters and their claim that a gay judge in a long-term relationship is uniquely unable to rule impartially about same-sex marriage, and Kevin Drum brings the snark...but the coveted CotD goes to Neil Sinhababu:
I've gone from seeing this as an offensive argument grounded in thinly disguised antigay prejudice to appreciating the awesome consequences it would have for jurisprudence. The US Supreme Court regularly decides cases that address the rights that all Americans have. So in order to make sure that those decisions were made by impartial justices, we'd have to put foreigners whose rights wouldn't be affected on the Supreme Court. But that might not be enough. Since some Supreme Court decisions address the human rights of both Americans and foreigners, impartiality requires that we assign those decisions to animal judges.


Two articles this morning, a WaPo piece by Dan Balz and another by Michael Sheer in the NYT, both use the excuse of Haley Barbour's exit to analyze why the GOP field is so small (at least if one only counts the candidates with a plausible chance of winning).

I can only repeat what I've been saying: it's not that the field is small; it's that the winnowing has begun early.

Now, on top of that, it's possible we'll wind up with a normal sized field of candidates in Iowa, with Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitch Daniels joining Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. But the key point here is that the GOP field for 2012 surely included those five and Barbour and John Thune and perhaps a couple others.

I sort of covered this yesterday, but just to be clear...we don't know what's happening with every case. But Barbour clearly was doing the things that candidates do who are running for the nomination when we're a year and less away from the Iowa caucuses, and it's not unreasonable to conclude that it didn't go as well as he hoped. Now, again, we don't know what his threshold was. Some candidates (say, Chris Dodd) are willing to keep pushing up to the point where the voters get involved, even if it's clear that their once-promising hopes have been reduced to a sliver of vague possibility. Others aren't willing to continue -- and that's the correct word, continue -- unless they retain a good chance of winning.

So what happened with Barbour (and Thune, and Mike Pence, and perhaps others)? Maybe he failed repeatedly to hit fundraising goals. Maybe some key endorsers notified him they were going with other candidates. Maybe the polling came back all wrong (not just the topline numbers, which we know stunk for him, but maybe they tested some attack lines and got bad news back).

And, yes, maybe given the same bad or mixed news, Dodd or Joe Biden or someone else might have stuck around; it could be that Barbour really did lack a bit of "fire in the belly" as he said in his withdrawal statement.

But, look, we call this period the "invisible primary" for a reason: just like in the state-by-state primaries to come next year, the current contest has winners and losers, and the losers tend to drop out. Now, some potential candidates really haven't contested the invisible primary...I haven't read anything, for example, about Jeb Bush. So I'll chalk him up as a "did not run." But those who hired staff, sought endorsements, traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina -- they contested the invisible primary. They were candidates for 2012. Even if they didn't quite make it all the way to 2012.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Case for an Implausible GOP Nominee

To follow up on the previous item...I've been saying throughout that there's no precedent for the Republicans nominating anyone from the list of candidates who either hold (within the GOP) fringe policy positions, or do not have conventional qualifications, or appear to be disliked and mistrusted by elite Republicans, or some combination of all of that. The list currently has ten names, in no particular order: Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Roy Moore, Buddy Roemer, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and John Bolton.

I'm not going to change my tune...but I will break it down a bit more, now that we're down to two active candidates other than these ten. The most likely scenario, by far, is still that either Romney or Pawlenty will win, or Palin, Huck, or Daniels will win, or even perhaps Rick Perry or Jeb Bush will win. I'd still put that at over 90%. What I think is happening is that the field is just winnowing down earlier than usual, for whatever reason.

Still, it's not entirely impossible to imagine a far-fetched string of circumstances that winds up with one of the ten winning after all. Let me check that...I'd say that Newt, Bachmann, Hunstman, and Santorum are at least plausible implausible nominees...the rest are even more unlikely.

What would it take?

First step: no one else gets in. It's just the Mittster, Pawlenty, and these ten.

Second step: one of them finishes second or first in Iowa. Not impossible! After all, I'm already assuming a situation in which one of them has to run third.

Third step: either Romney or Pawlenty then drops out, either right away or after finishing third or worse in New Hampshire.

Fourth step: the remaining plausible candidate has something go drastically wrong. Either a personal scandal, or horrible gaffe that offends movements conservatives in just the right way...something like that.

And, presto! The GOP is stuck with a nominee who will give away 5-10 points beyond the fundamentals.

Now, I know what you're thinking: what about an alternate scenario in which a Bachmann or a Newt hangs on until the winner-takes-all states, and then the crazy vote defeats the sane vote, which is split multiple ways (or at least two ways, between Romney and Pawlenty)? I don't find that one even remotely plausible. GOP elites would swiftly move in and push one of them out before the damage is done.

No, the only way that it's going to happen is if one of these candidates quickly goes into one-on-one with a presumed nominee, who then un-presumes himself or herself. Even then, it's possible that Republicans would find a way to avoid the grim results, depending on when it happens and what happens. But that's how it could play out.

Barbour Out

In a bit of a shocker -- well, to me at least -- Haley Barbour is apparently out of WH '12. Yikes! Among other things, Barbour was part of my longshot trio, along with Rick Perry and Jim DeMint. When you bet on longshots who finish up the track, you're never exactly "wrong," but...well, it sure looks as if I won't be cashing those tickets.

What happened? Did he decide he really didn't like campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire all that much? In his statement, he refers to "fire in the belly," or that is his lack of it. Or did he just find out that there was less appeal than he hoped for a good ole boy lobbyist in today's GOP? After all, his statement also refers to "hundreds" of supporters who have urged him to run, which isn't actually very impressive. The Sage of Wasilla, no doubt, has thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, begging her to make the race, despite her overall lack of popularity.

Without further information, it's hard to say whether Barbour (or any other candidate with a similar announcement) should be counted as "did not run" or "winnowed out early." My inclination, again pending further information, is to put them all (Barbour, Thune, Palin and Huck if they don't show up in Iowa) in the "winnowed out early" category. At least those (unlike, say, Jeb Bush) who have sort-of, in-a-way run during the invisible primary stage.

So: kudos for now to those who thought Barbour never had a prayer, and the contest moves on.

Time to update my state-of-the-field analysis. This leaves two -- two! -- active, fully running candidates who in my view have a plausible chance of winning: Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, along with three on-the-fence candidates (Palin, Huck, and Mitch Daniels) who have a plausible chance. And I still consider two potential candidates who do not appear to be running now, Perry and Bush, to have a plausible chance if they were to enter soon. There are also ten candidates "running" in various forms who I do not think have a plausible chance.

Catch of the Day

Jonathan Chait last week caught the WSJ in a serious example of ideologically-induced innumeracy (the Journal claimed that taking every dollar of rich folks' money wouldn't be enough to close the deficit, which isn't true). That was good -- but now Chait catches Mitch McConnell using it as a standard talking point.

Now, here's the thing. Chait calls his item "The Conservative Misinformation Feedback Loop in Action," which is fair enough. But the stakes here are very different if McConnell (and the WSJ) are simply producing phony talking points intended to dupe the public -- or if McConnell and other elected Republicans actually believe these talking points. If the latter, then you really have to wonder just how deep it goes. That was the real importance of that whole discussion last year about epistemic closure (and, again, I like Chait's name for the phenomenon better): that Republican elites themselves have lost touch with reality thanks to relying only on Fox News, Heritage, AEI, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of it.

Obviously, even if that's true, it didn't cost Republicans very much if anything at the polls in 2010. But long term, it's awful dangerous to go around believing things that are not true.

At any rate: great catch!

Exec Branch Appointments, Again

The NYT has a useful update on the plan to remove about 200 executive branch appointees from the Senate confirmation process. As I've said before, I'm ambivalent about this; in general I support Senate oversight of executive branch agencies through the confirmation process, but I have no problem with removing some of the more obscure or junior positions from that process.

Mostly -- and remember, I like Congress for the most part -- I found the two quotes from Republican Senators who support this reform really pathetic:

“We are losing very good people because the process has become so onerous, so lengthy and so duplicative,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and a lead advocate of the bill. “Why should there be a full F.B.I background check back to age 18 for an individual serving on a part-time board?”
“We drag some unsuspecting citizen through this gauntlet of investigations and questioning,” said Mr. Alexander, who has dubbed the process the innocent-until-nominated syndrome. “They are very fortunate if they get all the way through without being made to appear a criminal.”
Guess what, Senators Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander: it's not actually in the Constitution that you have to run every appointee through a full FBI check and treat them like criminals! 

The real solution isn't to stop confirming them; it's to ratchet the process way down, by returning to the presumption that the president should get the people of his choice. That still would allow for Senators to use the process to secure policy commitments, but put an end to the pointless intense personal scrutiny of every selection. The solution? Return to majority confirmation of executive branch nominees, keep holds, but only for specific policy disputes, and reform the process at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to radically reduce vetting. Do that, and the Senate will have plenty of capacity for processing everyone, whether they trim the list a bit or not.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

How do you see policy about climate playing out over the next, say, decade?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

How do you feel about having John McCain as your main voice on foreign policy and national security? This is primarily addressed to mainstream conservatives (in other words, people who were more or less okay with the main thrust of George W. Bush's foreign policy, regardless of the particulars. Feel free to say Ron Paul or someone else outside of the GOP mainstream on these issues if you want, but I'm more interested for this one in what mainstream conservatives think). Most liberals believe that McCain is not only wild and impulsive, but not particularly well-informed on these issues. Do you agree?

If not McCain, who would you rather have speak for Republicans on these issues?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

Once again, I'm several days behind in my reading, so I'm going to need everyone's help. Certainly, we had continuing developments in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, many of which (not John McCain's statements, though) seemed important. I'm assuming that the rating agency flap about US solvency didn't matter, based on the market reactions -- but I'm keeping my eye on disappointing weekly UI filings, although a couple off weeks may not mean anything.

So, what do you think mattered this week?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Christina Kahrl is, of course, completely right that MLB should do nothing to fictionalize their official records as a result of the Barry Bonds conviction, which means, I suppose I must admit, that Bud Selig is completely right. Of course Barry Bonds holds the single-season and career records for home runs. Heck, I can't stand Pete Rose, but he's obviously had more hits than anyone else, just as Bonds, whether anyone likes it or not, has hit more home runs than anyone else.

As far as the Hall of Fame is concerned...we've had this discussion before, but I think Tim Kurkjian is wrong that Bonds (and Clemens, and the rest of them) aren't going in.  I don't think Bonds will be a first ballot guy, and it wouldn't shock me at all if it takes a while, but as Kurkjian points out, if they wind up taking a strict line with (those they consider) the steroids guys, at best the Hall is going to wind up being irrelevant. And that's too risky for them to do it.

Remember: the Hall of Fame is only the Hall of Fame because everyone collectively treats it as the Hall of Fame. If it turns itself into a joke, then they'll be risking the possibility that someone else will set up their own shrine and start holding their own inductions -- and in a far more convenient place, too. The honorees themselves are critically important to all of this, but so are just plain ordinary fans, who treat Cooperstown as important.

And irrelevant is the best they can hope for. We know that lots of players in the current Hall used amphetamines (that is, illegal performance-enhancing drugs). I'm confident that the Hall has already let in at least one steroid user (no,  I'm not thinking of anyone in particular); sooner or later, someone already in will be exposed or will expose himself as a user. Most likely, more than one. Then what? The chances that they'll look like complete fools are high. Much better to just let 'em all in, and I'm confident that they will, sooner or later.

Everyone Hates Congress, Always

I'm afraid I have to call Ezra Klein out for a bit of Me the Peoplism in a post noting that "everyone hates Congress again." Klein:
I think that’s basically unfair — the issue isn’t individuals so much as the system they operate in — but it’s also an outcome that both parties in Congress have brought upon themselves by preferring an equilibrium in which it’s easier for the minority to regain power to one where it’s easier for the majority to govern effectively.
Sorry, but this won't wash. Everyone hated Congress in the pre-institutionalized Congress of the 19th century, when it was the House that had the filibuster; they hated Congress when it ran with ruthless efficiency under Speakers Reed and Cannon and during the early years of Woodrow Wilson's presidency; they hated Congress during the New Deal; they hated it during the era of bipartisanship and the conservative coalition; they hated it when liberals took over and ended segregation and passed Medicare and Medicaid; they hated the reformed Congress of the 1970s; they hated it during the era of divided government; they hated it after the rise of the routine filibuster in the Senate; they hated it when the Gingrich Republicans took over; they hated it when the historic 111th passed tons of legislation. Trying to connect the American people's deep and long-standing contempt for their Congress with any particular set or arrangements or procedures is a mug's game.

Of course, he's correct about it being the system and not individuals, but only if "system" means Congress, regardless of particular rules and norms.

(Fine -- we don't have polling data that goes all the way back, but we do have Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Groucho and Mr. Smith and the rest of it, including of course Richard Fenno. If anyone knows of a flowering of Congress love during any particular period of American history, I'd be happy to hear about it).

"Academic Paper"

Since I've commented on the "Palin's strange pregnancy" story a couple of times in the past, I suppose I should link to Justin Elliott's conclusive takedown of the version that alleges that Palin faked a pregnancy and then covered it up.

(As I've said before, the question of parentage never seemed plausible to me, but some of the other parts of Palin's birth story do, in my view seem odd, but entirely irrelevant to evaluating her as a political figure. That is, if people make parenting choices that seem different from those I can imagine making, or if people inflate and sensationalize their family stories -- and I suspect Palin did one or the other -- then, well, so what?)

At any rate, the one point I want to make here is about what Elliott refers to as the "academic paper" that seems to have sparked the last round of this, eventually resulting in Elliott's story. You know, I just got back from giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association. It was an unusually good panel for the Western -- the other three papers were all quite professional, at least in their presentation form (I only have had a chance to look at one of them; another, I think, I will probably post about next week). As it turned out, my paper was the dud of the group; the main finding my co-author and I had at this point was that we either needed to have a much faster computer, or needed to start our data crunching a lot earlier. The next version should be interesting; this one...not so much.*

But I've been to a lot of meetings of the Western, and I think most of us who have been to these smaller conferences will agree that there's just a lot of crap presented. Even at the biggest, most prestigious, conferences, I've been on or at panels in which a paper was presented that just wasn't professional at all. I'm not talking about duds, with boring findings or non-findings, or even papers that appear to have something going for them but turn out to have rather sizable holes, but just unprofessional garbage. More embarrassing than a Matt Bai think piece. Sometimes those are given by grad students, but not always.

Now, I know some other disciplines are different, but we in political science do our conferences applications (at least most of the time) on spec...we write an abstract up to a year before the conference, and then the organizers choose from what they see, which isn't much. In other words, knowing that a paper was given at a political science conference means absolutely nothing in terms of quality control. Of course, that's also true for many working paper series, not to mention obviously true for papers one posts on a personal web site. I'll also note that there are plenty of academics out there who have little caution about attaching their credentials to claims that have nothing to do with their expertise (you'll note that the academic bloggers I link to try pretty hard to not do that -- if they're outside of their fields, they'll put in an appropriate disclaimer. Me too).

Even something published, alas, can wind up being not very good, especially -- but not only -- if it isn't peer reviewed.

I say all this because as much as I really would like reporters and others to use political science research, it's also important for everyone not to take "academic paper" as some sort of magic seal of quality. It isn't. Peer-reviewed paper is usually fairly reliable, but even then, be careful. That's not to say that you should ignore things at earlier stages; at least in political science, there are plenty of important findings that were nailed in the first draft of a paper that was "published" as a working paper, and sometimes those take years to make their way into proper print form. So don't wait! But do, always, assess the claims on their own merits.

Anyway, I wasted my time actually reading through the paper Elliott referred to, and it was junk. Hey, reporters! Don't let these sorts of things sour you on using serious academic work...but assess it carefully, as you would with any other source.

*I suppose I should mention what our paper is about: we're looking at individual contributors to Clinton and Obama in 2007 and seeing to whom they gave, if anyone, in the 2006 cycle. We'll then use social network tools to see what, if anything, differentiates Clinton and Obama supporters. I'm very optimistic about the project...we know little or nothing about how party networks operate in this way, and I think there's a lot to be learned. My co-author, Casey Dominguez, has already looked at party networks in PAC donations, and before that she and I did a paper on elite activity, including donations, in presidential campaigns. Now, we're going far beyond that into thousands of individual donors. But we're not quite there yet.

Don't Mention the War

So, I was linking today to that Remapping Debate gadget about tax rates since World War II, and I started out by typing "since the war." I went back and made it "since WW II," because it occurs to me that "since the war" is not only dated (which it has been, more or less, since I was a kid), but that it's now so dated that I'm not sure many readers would know which default war I was referring to. I figured it's a slowish Friday semi-holiday, so I'd ask: if I had said "since the war," would y'all know what I meant? What about if I refer to "postwar" presidents presidents or elections? Do you know which war we're "post" of?

(If you feel moved to respond, it might help if you included your age, or at least some generational marker).


Greg Sargent nails the reason why the differences between the health care town halls of August 2009 and the current much less crazed town halls about the House GOP budget and Medicare aren't important:
Ryan’s Medicare proposal, as written, has no chance of ever passing, because Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. By contrast, in 2009, the Tea Partyers were reacting to proposals that had a very real chance of passing — and mostly did pass in the end — because they were being debated by leaders from the party that completely controlled the government. The Tea Party’s rage was not just an expression of anger at Obama’s health policies. It was an expression of the broader helplessness voters on the right felt at a moment when it remained unclear whether their representatives in government — i.e., Republicans — had any prayer of acting as a meaningful check on Obama’s entire agenda. The two situations just aren’t all that comparable.
As a legislative strategy, remember, the entire GOP effort against ACA was a complete bust. At least the short-term strategy; long-term, over the entire 1945-2010 stretch, Republican opposition succeeded in first delaying comprehensive reform and then ensuring that what was adopted was a market-based, rather than a government-run, approach. But in 2009-2010, Republican opposition did no good at all.

As an election approach, it's harder to conclude what effect if any the GOP outrage strategy had. We can say for sure that Democrats got clobbered in 2010; that most of that was a combination of the economy and exposure (that is, Dems had more vulnerable seats after two straight landslides); that there's fairly good evidence that the actual results were better for Republicans than a pure fundamentals approach would predict; that Members who voted for ACA did several points worse than those who didn't; but that we don't really know how anti-ACA sentiment would have transferred had Barack Obama and the Democrats dropped health care reform entirely. My guess is that it didn't make much of a difference, but that's just a guess.

Anyway, I think Sargent's right: the two situations are different, including the timing to this point.

Read Stuff, You Should

I should be back to normal schedule now, more or less. I'll probably have a report from the Western (Political Science Association conference) later today or perhaps early next week. I'll report on Passover right now: my youngest's matzah balls and potato kugel were insanely good, as were my oldest's matzah kugel and homemade applesauce, my wife's brisket at the first seder, and (hey, I'm not modest) my chicken soup. I hope y'alls Seders were that good, for those with Seders, and again Happy Easter to those observing Holy Week right now. Hmmm...I guess I'm also supposed to use this space to link to other things I've written -- I argued over at Greg's place this week that Obama should enter the spin war over a (possible? likely?) fall government shutdown by pushing a shutdown failsafe now.

OK, on to the good stuff.

1. Budget and deficit: Mike Alberti at the always-terrific Remapping Debate has a nice gizmo to help understand federal income tax rates since WW II; the GAO's primer on federal debt; and Stan Collender explains why putting a definitive number on "budget cuts" is so tricky. Also, real economists at Microadvisors laugh at Paul Ryan.

2. Health care: Maggie Mahar explains why ACA is happening, regardless of the Supreme Court and future Congresses.

3. Greg Marx has an excellent article in the new edition of The Forum I'll be talking about more later, but for now I want to agree (and add a recent link from each) from the academic side (Marx is a reporter) with his praise for non-academics who are informed by and open to findings from political science. Marx mentions Ezra Klein (here on Medicare); Jonathan Chait (reading WSJ editorials); Steve Kornacki (I have two from him -- one on Jimmy Carter, one on the GOP in the 1990s); Jamelle Bouie (on presidential likeability); and Nate Silver (on appointed Senators). All excellent choices! My only complaint: somehow he relegated Matt Yglesias, who reads and reports on as much political science as any of these people, to a footnote. Yglesias is an important part of the story; here he is with a great short item on "weak" presidential fields and how name recognition works in different kinds of elections.

4. Presidential nomination stuff: Ed Kilgore's TNR columns are must-read; here's a good one on why it won't work to drag a reluctant candidate into the campaign; I agree with Mark Blumenthal about early polling and Tim Pawlenty.

5. Conor Friedersdorf continues tilting at windmills: Breitbart edition.

6. Libya? You'll want Fred Kaplan.

7. Very good article by Ben Smith on P.J. Crowley.

8. John Sides, not for the first time, explains why we shouldn't take party-bashing at face value.

9. And Michael Gerson on the profoundly un-conservative Ayn Rand.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Catch of the Day

Via Julian Sanchez (and by the way I highly recommend following him on twitter), a nice discussion and a Tumblr of images of pregnant women and articles about abortion. Check it out -- and nice catch!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Congress is out, so it's time for another installment of my periodic updates on the GOP progress on "repeal and replace," their plan for health care reform. Guess what? 100 plus days into the 112th House, still no "replace" on the horizon.

Ways and Means still hasn't held any hearings on "replace." The Health Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce did hold a hearing on H.R. 5, which is about liability...Republicans certainly argue that passing that legislation would reduce health care costs, but can't possibly argue that it would accomplish other ACA goals that they have promised to reach with their replacement, such as pre-existing conditions (in my view, they're wrong about the effects of liability reform, but that's another question entirely). The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee held a hearing on the temporary high-risk pools in ACA, but it was apparently about oversight of the existing program, not about any GOP plan to use high-risk pools as a long-term solution, or an alternative if they no longer support that. Nothing new over at Ed & Labor the Workforce.

Most notably, as I mentioned earlier, the Ryan budget contains repeal (except for the Medicare cuts that Republicans ran against last year), but nothing at all about replace.

Of course, since the last update the Republicans have found time to vote for repeal for the third time, and a fourth if you count the FY 2012 budget (they've had repeal as a stand-alone back in January, as defunding ACA in H.R. 1, and now as a separate vote accompanying the FY 2011 CR). Haven't found time to do anything about replace, though.

Republicans are still pretending (see e.g. this press release from John Kline) that their agenda is repeal and replace. To be fair, it's not as if they're actually getting repeal, no matter how many times it passes the House. Still, we're almost three months along, and the pledge to work hard on a repeal bill appears to be entirely phony.

Deficits and Voters

Kevin Drum suggests that the reason independents tell pollsters they support the things that Barack Obama wants to do about the deficit but don't approve of Obama on the deficit is because "the vast, vast majority of independents don't really have any idea what Obama's plan to handle the deficit is."

While I'm sure he's correct about the claim he makes in the clause I quoted, I'll take the opportunity to repeat my frequent assertion (unfortunately untested, as far as I know) that the claim would also be true if you remove the words "Obama's plan to handle."  That is, I find it quite plausible that (many? most?) independents have no idea that "deficit" refers to the difference between federal government revenues and federal government expenditures, but instead use it as a synonym for "bad things in the economy." The basic text for this assertion, which I've referred to many times, is a question to George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton about how the deficit affected them personally, asked at a town-hall style 1992 debate.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Oddball GOP 2012 Field

Steve Benen has a fun item this morning pointing out how many "Do We Have To Take ____ Seriously?" stories have been written about the 2012 field.

I'm talking about people with sufficient credentials that they would ordinarily be invited to participate in presidential debates, but insufficient credentials to have a realistic chance of winning the nomination. We really have a lot of these folks. Benen mentions Trump, Newt, Bachmann, and Cain; also running, of sorts, are Santorum, Paul (presumably Ron), Johnson, Bolton, Moore and Roemer. I think that's the full list -- that's a full ten sideshow candidates.

So what's going on here? Why are there so many sideshow "candidates" running for president on the GOP side? Does it say something about the state of the Republican party, or about the real candidates who are running? I've talked about some of this before, but to collect it all in one post:

First, I don't think it has much to do with the "real" candidate field. That's going to wind up looking similar to other recent candidate fields when obvious heavyweight was running. Romney, Pawlenty, Barbour...they're not the strongest candidates imaginable, but they're all plausible nominees and presidents. If Palin, Huck, and Daniels all join the field (along with Huntsman), it will be about a typical number of real candidates. Add to that candidates who ran for a while but didn't make it to the starting gate (Thune, DeMint), and there's not much of a story on that side. It is true that without a strong frontrunner it's possible that one or more of these candidates might honestly be deluding himself or herself that there's a real chance for victory -- and I suppose collectively there's maybe a tiny chance or so of some sort of complete fluke that puts one of them at the top of the ticket -- but that would basically be true at only a slightly lower level even with, say, a sitting VP running.

So the explanation should be found in the incentives to get in, or at least close to in, for sideshow candidates. And there, I think it's pretty easy to see what's happening. The costs of candidacy have gone way down in the internet era; it's a lot easier to raise a bit of money, and it's a lot easier to set up something that looks enough like a campaign that reporters will go for it. And, in the current movement conservative environment, the payoff appears to be pretty good, with possibilities for cashing in such as bestselling books and Fox News contracts available for those who build their names up enough.

(Not to say they're all in it for the money, but even those who believe they're in it for some other reason can't be unaware of the incentives involved. And the lower costs count for everyone, even if they have no interest in cashing in at all).

The only other question to explain about the sideshow candidates is the press attention, and that's easy: it's a long campaign, without any real events to report on between the kickoff in November 2008 and the Iowa caucuses in January or February 2012, and the press gets bored. They're easily distracted by shiny objects, such as a few million dollars raised, or a little name-recognition-driven polling result, or a handful of votes in some straw poll, or a celebrity. That's all.

(For a slightly different, but interesting, take, see Ron Replogle).

Monday, April 18, 2011

Czars and the Presidential Branch

Adam Serwer has a good post up over at the Plum Line today asking whether Barack Obama is being hypocritical by using a signing statement to object to a Congressionally-imposed ban on four "czars." Serwer's answer -- sort, of, but it's the House's fault -- is okay as far as it goes, although it's worth pointing out that presidents do have another option: they could veto the bill. Granted, in this case it would have shut down the government over something purely symbolic (the specific czars prohibited are ones that do not now exist), but presidents do have that option.

The important thing to get here, in order to understand what is at stake, is the distinction between what the president does within the Executive Office of the President -- what John Hart has called the "Presidential Branch" of government -- and what happens in the regular agencies and departments, the Executive Branch proper.

On the one hand, Congress essentially has no business intruding into how the president gathers information and coordinates tasks within the presidency. They have every right to insist on input, however, into what happens in the Executive Branch. That's why I mostly disagree with those who want fewer Executive Branch positions confirmed by the Senate (although I have no problem with minor reforms at the margins); in the system of separated branches sharing powers, we should want a Congressional buy-in on nominees. Without that, either the president or the bureaucracy gain too much influence.

And yet: if presidents attempt to circumvent the functioning of the Executive Branch by carrying out policy within the White House, well, then Congress absolutely should step in and attempt to prevent that.

My strong impression, however, is that Barack Obama is using "czars" the good way, for coordinating policy, and not the bad way, for avoiding the proper departments and agencies that are supposed to carry out that policy (and which are constrained by both Congressional supervision and civil service rules). If that's what's actually happening (and again, I'm aware of no other evidence), then no president should allow Congress to interfere. Doing it by signing statement isn't as good as doing it by veto, but Serwer isn't quite right about the core problem here: the problem here isn't so much the difficulty in moving exec branch appointments through the Senate as it is the necessity of coordinating complex policies across various departments and agencies, and the White House would need to do that no matter how quickly presidential appointments were approved.

Monkey Cage Asks, We Answer

Joshua Tucker asks: Should we take Trump seriously? Since someone serious has now asked the question, I'll get around to answering it: No, we should not.

Tucker points out correctly that it's not at all unusual for celebrities to enter U.S. politics at a fairly high level. However, it's one thing for Bill Bradley to be a Senator from New Jersey or even Jesse Ventura to win a flukish race to become governor of Minnesota, and it's a whole other deal for a guy who doesn't actually believe any of the things that Republicans believe to win their presidential nomination. Even if he sort of pretends that he does. Hell, no one is sure if Mitt Romney can win the nomination because of his original positions, and he's been consistently pretending to believe whatever he thinks Iowa caucus participants want for almost five years now.

What I will say is that traditional reporters really, really, overrate the presidential chances of very wealthy people and New Yorkers. And therefore Trump benefits from a systematic bias. Now, note that hardly anyone does take Trump seriously, as it is, with that bias, so just realize how silly taking him seriously sounds after you apply appropriate discounts.

As far as what he'll do over the course of the next several months...well, as always, I'll caution against trying to get inside the head of politicians (or, in this case, whatever you want to call him). I will point out again, however, that the presence of Trump, Bachmann, Newt, Roy Moore, Santorum, and the rest of the circus does pose a bit of an image problem for the GOP when they get around to holding debates, although remember that very few people, and almost no swing voters, watch early presidential nomination debates.

Housekeeping/Many Holidays Edition

Just a quick word to let everyone know that posting this week will be probably be inconsistent, as Passover begins tonight, and then the Western Political Science Association meetings later in the week. My co-author Casey Dominguez and I have a paper for the Western about presidential campaigns and fundraising networks...I'll probably post more on that at some point this week. If anyone is going to be in town for the conference, let me know! Although my ability to go out for a drink is severely limited, what with Scotch being chametz and all. But I can hang out some.

At any rate, I'll throw you some links to recent stuff I wrote elsewhere that I don't think I've linked to yet here. My TNR column over the weekend was about how the notion that Iowa Republicans regularly vote for nutty candidates is seriously exaggerated. Last week over at Greg's place, I was impressed with Speaker Boehner after the FY 2011 vote, said that Palin wasn't quite dead yet, and advised Obama to pound Ryan on phony numbers (advice the president didn't take).

If you're celebrating tonight, gut yontif. While I'm at, in case I forget, a Happy Easter in advance to those observing that holiday. Here in San Antonio, we're just finishing up Fiesta, our own holiday, and I guess it's Patriot's Day today -- so for those celebrating all of that, enjoy!  And now to get to work: my kitchen won't clean itself...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Yes, I know it's not Friday. Also, this isn't actually going to even be a baseball post, although I'll try to work something in. Via Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman has a post about punk songs about buses. Yglesias is right about Rancid -- there must be at least as many train songs as bus songs. In addition to the ones Yglesias mentions, there's also Tim Armstrong's Into Action, which features both the 43 bus (which doesn't appear to exist any more) and the Richmond BART line.

At any rate, Ackerman is apparently off to learn about horse racing, so he'll want to be listening to Rancid's excellent GGF -- while looking at the cover of The Goops' very fun album, "Lucky."

I need some baseball content here...have I mentioned how terrific "Panda and the Freak" is? More on The Baseball Project here.

Sunday Question for Liberals

Who would you like to be the next Speaker of the House? If the answer is Nancy Pelosi (b. 1940, so she just turned 71), who is your second choice?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

How would you like the real candidates -- Romney, Pawlenty, Barbour -- to deal with birthers and the other kooks out there on the campaign trail? Do you mind if they give evasive or dog whistling answers instead of straightforward truthful answers? Or do you think this stuff is all mostly overblown?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

Well, keeping the government open is nice...but I'm very much inclined to say that what mattered this week was the Great GOP Leap, with all but four Republican Members of the House voting to destroy what I guess we now call "traditional" Medicare. Not to mention the rest of it: severe cuts in Medicaid, the flip-flop on ACA Medicare costs, another nail in the coffin of the "replace" portion of repeal-and-replace, the phony math, which means either new taxes they're not telling us about or (much more likely) larger deficits, and unspecified huge, huge, spending cuts on popular programs. All of which, or at least most of which, isn't going to be enacted into law, at least not before the next election. I'm reluctant to say it "matters" in terms of the 2012 elections, although it certainly could, but it certainly matters as an indication of where the Republican Party stands these days.

I'll admit, however, that I've been so focused on budget stuff (and Passover, and other things) that I haven't been following the rest of the news as closely as usual. So: what else? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Judging the Medicare Flip-Flop

I'm still sort of astonished at the audacity of the GOP flip-flop on the Medicare cuts from ACA. Let's see if we can run this down...

1. Prominence: ACA was obviously one of the top Republican issues in 2010, and the Medicare cuts were a major issue within that in campaign materials and ads. Candidates, of course, make lots of commitments that few know about and then flip once in office...a flip is a bigger deal, presumably, the more you campaigned on it. Very high score.

2. Rapidity: We're three months into the new Congress. Not a record for flips, but pretty quick. Very high score.

3. Lack of intervening events: George W. Bush was against nation-building and for a humble foreign policy...until the September 11 attacks. Now, the idea that those attacks changed everything as far as the actual world is concerned was always pretty dicey, but Bush apologists aren't entirely wrong if they want to claim that he had good reason to break his promise. I can't think of any relevant intervening events since the election. Budget and economic projections now are basically similar to what they were then. Perfect score.

4. Lack of compromise or defeat: It's a raw deal to blame a pol for breaking a promise if he or she is defeated (as with Obama on some -- but not all -- of his torture/detention promises), or if the promise is broken as part of making as deal, as with Obama and the tax extensions in fall 2010. That's not happening here; the House GOP budget was entirely their doing, and supported by almost the entire conference. Perfect score.

5. Degree of flop: Did the pol modify the old position (again, see Obama and detention), or completely reverse it? Here, on the Medicare cuts, it's a total reversal, as far as I can see. Perfect score.

Really, this is an outstanding, impressive, flip-flop. Am I missing any categories?

[Updated, link added]

Dogs, Not Barking

1. "The Kennedys." I've seen a few tweets about it, I suppose, but it sure doesn't seem to have amounted to much, after all, after all the earlier hoopla.

2. Some dogs are things that didn't happen; others happened, but are unreported. This one is the latter: U.S. deaths in Iraq seem to be up a bit this year. After only 19 military fatalities in the last six months of 2010, there have already been 17 so far in 2011. It's something to keep in mind in light of the big question in Iraq, which is whether U.S. troops will wind up staying longer than currently planned.

3. Peter Diamond. Still not confirmed. Still no evidence that the White House cares.

4. Oh, you know it: Fairness Doctrine.

5. Am I missing a Democratic or liberal parallel to the conservative belief that a Fairness Doctrine revival (and gun control, and perhaps several other things that Democrats apparently have no interest in) is just around the corner? I really can't think of one, but if you can, let me know.

Not This Again

Ugh. I can't believe this is back in the news. Andrew Sullivan asks:
[i]s it legit, given the ample use of Trig by Palin as a political prop and campaign mascot, to ask her for simple proof, like medical records, as the editor of the ADN did, and as I asked from the get-go?
My answer to this is simple: No. It is not legit. Not for political reporters, at any rate.

Sarah Palin is an important national political figure, and I do believe that reporters should press her, hard, on quite a few things, as they should with all important national political figures.

But leave the kids alone. I don't care if Palin "invited" extra scrutiny because she used her kid "as a political prop and campaign mascot" -- that's between her and her family. It doesn't make that kid or any of her kids fair game.

I've said this before: imagine the worst rumor you've heard about this story is true. Now, honestly: does that really change your view of Sarah Palin's worthiness to serve in high office? Does it change your view of how seriously we should take her policy pronouncements?

If she's guilty of all sorts of lies and malfeasance, reporters should make the case without touching this one. If it's her only serious indiscretion, fib, or whatever, then it seems to me that it has little or no bearing on anything. 

Friday News Puzzle

I'm a little baffled by the newspapers today. The House of Representatives is about to vote on their FY2012 budget, and both the New York Times and the Washington Post (at least in their current online editions) are mostly ignoring it -- even Ezra Klein's usually-reliable (and must-read) "Wonkbook" ignores it. Oh, and they're not just voting on the Ryan budget: also getting votes will be three alternative budgets from the Democrats and one from the Republicans. As I write this, the first of these, the Congressional Black Caucus budget, is getting its vote.

Granted, there was plenty of coverage of the Paul Ryan budget last week, when it was introduced; and granted, it's not as if the Senate is about to go along with dismantling Medicare, among other things. Still, a whole lot of Republicans are about to take a major vote, and you would think that it counts as news, budget fatigue or no.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Catch of the Day

ARTHUR: No, it is far from--

KNIGHTS: Aaaaugh!

HEAD KNIGHT: Aaaaugh! Stop saying the word!

ARTHUR: Oh, stop it!

KNIGHTS: Aaaaugh!

HEAD KNIGHT: Oh! He said it again!

ARTHUR: Patsy!

HEAD KNIGHT: Wait! I said it! I said it! Ooh! I said it again!

Greg Sargent looks at the Trump circus, and notes that Trump can't even be trusted about what Trump said a couple days ago. He also makes the excellent point that fact-checking Trump is hopeless, because what Trump appears to want is publicity of any kind -- and, to the extent that he wants support from Tea Partiers, then it's especially useful to get mainstream disapproval. Which, alas, he's getting in Greg's item. And mine! Aaaaugh!

(Note: Full disclosure; I've been contributing a post a day over at Greg's place. But this CotD is well-deserved!).

Okay, time for me to go cut down the mightiest tree in the forest...with...a herring.

Is Newt A Stalking Horse For Perry?

I've heard crazier theories.

Unfortunately, the last real stalking horse...there hasn't really been one, has there, in the modern (post-1968) era? It's not even in Taegan Goddard's dictionary. A stalking horse was a candidate who intended to raise some support, but then bow out in favor of a stronger candidate (who didn't want to enter as an active candidate yet, but also didn't want to see his potential supporters pledge to other candidates). Once all candidates had to run in primaries and caucuses, a traditional stalking horse strategy was no longer viable. However, it is possible to imagine a candidate who wanted to avoid running during most of the invisible primary period but didn't want his or her potential staff and supporters to disperse to find the use of a stalking horse appealing. As for the horse (that is, the "active" candidate who intends to drop out), in the old days the reason to do it was to ally oneself with a potential nominee, and perhaps to increase name recognition for a future run (or, in the case of a machine situation, it might be someone in the machine who is asked to do it). It's not hard to imagine the advantages for Newt, who would be able to extent his run of pretending to be a presidential candidate without actually having to risk going before the voters and having the bubble permanently popped (it's always easy to find an excuse for dropping out pre-Iowa, probably pre-Ames).

I have no idea why Rick Perry isn't running. If he had started a full campaign back in November, after he was re-elected, wouldn't he be the favorite right now?
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