Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Recess Appointment Update from Boehner: We're Not in Session

Yeah, there's a huge flap going on this afternoon about when Barack Obama's speech to Congress is going to be next's a perfect slow-news-cycle story that everyone will forget about soon. But Plain Blog (courtesy of reader JC) has the best angle on it: the Speaker practically admitted that Obama can make recess appointments right now!

Boehner (my emphasis):
As you know, the House of Representatives and the Senate are each required to adopt a Concurrent Resolution to allow for a Joint Session of Congress to receive the President. And as the Majority Leader announced more than a month ago, the House will not be in session until Wednesday, September 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening.
So: Boehner is saying that Congress, pro forma sessions in order to supposedly block recess appointments notwithstanding, is not "in session" enough to, say, pass a non-controversial resolution! Doesn't that tell us that the Senate is in fact in recess? Doesn't it mean that the current month-long period does in fact fulfill the Constitutional requirement that "The President shall have the Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate"?

I mean, if you can't believe John Boehner about when Congress is or is not in session, who can you trust?

Catch of the Day

After I wrote yet another post over at the Plum Line about judicial nominations, in which I said that if Obama wants to break the logjam he should spend some energy on the issue, someone with the twitter handle @kanerane2001 responded
@jbplainblog why dont you look at the front page of the website top item was judicial nom blocks with an iconograph!!!!!
Good point! Checking, does, in fact, have an item on judicial nominations.I don't know that I'd call it the top's a "featured topic" just below a large gallery of rotating photos on various topics. But it links to a fairly detailed look at Obama's record on nominations and GOP obstruction. Of course, the White House web site neglects to point out Obama's own failure to nominate judges promptly.

It's a nice catch, and it's nice that the administration is paying at least some public attention to the issue, but I think it's still fair to say that judicial nominations haven't been a priority. Perhaps the web site is a hint that they'll go on the offensive this fall, but I'm not holding my breath on that.

Not Buying the Keys

I wouldn't put a whole lot of weight...well, actually, I wouldn't put any weight at all on Allan Lichtman's prediction that Barack Obama will be re-elected, based on his "keys" system. What he has is a combination of things that are generally causes (such as the economy) of incumbent party success, things that are effects of incumbent party success (such as the incumbent winning renomination uncontested and third party challenges), and things that are arbitrary and dubious (such as whether the candidates have "charisma").

It's not surprising that you can "predict" the winner with that batch of stuff. After all, while Lichtman's system has worked since he debuted it for the 1984 cycle, a much simpler system that predicts the incumbent party wins barring an election-year recession also successfully calls the winners from 1984 through 2008, at least if you count 2000 for Gore (as Lichtman does). That doesn't make Lichtman wrong as much as it just means his system isn't telling us much that we don't already know otherwise.

(Updated w/typo fixed)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Catch of the Day

Steve Benen is unimpressed with Mitt Romney's new attack line against Rick Perry, which is that Perry (well, actually, I guess, unnamed politicians) are "career politicians." And we don't need any of those right now. But Benen continues:
[T]he “career politician” line seems especially odd given Romney’s background. Isn’t this the guy who ran for the Senate in 1994, ran for governor in 2002, ran for president in 2008, and is running for president again in 2012? Indeed, by most measures, he’s been running for the White House continuously for more than four years.
In other words, wouldn’t Mitt Romney be a career politician, too, if only voters liked him a little more?
Nice catch!

Of course, as regular readers know I'm 100% in favor of career politicians holding political office. Especially the presidency; it takes real political skills to handle the position. I have nothing at all against a system which allows new people to jump ahead a few rungs on the ladder; there's no reason for everyone to have to work their way up from city council or school board or whatever. But, yes, I do believe that there really are specific political skills, both campaigning and governing, and that I'd like to see a candidate demonstrate mastery of them before thinking about the top job.

Bachmann (Supposedly) Targets Very Stupid Donors

Today's fun story is courtesy of the New York Post, which "reports" that some Jews are donating to Michele Bachmann because they mistakenly believe that she's a Red Sea Pedestrian (via Goddard). No, I don't really believe the (very thinly sourced) story; I think it's just an excuse for the Post to trot out the much-hyped but little-verified story that Jews are deserting Barack Obama. But Jews who somehow pay enough attention to the political process to be ready to give money to Bachmann but not enough to know that she's a Christian? I'm just not buying it without a lot more evidence.

However, as much as I expect that absolutely nothing from that Post story will turn out to be true, I do like the idea of  a presidential candidate who would deliberately spread false rumors of her own religion or ethnicity in order to raise money from exceptionally stupid donors. So, in order do help out, I'd like to present seven important Michele Bachmann little-known facts. Or, you know, sort of facts.

1. Visit the Bay of Pigs Museum? She's Cuban! That's it.

2. I heard that between them, her grandfathers played roughly 75% of all Irish cops in 1930s through 1950s movies.

3. Oddly enough, distant cousin of both Spiro Agnew and Olympia Dukakis, but not Michael Dukakis.

4. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley...Michele Bachmann? Could be!

5. [This item would be in Spanish and point out that she's Mexican, but unfortunately I'm not capable of producing it]

6. It's funny; she sure doesn't look Korean, and there's no real evidence that she has any Korean connections, but look at her, and just think: yup, Korean.

7. Forget it, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney -- I hear she's LDS, all the way.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Everything on TV Is Overhyped

There's a flap today about whether the cable nets overhyped Hurricane Irene, as Howard Kurtz says they did. Jamelle Bouie has a good dissent, and Nate Silver provides plenty of data to show that the hype was about right for a hurricane of this size and damage -- although that doesn't speak to Kurtz's point, which is that hurricanes in general are overhyped.

I guess what I'd say about this is that it's almost certain that everything on the cable nets is going to be overhyped. I suppose that's not literally true by definition, but it's close. There are all sorts of interesting and important stories around the nation and internationally, and if the cable nets pick a dozen, or even two dozen, stories to cover then those stories are going to be getting disproportionate coverage compared to their overall importance. Even if they choose really well, based only on some sort of world-historical scale of importance.

What I think this leads to is that questions about how the cable nets spend their time are just the wrong questions to ask. As individuals who want to be informed, the correct questions are about how to go about being informed (hint: TV news has always been a lousy way to be informed about anything other than what the TV news is covering, and it's probably not an efficient way of getting informed about that). Collectively, we can also think about which things are and are not covered, and how we might be able to structure incentives so that people will dig up information about the things we want information about. That's a hard question, and one that's really worth putting some time into. But it's not really related, much, to how CNN fills up all that airtime.

But complaining about the cable nets devoting too much time to weather is sort of like complaining that ESPN spends too much time on highlights; that's what they do! Indeed, it's more or less what they're good at. Granted, I'm happy that they do other things too, at least sometimes, but at least with the weather stuff there's an actual public information component to it. Unlike, say, glorified local crime stories. Anyone who expects more from the cable nets is just sort of missing the point.

Safe As Houses. If Houses Were Safe These Days.

Ezra Klein has a really interesting post today on Barack Obama's nomination of Alan Krueger to chair the Council of Economic Advisers.
[O]f course the Obama administration chose Alan Krueger. Why would anyone have ever thought they would have chosen anyone else? The White House has hewed to a very specific personnel-replacement strategy, and Krueger fits it perfectly.
Klein cites a variety of previous replacements for those who left the administration: Jack Lew, Leon Panetta, Gene Sperling, Bruce Reed...the list goes on and on. What Obama values is previous experience in Democratic administrations.

What Klein doesn't mention is that this is perhaps in part a response to the broken system of executive branch nominations; it's presumably easier to get someone through the original vetting process and the Senate if they've already gone through it.

And you know what I think about that: not only should it be easier to get executive branch nominations through the Senate, but presidents should be much, much less risk-averse about the original vetting process. There are really two problems here. One is a brand new one about partisan opposition in the Senate to large numbers of uncontroversial nominees; that could be solved by returning to a simple majority standard for confirmations, and it should be. The other, however, goes back to the George H.W. Bush administration and John Tower, and it's about controversial nominees (whether the "controversy" was entirely contrived or not). Here, I think that presidents are making a big mistake. A failed nomination, or an appointee who is confirmed but then resigns when a scandal is exposed, is a short-lived Washington story that virtually no one in the rest of the nation pays any attention to at all. The costs to a president of working hard to avoid any potentially controversial nominee are, in my view, much higher than the costs of occasionally allowing a few of those choices to embarrass the administration.

All that said: I tend to disagree with Klein's view that relying on experience is particularly a problem right now for Obama. Klein is concerned that the administration needs new voices in order to provide fresh perspectives, and I agree that it's certainly a problem for a presidency to have a limited mix of advice coming in...but I'm not sure that the old hands are united in a point of view. As far as I can tell, most of the factions within the mainstream of the Democratic Party are represented. It's also an advantage, I think, that several of these usual suspects returned to their current posts from outside the government, so they've had a recent taste of a more expanded conversation. Meanwhile, all that experience continues to pay off in an unusually low number of scandals and gaffes.

Of course, scandals and gaffes are less important, in most cases, than policy success. My strong impression, however, is that the key constraints on policy right now are not lack of White House imagination, but, well, Congress. Which is not to say, of course, that the administration couldn't do better with the cards it holds.

At any rate, for better or worse, I think Klein is absolutely right to notice the pattern, and to point out that it's meaningful.


I'll be posting at a reduced rate around here this week, because Greg Sargent is taking the week off and so I'll be holding down the fort over at the Plum Line. But I will post here, too (hey, I'm chasing a monthly record in traffic around here, so I want to keep something going on!). First up over at Greg's place: more on Rick Perry, Social Security, and "Ponzi." 

By the way, since I'll be doing a links roundup every day this week over there, feel free to send me anything you think should be getting wider exposure. I can't promise to use it, but whenever I do the roundup over there I'm always looking for stuff that others might not have -- especially from political scientists and other scholars, but just generally anything that's been overlooked.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

What do you think will happen if a Supreme Court Justice resigns or dies sometime in the next twelve months?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Which candidates would you like to be invited to participate in the debates coming up in September?

I believe the list of possibilities includes Perry, Romney, Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, Cain, and Huntsman, who are all in fact invited to the Reagan Library debates, as well as Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, Thaddeus McCotter, Fred Karger, and Roy Moore, although as usual there are quite a few even more obscure ones.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

All sorts of apocalyptic natural disasters mean that it wasn't exactly a quiet week in Washington, but earthquake and hurricane notwithstanding, I'm not sure that there's very much that really mattered this week, as far as policy or electoral politics were concerned. Am I missing something?

Other than that, Libya, certainly. What else? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

Hey, I finally got to see your World Champion San Francisco Giants in person! Sunday, in Houston; first time I've seen the team since June 2009. Couldn't have been a better game, as it turned out...that was the one with the Panda HR winning it in the 11th inning, and with Belt slamming his own HR and four hits. Here's the box, if for some reason you're curious. Got to see Steve Edlesfson's major league debut, for whatever that's worth. I saw Tom O'Malley's debut, too; hope Edlefson has a better career! Also, I saw Kent Hrbek's first home run. No, that's not really related, but I figured I'd slip it in there.

Anyway, that was Sunday. Here's what I want to know: what is the record of teams with four or more middle infielders in the lineup at the same time? Ugh. I know there are injuries and all, but this is one ugly lineup tonight. Oh well -- the good news is that the Giants still are still three games to the good of Arizona in Clay Davenport's adjusted standings, which if all things were equal would mean that they still have a fair chance of catching the Diamondbacks. I think I'll just pretend that means something, for now.

August 26, 1971

Everything is in motion now on the break-in to learn more about Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg by looking at any files about him held by his psychoanalyst, Dr. Lewis Fielding.

Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy fly out to California to case the joint, first stopping at the CIA to get disguises,  phony IDs, and a camera out of Get Smart -- although they pay for their flight to LA with a government travel voucher. Once in LA on August 26, they take photos...for some reason with Liddy on camera, in disguise, posing as a tourist. Then Liddy (no longer in disguise, apparently) and Hunt wound up going into the building at night and eventually engaged in a conversation with the woman cleaning the place. You'll note that everything with Hunt and Liddy winds up as a comedy of errors; Erlichman had approved the break-in on the condition that it would not be "traceable", but Hunt and Liddy were busy leaving a trail of evidence all over the place. Also, by the way, annoying the CIA -- the CIA wasn't happy that Hunt brought Liddy in for a disguise, and they were even less happy that Hunt was treating the agency as his personal secretary. They would complain to Ehrlichman about it, but also a copy of the photos winds up at the CIA.

Meanwhile, also on August 26, Plumber David Young wrote a memo to Ehrlichman including: "If the present Hunt/Liddy Project #1 is successful, it will be absolutely essential to have an overall game plan developed for its use in conjunction with the congressional investigation." Ehrlichman responded (the next day) with a memo to Colson, who subsequently would secure the money needed for the operation.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so I better stop there. As long as I'm here, though, I'll link over to an op-ed that the fourth plumber, Egil Krogh, wrote in apology just a few years ago. And just remind you: we're talking here about midlevel WH staffers carrying out felonies with the direct approval of senior White House staff, who in turn are following orders from the President of the United States. There's a frustrating mismatch between the clear evidence showing that Nixon ordered certain felonies, and the actual felonies that were committed...we don't know whether Nixon personally approved in advance either this break in or the others the next year. Clearly, however, the president instigated the entire thing, and was very much pushing his men to do this sort of thing, if not (perhaps) the specific Hunt/Liddy Project.

Actual Reason Why Your Mayor Isn't a Libertarian

Conor Friedersdorf has a post up giving some of the reasons that libertarians don't succeed at the local level, and why that's a problem for them as they try to win at higher levels.

Unfortunately, he misses the main reason: on the whole, libertarian views just aren't very popular.

Look, it's very, very difficult to get a real fix on what Americans "really" want. As I read it, the evidence (which mostly consists of a lot of contradictory views) is consistent with the idea that Americans would like a somewhat larger government and also with the idea that Americans would like a somewhat smaller government. But I really don't think there's any evidence at all that Americans are longing for Gary Johnson's or Ron Paul's views on public policy.

That's particularly true, alas, on the issues with which I strongly agree with the libertarians: civil liberties. Again, the specific polling is murky, but at least my reading of it is that most people's commitment to most civil liberties is very shallow indeed. Especially when it's other people's civil liberties at issue -- that is, when it's perceived that various government actions are mainly targeted at someone else.

I do think that various libertarian slogans appeal to lots of people, but that's not because they're actually libertarians; it's because most people aren't ideological at all, and respond positively to all sorts of contradictory reasonable-sounding ideas.

I'm not sure what specific political advice I'd give to libertarians, other than to retain a realistic understanding of their status as a small minority, and start strategy from that point of view. I do think that they have a chance of winning occasionally on quite a few specific issues. My guess is, however, that libertarians currently are overrepresented in the blogs and similar areas of opinion leadership, and may well be about as effective as they can be given their numbers. But that's just a guess. If I were really pressed for advice, I'd probably say to pick the issues you care most about, pick the major party closer to you on those issues, and get involved with that party, working especially to push the party towards you on those issues. Or, join or form an organized group outside of the parties working for your position on those issues. Which, of course, is pretty much the advice I would give to anyone wanting to affect public policy.

Recess Appointments Now! -- Fed Edition

What Derek Thompson hears from Ben Bernanke's speech today is that the upcoming Fed meeting is a critical one:
Reactions fell into two camps. One side focused on what they didn't hear: Promises to help the economy. The other side focused on what they did hear: Vague, ambiguous ("Fed-ish") promises to not rule out further assistance.
The key clue worth highlighting in your memory is this, from near the end of the address. "The Federal Reserve has a range of tools that could be used to provide additional monetary stimulus," Bernanke said. "We will continue to consider those and other pertinent issues, at our meeting in September, which has been scheduled for two days (the 20th and the 21st) instead of one to allow a fuller discussion." (Thompson's emphasis.)
So Barack Obama knows that he can't get what he needs out of Congress, and he knows that the Fed is his best hope for getting the economy moving and avoiding all sorts of misery (and, incidentally, improving his re-election chances), and he knows that the Fed is going to have extended discussion of it four weeks from now.

And yet there are two empty seats at the table, and Obama has currently nominated absolutely no one for those seats, at least since his nominee for one of them withdrew after a filibuster.

There is no possibility of Obama getting two people confirmed by the Senate by September 20th. However, he still has time to grant two recess appointments, notwithstanding House attempts to block that presidential power.

Really, I can't think of any good reason for Obama to not act on this. Accounts of the internal functioning of the Fed are murky at best, and it's certainly possible that two new voices pushing for the Fed to do whatever is needed to boost the economy short-term wouldn't make any difference, but it's hard to see how it could hurt, and frankly I'm pressed to think of any downside in trying.

Recess appointments now -- beginning with two new appointments for the Fed Board of Governors.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Catch of the Day (Shot With His Own Gun)

We have a winner! Charles Lebovitz of Chross Talk finds this one. My emphasis:
“Throughout the August recess, my colleagues and I will preside over pro forma sessions in the House — preventing congressional recess and presidential recess appointments,” said Rep. Jeffrey M. Landry, a Louisiana Republican who helped organize the effort.
Ooh, that's a nice one, isn't it? Oh, sorry: forgot to say what this is about. I'm looking for examples of Republicans, especially House Republicans, who slip up and say that Congress is currently in a recess. After all, the Constitution doesn't say anything about how long Congress goes without a pro forma session; what the Constitution says is that the president can make appointments "to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate." Well, is it a recess or isn't it? Landry seems, shall we say, confused. Nice catch!

Here's a runner-up, courtesy of commenter acrossthestreet. The House Press Gallery currently has a banner on its web site saying "August Recess Aug. 2, 2011 - Sept. 7. 2011." Now, that's a lot murkier as far as authorship is concerned, but I'll take it!

Just to clarify: the "three day" standard for recesses comes from a Clinton-era DOJ opinion, and was respected by George W. Bush when the majority Democrats in the Senate did this back in the final stages of his administration. If majority Republicans were doing this now, I'd say that it would be, if not quite a binding precedent, certainly something to respect. But since it's the House that's acting here, and the House has no Constitutional role in confirming nominations, we're talking in my view about something very different.

Anyway, if anyone else sees something let me know, and I'll update this item.

Hidden Shame

Yes, it's entirely arbitrary that the Reagan Library debate rules include no-chancers Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman, while excluding Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, and Thaddeus McCotter. And I wouldn't be shocked if it turns out that there was an effort to keep Johnson off the stage, given that a debate with both Johnson and Paul is a rather weird representation of the Republican Party on national TV. It's easy for the party to treat Ron Paul as a crazy uncle, but a lot harder to ignore two such candidates.

The framing of this is usually all wrong, however. What you have to remember about this is that fairness and equal treatment for all candidates is not, in fact, a party goal. Or at least, there's no reason for it to be a party goal.

Instead, the party should have other goals. It should try to facilitate cooperation and competition over the nomination with as little excess bitterness and fallout as possible. It should, if it wants to be democratic, try to ensure fairness and participation for all party actors. It also makes sense for the party collectively to try to put an appealing face forward during those portions of the contest that might get highly visible and ugly.

What all of this means is that the point isn't whether they're being unfair to Gary Johnson and the others by excluding them; it's whether they're being unfair to significant and important party factions. And for the most part, I don't think that's the case. Meanwhile, I do think it is very much in the GOP's interest to keep the total number of candidates to a workable number, and especially to keep the ratio of real candidates to joke candidates (or protest candidates, or whatever you want to call them -- the ones who have no realistic chance of winning) as high as they plausibly can.

Either Side of the Same Town

Speaking of constraints on the presidency (and, yes, that is a favorite topic around here, isn't it)...Brad Plumer had a wonderful history of the gas tax today that I highly recommend, but I do have one complaint. Plumer tells how in September 1982 Ronald Reagan was strongly opposed to increases in the gas tax, but following the Democratic victories in November that year resurgent House Democrats moved to pass the increase and Reagan ran out ahead of the parade and championed it.

So that's the first telling. But by the last paragraph Plumer refers to it as "do what Ronald Reagan did and just raise the gas tax." Wait -- that's not the story at all. If Reagan had the votes -- say, if the 1982 elections bounce the other way -- surely he would have stuck with his original conviction and opposed the increase. This is exactly the point that I was making last week about George W. Bush: it's extremely tricky to attribute influence to presidents, and it's important not to assume that whatever happens must have been their accomplishment.

I don't think Plumer really thinks that Reagan increased the gas tax; he realizes it was Congress, or Democrats in Congress, or Dan Rostenkowski, who really deserves the credit or the blame. It's juts the convention we have; that's how we talk about politics, that everything the United States government did from January 1981 to January 1989 was something Ronald Reagan did -- and everything the government has done since January 2009 is something Barack Obama did. Hey, I catch myself doing it all the time, and I'm one of the biggest critics of it.

No Action

Constraints on the presidency are not limited to Congressional action (or inaction). Here's Matt Yglesias:
What I heard back was that Fannie & Freddie are overseen by an independent regulator, the FHFA, and the White House can’t just order Acting Director Edward DeMarco. When I shopped that account back proponents of mass refinancing they were a bit incredulous. Is the president really incapable of persuading FHFA Acting Director Edward DeMarco to take action that he and his advisers believe is in the public interest? Really? I’m not a huge believer in the “bully pulpit,” but it hardly seems obvious that FHFA Acting Director Edward DeMarco is some kind of immovable object of political obstruction.
See, this is the thing -- presidents really can't just order people in the executive branch to do things. I don't know about this particular case, and obviously Fannie and Freddie are rather non-standard examples, but basically that's the structure of the government. That's separated institutions sharing powers, in Neustadt's phrase. Even when it comes to the military, where the president has unusual Constitutional advantages as commander-in-chief, there are lots and lots of examples of successful resistance to presidential preferences (think Clinton and the ban on gays and lesbians, for one).

That doesn't mean that presidents can't get their way!  It means, however, that they usually can't get their way just by giving orders. The must "persuade" in Neustadt's vocabulary -- which might mean bargaining, or maneuvering, or even bullying, but it usually takes the use of presidential resources such as time, energy, and bargaining chips.

This is, of course, one of the reasons that presidents should aggressively and rapidly attempt to fill all executive branch vacancies. Having political appointees in place doesn't guarantee loyalty to the president's agenda, but it usually helps.

Read Stuff, You Should

Ah, I have to start this week with a complaint. The usually sensible Paul Waldman wrote a fine post about fictional politicians and their ability to achieve "improbable success by throwing aside the talking points and canned speeches, and being real and authentic." Which is all well and good and very much worth talking about, but one of his examples was "The Candidate," which is about the exact opposite. No, Robert Redford certainly does not "[achieve] success by—you guessed it—throwing away the canned speeches and getting real." The whole point of the movie is that he achieves success by sticking to the canned speech, thereby winning but losing touch with reality. Good point, but awful example.

By the way, apparently Tom Friedman botched a "Tin Cup" analogy, but I'll have to take Alex Massie's word for it, because I've avoided that movie. And, come to think of it, that column. I'll certainly trust Massie, though.

On to good stuff...

1. GOP WH 2012: Steve Kornacki on Mitt Romney's strategy and on Rick Perry as a general election candidate. Nate Silver looks at the question of whether replacing Obama would help the Democrats. Josh Putnam shatters the myth that Republicans are now using PR in delegate selection. And how Perry raised money in 2006, from Kevin Collins.

2. David Atkins reminds us that sub-presidential matters a lot, too. The (possible?) demise of the Tea Party primary challenge, from Dave Weigel.

3. Ross Douthat makes a very good point on electoral realignments.

4. The economy and budgets: Dylan Matthews on whether the stimulus worked (yes, it did); Brad Plumer explains why some states are overachieving; Michael Grabell looks at economic myths. Also, Paul Waldman on taxes.

5. How about a little health care? Amanda Marcotte on ACA and IUDs, Jonathan Cohn on the Joint Select Committee and Medicare, and a good ACA implementation post from Sarah Kliff.

6. Juan Cole with Libya myths -- hey, that's the third mythbusting link so far.

7. Brendan Nyhan toasts David Leonhardt.

8. David Frum defends presidential vacations, while Conor Friedersdorf doesn't like the presidential bubble.

9. And Robert Dalleck has new details about the Bay of Pigs -- sure to be interesting to those who have followed my Watergate posts and know of Nixon's plans to (selectively) declassify.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Automatic, So Automatic

I mostly agree with Ezra Klein's look back today at the stimulus bill and other options available. I completely agree that a $2T bill wasn't possible, and that most of the other suggestions he has collected are some combination of wouldn't have passed, passed anyway, or wouldn't have made much difference.

With one major exception: aid to state and local governments. I'm not absolutely certain that a new automatic stabilizer could have passed, but if Barack Obama had made it a significant priority right away, I think it might well have had a very good chance. And unlike unemployment insurance extensions, which as Klein points out more-or-less happened anyway, additional state and local government aid did not happen, with (in my opinion at least) devastating consequences.

The effects of the recession on state and local governments was quite predictable (although of course the magnitude of the problem wasn't). My impression is that the administration assumed that a bipartisan coalition of governors would be able to successfully push Congress to act. I think that was a reasonable assumption, one that I would have agreed with at the time  -- but as it turns out, it was completely wrong.

An automatic stabilizer scheme could be long-term deficit neutral (see for example this idea). There's no real way to know whether a free-standing separate bill could have passed in spring 2009, and it's certainly important to consider the risks of trying -- remember, there was no guarantee that Arlen Specter was going to switch parties or that Ben Nelson wasn't going to, and it's hard from here to know exactly what might have pushed them (or other marginal Senators who voted for the stimulus) the other way. But this is one where, as it turned out, there would have almost certainly been a significant reward from adding it, and as far as I can tell it's totally realistic to think it had a chance.

Of course getting something like that into law (and, for that matter, automatic changes in unemployment insurance) would also have the excellent effect, as Matt Yglesias has been saying roughly forever, of helping out in future down times, too. Which is why it would still be a good idea now, although it's obviously not likely to happen at this point.

CotD Contest! And Recess Appointments

OK, readers, I need to outsource this one. I'm terribly curious about the level of message discipline among House Republicans. In particular: are they carefully refraining from calling this month a Congressional recess? I'll give a Catch of the Day to anyone who catches a House Republican using the dreaded "R" word.

The point, of course, is that the House is forcing the Senate to stay in (pro forma occasional) session in order to prevent recess appointments. As I've argued -- one more time over at Plum Line today -- I think they're wrong. I believe that Obama could and should simply declare that it's a recess for the purposes of the Constitutional appointment power, and go ahead and name someone anyway. For more, see Victor Williams last week, or my primer on the issue.

But I'm curious as to whether Republicans back in their districts or wherever they are have slipped up and admitted that it's a recess. So if anyone sees it, let me know (in comments here, email, or twitter). Granted, I'm not sure how often any Member of Congress uses the word "recess" normally, since it implies a vacation; Congressional breaks are usually called District Work Periods, and in fact Members do often work hard in their districts when they're not in session.

Perry as a Frontrunner

Taegan Goddard collects a couple new GOP WH 2012 polls showing Rick Perry zooming into a solid lead over Mitt Romney. I'd be very cautious about those polls, on two counts.

One is that we've already seen that in a contest with little solid support for any candidate, very large short-term surges are likely. Even Herman Cain had a bit of one, and Donald Trump had a huge and entirely meaningless one. Perry isn't Cain, and he certainly isn't Trump; he's a very serious contender who might well win. But at least part of this polling surge may well dissipate in the next few weeks, as his announcement bounce fades. It's impossible right now to know how much of his polling support is real and how much is fluff.

The other is that running for president is hard, and he hasn't really done much of it yet. Paul Waldman has a good post today on that, focusing on talking to the press:
[E]ventually, Perry will have to do an interview or two. The reporter will prepare some tough questions. And, I predict, it won’t go well for Perry.
Who knows? Perry might nail it. He's not inexperienced, although Waldman is right that Perry is entering a very new environment. But it's not just the press. There are also debates, and campaign management, and dealing with whatever will be dug up about his past.

It's also about dealing with setbacks in the full glare of press attention. Lots of people win elections, especially primary elections, without encountering real trouble along the way. No one wins a presidential nomination without some very bad days. Moreover, during general election campaigns a nominee has an entire party with a strong interest (and probably an emotional investment) in rallying around her. Not so in nomination struggles.

I'm not predicting that Perry will fall flat -- indeed, I think that the odds are that Perry or Romney will be the nominee -- but I do think that some good polling numbers right after his announcement shouldn't be taken at face value. Long way to go.

It's Not a Long-Term Deficit Problem

I think everyone has already linked to CBPP's piece on the effects of raising the Medicare minimum age from 65 to 67 already, but just to add in my two cents: the key context for all of this is that what people call a long-term budget problem is really only an artifact of the long-term health care costs problem.

As long as health care costs (and, as the popular ages, demand for services) continue to spiral up, it's going to create huge problems. That's true if the problems are mainly found in government budgets, or in the private market. After all, if you completely eliminated Medicare or any other form of government-subsidized health care, you would no longer have a federal budget problem...but the economy isn't going to be very happy if seniors stop buying whatever they are currently buying and rapidly blow their savings on health care. Or, as CBPP points out, if companies go broke paying for retiree health benefits.

The bottom line is that unlike a real budget problem, which could be solved by either cutting spending or raising taxes, the problem here is a broader economic problem, and it calls for a broader economic solution. That was the point of all the cost-control efforts in ACA, and believe it or not there are some hopeful signs that perhaps it's going to work. Of course, maybe it won't. The point is that cost-shifting away from the government ("cutting spending") which absolutely can work to solve purely budgetary problems just won't work in this case.

Yet More on 111th Congress Mistakes

What exactly could Barack Obama have done better in 2009-2010? I wrote over at Greg's place yesterday about the dangers of looking only from that point of view; it's apt to miss lots of good calls that could have gone bad. It also tends to place blame on the president for not successfully finding his way around obstacles, rather than blaming the people who were putting up obstacles in the first place: if you think a larger stimulus was called for, your real beef is with Republicans who opposed any stimulus, and then with swing Democrats who wouldn't vote for more, not with Obama. And it's always important to resist the idea that presidents could really get whatever they want and other magical thinking about the presidency.

So much for the throat clearing. Keeping all that in mind, I do think that there were two major strategic options open to Obama that he didn't take:

1. Increased tempo in Congress. Overall, the 111th Congress was, liberal disappointments notwithstanding, highly productive. Nevertheless, they were at various times pressed for floor time to get everything done that they had the votes for – making GOP stalling a good tactic. What could Obama have done? Congress basically used a normal schedule in 2009-2010, taking the usual recesses and the usual long weekends, allowing Members time to work their districts. Had Obama insisted, I think there’s a good chance that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi would have switched to an economic emergency schedule, at least during 2009, thereby increasing House and Senate floor time and therefore legislative capacity.

2. Fight harder against GOP filibusters. I don’t think it’s realistic to say that Obama could have persuaded Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster during the 111th Congress. However, I’m not sure they had to accept the unprecedented use of the filibuster, either. Had Democrats, perhaps including the president, spoken out strongly when Mitch McConnell talked about a “60 vote Senate” immediately after the 2008 election, and started threatening filibuster reform early on, I don’t think they would have been able to return to a pre-1993 situation in which filibusters were rare, but I do think it’s possible that they could have prevented the full, 100%, filibuster-everything Senate that they got.

Had the White House chosen those paths, I don't really think it changes any votes -- you still don't get a major climate bill, and certainly not a major immigration bill. The voters were not there. Republicans still filibuster a lot of stuff, so 60 are needed to pass big things. But I don't think it was inevitable that 60 votes were needed for District Judges and minimally controversial executive branch nominees, and for run-of-the-mill, ordinary legislation. And if that had been the case, I'd think that the 111th would have been a fair amount more productive.

This discussion started with a focus on economic policy...I wonder about two things. First, would a double-time tempo have enabled Dodd-Frank to pass rapidly, in spring 2009? Second, could the administration have devised a state and local government fix that was revenue-neutral and automatic over the long run, and also passed it in spring 2009? On the one hand, Obama was quite popular at that point, and both of those bills would be easy to sell as directly responsive to the economic crisis. On the other, a faster tempo would certainly have produced complaints from the Republicans even faster than we got them, and if Obama had lost Arlen Specter and, perhaps, Ben Nelson...well, then maybe everything falls apart, including any stimulus bill at all. In other words, it wasn't risk-free.

I suspect that the biggest mistakes of the administration were within the executive branch, not in Congress (although getting closer to fully staffed a lot quicker might have helped). But if you're looking for "what could Obama have done," I think those are the two legislative strategies that were plausible and might well have made a positive difference.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How To Make Palin Go Away

Steve Kornacki and John Sides have a debate going today about How To Make Palin Go Away. Kornacki argues that if she winds up an official candidate for the presidency, she'll be exposed as unpopular. Sides responded that by not running, she's already marginalized herself. Kornacki shot back that his way "could last for years." Great debate!

Who is right? I absolutely love Kornacki's vision of a Palin campaign rapidly turning into Gary Hart's trek through the wilderness when he tried to revive his candidacy in 1988, after he had a scandal-induced hiatus from the campaign. But I'm not really convinced it would work out that way. I absolutely agree that Palin has to date managed to alienate much of the GOP, and that would severely limit her upside. But it's not at all clear to me that she would be as big a joke as Hart was. Gary Hart never really had the kind of strong supporters that the Sage of Wasilla has had for the last few years, and so once he lost the folks who thought he might win, there was really nothing remaining.

Moreover, at the rank-and-file level, and perhaps even among some activists, the sorts of things that Palin have done to antagonize most of her party are understandable as pluses, not minuses. There certainly are lots of Republicans out there who believe themselves to be very hostile to the GOP "establishment," and might be persuaded to stick with her, especially given the other options.

I also continue to believe, even at this very late date, that Palin would be capable of mending her reputation considerably if her actions changed. Granted, I don't expect that by now; for whatever reasons, the Palin we've seen is probably the Palin that we're going to see. But everyone loves a redemption story, and I suspect that there are a lot of reporters and more than a few Republican operatives and activists who would be happy to talk about how Palin has "grown" over the years. If she would only let them.

Could she still win? I'm not quite ready to take her off my list of plausible nominees, but she's obviously wasted a ton of time, and even if she did suddenly change there's an excellent chance that it's too late. But if she does decide to become a formal candidate, I don't think she'll wind up as Gary Hart II, at least not for some time. Kornacki does have a point, however; should she back off this time and the Republicans lose, the tease will start again right around the time that the polls close on the west coast, and it won't let up for the next three years. Losing this time around -- not informally through testing the waters and backing off, but with a solid defeat at the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire -- is the best way to prevent that. Well, other than having a different Republican in the White House.

Taxes and Income Taxes and Class Warfare

The most important thing to know about Republican attacks on people who don't pay income taxes is that many of the people who don't pay income taxes believe that they do, in fact, pay income taxes. I tried to make this point a while ago and apparently thoroughly botched it, as Jonathan Chait explained: "Most people make no distinction between 'income tax' and taxes, period." My guess is that a ridiculous majority -- 80%, 90% something like that of those who work but pay no income tax believe that they do, in fact, pay income tax.

If that's the case, then GOP rhetoric here isn't necessarily directed at rich or even middle class (income) tax payers; it may well be directed especially at working class people who don't actually pay income taxes but believe that they do. Indeed, for all I know low-income folks hear the "half of people don't pay income taxes" rhetoric and believe that it's about how working class people do pay taxes while the rich find ways to get out of it. And I say "for all I know" -- but you can be sure that someone is polling and focus-grouping this stuff, so Republicans who are pushing this line are working from evidence. Class warfare, indeed -- but class warfare in which Republican politicians manage to align themselves with virtually everyone who is listening to them, against an unspecified "them" who is getting away with something.

So: hey, pollsters! Could we get some actual facts about how many people think they pay income tax, and who they think doesn't?

Ryan Out (Really, He Swears)

What's interesting about Paul Ryan's late-in-the-day flirtation with a presidential run now that it's over is what it hints at about the process. I think there are a couple of things. One is that it really was late to begin a run from scratch. It's always important not to put too much weight on "insiders told me" types of stories, but for whatever it's worth that's a large part of Robert Costa's NRO piece on Ryan's decision. My guess is that the stuff Costa heard about Ryan preferring to "frame the debate" from the outside is bunk, but that concerns about staffing up a campaign and raising money are more likely to be true -- although, again, more evidence would be needed for anything conclusive. The other is that House Budget Chair during a time of intense budget controversy is, as David Weigel said, not exactly a natural platform from which to launch a national campaign. Which is why I've never been very impressed with the Ryan-for-president rumors to begin with, and certainly not as the calendar started getting very late.

As far as the reported GOP longing for a better candidate, I'd heavily discount that. It's almost entirely a product of two things: the lack of credentialed heavyweights currently available to run, and the length and lack of visible events during the pre-primary stage of the presidential race. Neither would be solved by a new candidate jumping in. You don't get this kind of talk when you have two or more credentialed heavyweights, candidates such as Vice-President Bush and Senate Majority Leader (and former VP nominee) Bob Dole, or former VP nominee John Edwards and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. You do when such candidates are unavailable. None of it has anything to do with how the eventual nominee will do in the general election.

Monday, August 22, 2011

That Slow Dog Is Hit Again

With his see-through skin, presumably: the dog that wouldn't bark is once again shot dead. Which dog? The Fairness Doctrine, killed (again) by the FCC, per this poorly-headlined Politico story ("FCC finally kills off fairness doctrine"). Of course, the Fairness Doctrine has been totally and completely dead, certainly way beyond the capabilities of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, or even Willow Rosenberg, to resuscitate it. Mostly because, conservative nuttiness aside, no one has been particularly interested in doing so for a couple decades.

Anyway, since I mention it every time I do a "dogs, not barking" post, I figured I should do a post about this. The real question is: having now succeeding in killing it once again, will conservatives allow the Doctrine to finally rest in peace? Or will they continue raising money off of the specter of government censorship through its revival?

I know where I'll be placing my money on that one. But I'll be on the lookout for evidence -- and I'd certainly appreciate any tips from those of you who pay closer attention to this stuff than I do.

(Via David).

Yesterday's Enterprise*

Matt Yglesias makes three really important points today in responding to Ezra Klein's pessimistic musing about whether Barack Obama could have enacted and implemented better economic policies (see, too, Kevin Drum's catalog of pessimism). The first point is that, yes, Obama could have done some things better. I'd say that most of the things he could have done would have helped around the margins...but you never know; had his policy actions and choices been flawless, perhaps all of those "around the margins" might have added up to enough to get the economy zipping along by now. In particular, Yglesias cites fed appointments and the possibility of some sort of triggered extra stimulus. What I'd add is that I suspect that somewhere along the line, perhaps best in fall 2009, they perhaps could have squeezed through Congress a long and short term scheme for stabilizing state budgets.

I do think, in Klein's defense, that the mistakes were mostly of the "around the margins" variety. Most of the things that people talk about, such as a $2T stimulus bill in fall 2009, just weren't going to happen no matter what Obama wanted. One certainly can claim that was a preventable error, but the error in this case was made by folks such as Ben Nelson and Susan Collins, not by Barack Obama. Not only should their actions be attributed to them, and not the president, but I find it very difficult to imagine what exactly he could have done to change their basic political orientation.

I'd also emphasize that it's really easy to picture real policy disaster. What if the Obama stimulus dies in the Senate, just as Bill Clinton's 1993 stimulus bill did?

Anyway, the other two points are really the best thing about Yglesias's post. One is that it's certainly understandable, albeit regrettable, that Obama and his team made mistakes; the second is that policy errors should not be read to imply true motivations. Absolutely true in both cases, and very important to remember.

*Should I have gone with "All Our Yesterdays"? Needed something like that in response to Yglesais's "Imagining Better Yesterdays," and I figured I could use "Enterprise" because it's about the economy. Right? Although if I had gone the other way, I could have worked in a Mariette Hartley reference.

If I Were a Citizen...

Jonathan Chait is certainly correct that the NYT op-ed "If I Were President" feature yesterday to often conflated "president" with "king" -- I'd probably say dictator, actually. That's pretty anti-democratic.

But what bothered me a lot more, and was even less democratic, about the feature was the premise, from Jesse Kornbluth:
THERE’S a near-total disconnect between our real, large, urgent problems and the who’s-up-who’s-down cage match that is the daily bread of our pundit class. Unending wars, a bone-dry Southwest and flooded Midwest, the absence of a jobs program — these have been, at best, of anecdotal interest to the mouths that roar on television. Instead, media-friendly politicians and pundits have been obsessed with two contrived priorities: the debt ceiling and a presidential election that’s 15 months away.
I can't really say what the cable yelling matches focus on these days, because I rarely watch them. But I'll give a qualified defense on both counts. Whatever the origins of the debt limit showdown, in the event it was certainly quite important. Real changes to the federal budget were being debated, some of them very dramatic. The possibility of a partial government shutdown or some such similar major disruption were very real. It was quite proper for people to pay attention to the situation.

As for the presidential election...look, there's about a 50/50 chance that one of the people running for the GOP nomination is going to be the next President of the United States. It's possible to overhype how much presidents matter, and how much the individual person who is president matters to what the presidency does, but just because something can be overhyped doesn't mean it's not important (I wrote about this over at Salon this weekend). And make no mistake: the nominee is being chosen right now. It's still more likely than not that the nomination will be effectively settled by New Year's Day, and that the caucuses and primaries will merely ratify a decision reached by party actors over previous two years.

Meanwhile, while as I said I don't really know what Maddow and O'Reilly have been talking about lately, I see no shortage at all of serious commentary on serious subjects by various pundits, left, right, and whatever. Granted: there's even less of a shortage of junk. It seems to me that the NYT would do well to amplify the serious stuff and ignore the junk, rather than throwing its hands in the air and declaring a pox on all houses. For one obvious example: no one talks about "a jobs program"? Nonsense; NTY's own Paul Krugman won't shut up about the economy and what he thinks needs to be done. Nor will other interesting economists, and nor will policy wonk bloggers. Not to mention that most Republicans claimed to believe (yeah, I have to put it that way) that the policies that they advocated in the debt limit showdown were in fact exactly what is needed to make the economy surge and jobs return. That Kornbluth apparently disagrees with that is perfectly reasonable, but it doesn't mean that the GOP hasn't been talking about serious matters.

It's a lousy framing anyway. There are really two related but different questions: what are the best policy choices available, and what are the best ways to enact and implement those choices given the constraints of the political system. And note, please, that contrary to what you would get from "If I Were President," there are serious and legitimate differences of opinion about all of this. That, of course, is what democracy is all about. The notion implicit in the format (and echoed in some of the specific pieces) that there are obvious things to do and if only we could get the politicians, interests, and pundits out of the way that those things would get done, is just profoundly undemocratic.

Late Entries and Parties

Nate Silver has a fun piece up this morning about potential late entries in the Republican WH 2012 field, and how they might fit into the current group.

I'm not sure how helpful it really is, however. Mainly, I'm not at all convinced that Silver's central conceit of a two by two grid with an ideological axis and an establishment/insurgent axis is a useful way of thinking about the nomination process. On the ideological side, it's not clear how many important individuals and groups within the party are thinking in terms of left/right (or, I suppose, right/very right) rather than about specific policy areas of concern. That is, what really matters isn't so much whether a candidate is too moderate, but whether the abortion people, the tax people, and so on find the candidate acceptable or not.

I'm also not convinced that an establishment/insurgent vocabulary really captures the relationship of the various groups within the GOP, or the appeal of the candidates. What exactly is an establishment-friendly or insurgent candidacy? If it's just rhetoric, then we're probably talking about appeal to larger electorates in next year's primaries, but no candidate is going to get there without considerable support from organized groups within the party. If it's appeal to particular groups, I don't think the groups really exist on an establishment/insurgent spectrum. Indeed, if you're talking about groups, it's probably just better to think about groups, specifically and in general, without worrying about whether they are "establishment" or their ideological placement.

Not sure if I'm being clear here...what I mean is that it's not so important how conservative, say, Rudy Giuliani is; what matters is that social conservatives certainly would strongly oppose him, and that those groups have an effective veto on the nomination. Similarly, what matters is whether those groups would attempt to veto Mitt Romney, or if they find him acceptable. And then to remember that there are multiple specific groups (within the broad category of social conservatives) and they might disagree with one another, and that the nomination fight might be, in part, a fight between those groups for who gets to speak for that particular GOP constituency. A fight which might or might not be usefully characterized as establishment/insurgent, and might or might not have any relationship at all to similar fights within, say, anti-tax GOP organizations and individuals.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

What if any liberal criticism of George W. Bush, perhaps one that you believed in at the time, now in retrospect seems to have been unfair or a cheep shot? Anything?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

I don't know if "conservative" is a reasonable word for John McCain, but regardless: how do you think McCain would have handled Egypt/Libya/Syria over the last several months?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

For once, it was a nice, quiet, normal-for-August week, right?

Let's see...developments in Libya, Syria, Israel/Gaza/Egypt all would seem to go on the list. More on the Eurozone. Not nearly as much with the US economy, though. The president did a campaign-style trip...that doesn't qualify.

We did have Tim Pawlenty drop out, following his lousy results at Ames (and perceived lousy debate last week).   The press correctly interpreted Michele Bachmann's victory at Ames as no big deal, given that it was Ames, and given that Rick Perry and Mitt Romney didn't contest it. I'm inclined to think, however, that the bumps in the Perry rollout go in the "didn't matter" pile. He may or may not win, but I don't think his chances changed much compared to a week ago.

I suspect that there's some policy stuff that I'm not remembering right now (if I'm going to do this, I really should take better notes throughout the week; sorry). But what do you have? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

This, in a Rotoworld update on David Ortiz, is just pathetic:
Ortiz last played on Sunday. Although his injury is not expected to get any worse, the Red Sox may opt to play things safe with an 8.5 game lead in the American League wild-card race and place their 35-year-old DH on the disabled list.
Of course, the folks at Rotoworld are exactly correct; the Red Sox should be and no doubt are planning for the postseason, and keeping an eye mainly on that large wild card lead. But the Sox are half a game behind the Yankees! With any sort of reasonable system, everyone would be thrilled that we get another terrific Yankees/Red Sox pennant race. But instead, there's no pennant race, there's no excitement, there's only weeks and weeks of sitting around waiting for the playoffs to start.

That sort of thing works in football, where they play once a way and every game can be an occasion, but it just is a total waste of baseball's strengths. Regular readers know that I have my preferences of how to fix it, and I've seen reasonable arguments for other ideas, but this is just awful.

Scoring Bush's Influence

There was a bit of a discussion again this week about the extent to which George W. Bush was able to get things that he wanted out of Congress.

There's a bit more to it than that, however. It's a mistake to think of everything that presidents wind up supporting as their initiative, or that Congress is the only alternative to presidential rule. Take, for example, Don't Ask Don't Tell under Bill Clinton. In the end, Clinton wound up publicly supporting DADT. But his original preference was repealing the ban entirely. What happened? He was rolled, to some extent by Congress (and specifically Sam Nunn), but more importantly by the Pentagon.

So, on Bush. I've given my read of Bush as president before; I suspect that the more that we learn, the more we'll confirm he was essentially passive and indifferent on most things. Was the Patriot Act a Bush policy? I admit that I haven't read everything that is known about it, but my impression is that it wasn't at all a Bush policy; it was a policy supported more or less forever by various executive branch agencies who used the September 11 attacks to roll Congress...and George W. Bush. Similarly, even something as central to the Bush presidency as Iraq is hard to judge. Was it Bush's policy? Cheney's? A faction within the party?

Of course, the same sorts of things can be done with respect to the president and Congress. Certainly, the 2001 tax bill was Bush's -- he campaigned for it, and asked Congress for it. But virtually every Republican in Congress also campaigned on it, too. It's just as much theirs as his, no? Disentangling those sorts of things isn't easy at all, it seems to me. But at least with Congress and the president, we get to see a lot of what's happening; within the executive branch, we often don't, at least not for a while.

An overly influential Pentagon, say, is just a very different situation than an overly influential president. Just because the president announces a policy doesn't mean that he got his way.

It Came From the House

Jonathan Emont notes the semi-thriving campaigns of Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann and argues that changes in media organization and fundraising law are going to make it likely that we'll see more Members of the House running for president in the future.

I think I sort of half agree. He's definitely right that cable news is well-designed for House Members. There's a lot of hours to fill, and that means plenty of guests needed. Someone who makes national publicity a priority is going to achieve it, especially if she's good at the sorts of things that make for good cable news programming. The partisan blogosphere probably helps, too. I don't know that campaign finance law is relevant, but technology probably is; it's a lot easier now to raise money via the use of national publicity than it was twenty years ago.

The other side of it is that the incentives for running have probably increased for back-bench Members. That's also a cable news story, and more generally one about the commercial market for politics, especially on the Republican side. I don't believe that Michele Bachmann is a plausible nominee, but I do think that she's likely to make millions of dollars, if she wants, as a Fox News contributor, "author", and whatever you call the job of being paid lavishly for appearances. Hey, I don't know if that's her plan; as far as I know, she'll wind up back in the House and have a long career there. But the incentives certainly exist.

What I don't think this does is make it especially more likely that we'll get nominees from the House. It could happen, but Bachmann and Paul aren't a sign of that. Unlike previous serious candidates from the House (Mo Udall, Jack Kemp, Dick Gephardt) who had strong reputations as legislators, Bachmann and Paul are much closer in spirit to candidates such as Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson: factional candidates who can make a lot of noise, and may very well move the party on specific issues, but never really threaten to become nominees. More senior Members -- Paul Ryan, for example -- would be more like Udall, Kemp, and Gephardt, but so far there's no one like that in the race, and I don't think that the changes Emont describes really change much for them.

So, basically, there are increased and increasing incentives in the system to be a Michele Bachmann or an Alan Grayson, and that may wind up populating the ranks of presidential also-rans...but I'm not sure that it's any more likely for the House to produce a presidential nominee now than it was in earlier cycles.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Press Bias

Will Wilkinson has a mostly very good piece up arguing not exactly that Ron Paul should be getting more attention in the press, but if I follow him correctly that whatever the appropriate coverage is of Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul should be getting more or less the same amount. I've been increasingly thinking that Paul and Bachmann are actually a pretty good match, so I'm glad to see his argument.

Kevin Drum has a good response, though, centering on Paul's 2008 run, and arguing that the real difference between Paul and Bachmann is that we already know Paul's ceiling, and it's far too low to make him a plausible nominee.

How else can we explain it? I'd say there are a couple of press biases at work. One is the obvious and important bias in favor of novelty: nothing (so far at least) about the Ron Paul campaign is new, while everything about Bachmann is new. I wouldn't underrate the importance of a "fooled us once" aspect to the Paul story, also. The highly visible aspects of the 2008 Ron Paul campaign wound up spooking a lot of reporters into wondering if they were missing a huge phenomenon. Since they weren't, it's going to be hard for them to extrapolate anything from Paul this time around. Bachmann, to the extent that she is thought of as a Tea Party leader, has something of the opposite situation; Republicans accused of being too extreme to win in 2010 did, in fact, win. So it's natural (whether correct or not) that reporters tend to give Paul less credit and Bachmann more for their objective measures of success.

But the truth is that while Bachmann and Paul have some important similarities (Members of the House, moderately popular in polls, fringe beliefs even within the GOP) their is one important difference that justifies a difference in press treatment. Bachmann's issue position profile compared to the rest of the GOP is basically: the same, only more so. Paul, however, really does oppose most Republicans on several issues, most notably by opposing the bulk of the party on a broad range of foreign policy and national security issues. If Bachmann could convince Republican party actors that she was electable and that she could be counted on to work closely with them if she was in the White House, then she might win, but there are simply too many important Republican individuals and groups who oppose Paul's policy preferences for him to have any chance of winning. I don't really think that's why the press covers one and not the other, but it is one of the things that should be guiding their coverage decisions.

Beer and Democracy (Reprise)

I've been busy working on a column about magical thinking about the presidency today and haven't really seen much of the news of the day, but I did notice that Brad Plumer is pushing the myth of Jimmy Carter and decent beer. As I said the last time this one popped up, regular readers will know that I'm particularly averse to overstating the importance of presidents and to any suggest that Jimmy Carter was anything other than a terrible president. Enough so that I wasted a few hours tracking it down, and guess what? Carter had nothing to do with it.

I expect this to pop up again next August, and I vow now that I will do what I can do knock it down again. The US is not a dictatorship led by an elected president, and we shouldn't act as if it is. Especially when Jimmy Carter is involved. And beer lovers should really know who Barber Conable was, even if he was just responding to district interests.

Smoke Filled Rooms and Reform

Regarding my post about parties and presidential nominations earlier today, commenter Bajsa responded:
I wish the parties would just go back to choosing their nominees in smoke filled rooms so the nominating process wouldn't have to be so visible for 2 years out of a four year term, especially if the parties are choosing their nominees anyway.

Maybe not so many "great stories" but I don't see how any of this helps the governing side of things.
It's a good question. The original McGovern-Fraser committee intention back when the system was being reformed was to meaningful and timely participation, with "timely" being defined eventually as having delegates chosen in the election year, not before. That's obviously not how the system has evolved. Lots of very important decisions have already been made on the Republican side, some of them months ago already, and we're still more than a year out from the election.

What I'd say in defense of the reformed system are two things. One is that the old system, those iconic smoke-filled rooms, wasn't stable and by 1968 had produced real problems. The thing is that nominations pre-reform were dominated by the state party organizations, and by 1968 formal party organizations had ceased to be good representations of the party as a whole -- and, in many states, at least on the Democratic side, they were able to prevent outsiders (both individuals and groups) from participating at all. Reform, in my view, was badly needed.

As far as the reform we actually got...well, I have less to say in defense of it. It's in many ways a sprawling mess. But it has been, for about thirty years now, reasonably stable, and that's allowed party actors to compete and coordinate relatively fairly and at least somewhat efficiently in the sense that it does come to a conclusion and it's hard to call any nomination since the Jimmy Carter years a true mistake, in the sense that the party wasn't happy at the time with their decision. I do believe that the reformers emphasis on the democratic rights of ordinary voters was mostly wrong in the nomination context, but their efforts to make the parties more permeable, more internally democratic, were very important and on the whole in my view more successful than not.

What of the length of the process? I'd rather that reporters spend more time on governing than on electoral politics, and within electoral politics relatively less time on presidential elections and more on all other elections.* But I don't think the nomination process is causing the focus on presidential elections; that has to do with biases within the media, not the way that the process is structured.

*Yes, I'm guilty here as well; my defense is that, well, it's something that I've studied quite a bit. But, yeah, I should spend more time on Congressional elections.

Party -- All of It -- Decides

Via Seth, Jay Cost has an excellent piece up talking about the invisible primary and the ways that the party chooses its presidential candidates.

I have only one clarification, but it's an important one. Cost:
The “New Politics” reformers of the early 1970s thought they were sending the power to nominate back to the people, but that didn’t really happen. The people have some power, no doubt, as exercised through the primaries and caucuses, yet the party establishment still retains significant control. Through the money and endorsements that are dispensed over the course of the invisible primary, they determine who is and who is not a viable candidate – and it is from this list that the voters ultimately must make their choices.
Exactly, but for one word: establishment. Party actors choose, and voters at best choose from the remaining choices. But whether those party actors are "establishment" or "insurgents" or "base" or whatever is entirely up in the air. As regular readers might notice, I've adopted the term "party actors" to account for all of them. I can note, for what it's worth, is that in my experience the overwhelming majority of those party actors on both sides of the partisan aisle do not think of themselves as the establishment -- that's always those other folks. At any rate, references to "establishment" actors undervalues, in my view, how permeable the ranks of relevant party actors really are, and how easy it is for influence to shift among them over time. The important distinction isn't between establishment and non-establishment; it's between party actors and voters-as-voters.

What's happening now is two things, simultaneously. Republican party actors are coordinating on their choices  for nominee. But those individuals and groups are also competing for influence within the party (and therefore over who gets the most say in choosing the nominee). To the extent that the party is mostly stable, then it's just a coordination problem, but parties are not usually all that stable -- or, at least, there are usually multiple party actors who don't want to respect their place in the old status quo. All of which is why presidential nominations matter so much, and why they are great stories.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Partisan Domestic Policy Gap

I really like this Matt Yglesias post in which he points out that George W. Bush's success with Congress is mostly a myth believed in by liberals. I'd add a couple of things. One is that the Republican House under Tom DeLay was, by all accounts, highly efficient in passing things that DeLay wanted to pass, which was an asset to Bush that he didn't long as he was doing things that DeLay wanted.

The second thing is that Yglesias accounts for some different outcomes by referring to differences in party discipline in the out-party: Bush was able to get cooperation from Ted Kennedy and Max Baucus, while Obama has thoroughly failed to get cooperation from Republicans; to the extent he succeeded, it was by compromising proposals to secure votes of the moderate fringe (Snowe, Collins, Brown), not by getting the active support of any mainstream Republicans.

I think that's true, but I don't especially think that it's interesting to think about why that is. I think the story that best explains it is about one perhaps asymmetry between the parties: Democrats are simply far more interested in policy, certainly in domestic policy (not the economy, but the rest of domestic policy), than are most Republicans. Ted Kennedy and George Miller were willing to cut a deal with George W. Bush because they were really, really interested in education. What, exactly, is Chuck Grassley really, really, interested in? I have no idea. Jon Kyl? No idea. I don't think there's a gap on foreign policy, at any rate not traditionally, there are some Republicans who have a strong domestic agenda, but I do believe there's a fairly big gap between the parties on it.

Of course, Republicans do care a lot about certain tax cuts, and Barack Obama was able to use that to cut a deal on taxes late last year. But what's the GOP agenda on health care? Education? Climate? There just isn't much of one -- either Republicans don't believe those things are problems, or they don't think that government can do anything. That's certainly a legitimate position (don't like it? Elect the other party!). But it makes it a lot easier for Republicans to maintain party discipline, and a lot harder for Obama or any Democratic president to cut deals.

Ryan Might Run! Christie Might Run! Reagan Might Run!

OK, I made up that last one, but what are we to make of the sudden avalanche of rumors that either Paul Ryan or Chris Christie is about to get into WH 2012?

There are several questions to ask:

1. Are the rumors true? It's certainly possible that (for example) Christie's pollster might have tossed in a couple questions about a presidential run, or even something tangential to that, for a focus group even if there's no real serious plan to get it. As Jonathan Chait said this morning, interpreting potential candidates' denials of interest is a fine art indeed, and it leaves all sorts of misinterpretation very possible -- especially for anyone who has an interest in or a preference for a new candidacy.

2. If Christie or Ryan got in, would they be plausible nominees? I'll give the same answer to this that I've always had: they would not. Members of the House don't get nominated, and rarely compete seriously for the nomination. Ryan would be a whole lot closer to Dick Gephardt than to Michele Bachmann, so all things being equal he'd be a more plausible nominee, but that's not saying much. Christie? Again, giving a nomination to a recently-elected governor wouldn't quite be unprecedented (Woodrow Wilson), but there are good reasons it doesn't happen often at all. And all things aren't equal; it's very, very late to jump in from scratch, which is (as far as we know) what they would be doing.

Note: They could get in anyway! I'm sure there are plenty of people close to both who absolutely believe that Ryan/Christie are heavyweights among the lightweights, and sure nominees if they were to get in...and plenty of consultants who would be happy to pretend to believe it if it helps them pick up a nice check (or: plenty of consultants who sincerely believe that they could steer anyone willing to take their advice straight into the White House).

3. If it's not about Christie or Ryan actually getting in, what's driving it? This is a really big question. It could be a few individuals who for whatever reason don't like Rick Perry. Or, it could be important groups within the party who are genuinely searching for an alternative. That's probably very difficult to report on, but such reporting could help us sort this out.

I'll stick to what I've been saying. My guess is that neither Christie or Ryan will actually get in. If they do, I'll continue to call them implausible nominees until proven otherwise. It's not inconceivable that an implausible nominee could win, but I've set the chances at well under 10%, and see no reason to change that now. There's just an enormous amount of grass-is-greener thinking going on here, sparked among other things by the length and, well, invisibility of most of the invisible primary.

And at any rate, I needed an excuse to quote Alex Pareene's reaction:
I dunno, does Chris Christie screaming insults at a room full of random people really count as a "focus group"?

Catch of the Day

To Andrew Sullivan's readers, who weigh in on the accusation that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. Several excellent comments. It's also what I wrote about, in a less explanatory and more mocking way, over at Greg's place yesterday.

Very simple: anyone who says that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme either misunderstands Social Security, misunderstands Ponzi schemes, is deliberately lying, or some combination of those.

In my view, saying that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is a more awful thing to say than Romney's "corporations are people" thing or Perry's "pretty ugly" comment, although it's not far from Perry's accusation that Ben Bernanke would be committing treason if he tried improve the economy over the next year. After all, a Ponzi scheme is a deliberate fraud. Saying that Social Security is financed like a Ponzi scheme is factually wrong, but saying that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or is like a Ponzi scheme is basically a false accusation of fraud against the US government and the politicians who have supported Social Security over the years.

Read Stuff, You Should

I criticized a Matthew Dickinson post about a potential Hillary Clinton primary challenge a couple of weeks ago; I never got around to linking to his response, which I still thoroughly disagree with -- but you should read if you read my argument.

Here's the (rest of the) good stuff

1. The economy: Nate Silver was good on politics and the stock market; Ezra Klein interviews Larry Summers; John Paul Rollert on Adam Smith and job creators; and Binyamin Appelbaum has a very useful piece in today's NYT on the weakness of government GDP estimates.

2. WH 2012: Perry-watcher Erica Grieder has a must-read introduction to Rick Perry, which I believe is exactly right (bottom line: he's a pol, and a pretty good one). Also, Steve Kornacki explains why Democrats shouldn't count on Republicans self-imploding, Dave Weigel reports that Michele Bachmann isn't acting like a normal candidate, and Josh Marshall thinks about the Murdoch primary. Another must-read: Michele Goldberg reports on Perry, Bachmann, and the Christians.

3. Presidency and Westen. I put in my two cents; here are great posts by Dickenson, Jamelle Bouie, Jonathan Chait, and Scott Lemieux. Hey, I'm lumping them all together, but they aren't redundant at all. Each is worth your time.

4. Matt Yglesias thinks about the differences between the parties. Seth Masket loves parties -- and points out that you do, too. Seth and Hans Noel deflate third-party nonsense; more on the same from Erik Loomis.

5. Yglesias talks about liberal presidents.

6. I think I have two pet peeves. One is colons in article titles, which isn't actually "wrong" but I dislike it anyway; the other is the use of "modest proposal" in a title of anything that is actually a straightforward modest proposal. Ta-Nehisis Coates shows how it's done correctly. Also, TNC on Gettysburg. Best. Blogger. Ever.

7. Don't tell Newt: Conor Fridedersdorf nominates the recent twenty years as the least pivotal in US history; Friedersdorf also continues to listen carefully to right-wing charlatans.

8. Julian Sanchez argues for gay muppets.

9. And as disgusted as I am with baseball this week (not a good month for the Giants), I can still recommend the great Rany Jazayerli's defense of Carlos Beltran. Although I'd enjoy it more if Beltran wasn't one of five, count 'em five, currently injured Giants outfiielders. Along with two SPs, the set-up man and closer, two second basemen, and the catcher, who happens to be the best player on the team.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 15, 1971

President Nixon has had an incredibly busy summer; Kissinger's secret trip to China, and now on the weekend of the 15th Nixon is up at Camp David dealing with the economy, culminating in a key speech on the 15th imposing the wage and price freeze and taking the dollar completely off of gold. Nixon and his top staff had their hands full.

But farther down the line, the Plumbers were putting their plans into effect. It was time to organize the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Now Howard Hunt, ex-CIA adventurer who had been involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, flew down to Miami to recruit some help. In particular, he met with Bernard Baker,who had worked with him on the Bay of Pigs, and other Cuban-American veterans of that operation. Barker and the others were left on standby, ready to act when the time was right.

(Apologies -- I got a day behind. Actually, though, Emery has Hunt's trip to Miami on "about" the 15th, so there you go).

Is Fed Up a Campaign Book?

One of the reasons I've thought Rick Perry was likely to run for president in 2012 is that he published Fed Up -- a book chock full of very conservative policy positions. Paul Campos draws the opposite conclusion:
I find it a bit hard to believe that a prospective candidate would go into print with something like this, at least if his handlers had anything to say about it. (In terms of subtle signalling to Wingnuttia, this book seems less like a dog whistle and more like a ceremonial gong)...My theory, which is mine, is that Perry did not start seriously considering the idea of a presidential run until the first batch of GOP contenders started falling on their faces, and the inevitable longing for someone “electable” began to cast about for likely lads.
I like a good Anne Elk (Miss) reference as much as anyone, but I really disagree. It's not just the old Richard Nixon slogan of going right to win the nomination and then left to win the election. It's that policy positions are just far more likely to matter at this stage than that one. Candidates, campaign, and policy positions are important during nomination battles because there's so little basis for distinguishing between candidates.

But once we get to the general election, most voters will choose on the basis of party, so it doesn't really matter what the candidates say. Even if you're a strongly pro-Social Security Republican, you're still probably going to support Perry if he's the nominee because you agree with him and disagree with Barack Obama on abortion, and guns, and foreign policy, and economic policy, and lots more. Besides, you probably will have a generally positive view of Perry as a person and a generally negative one of Obama, both because you will tend to pay attention to information that confirms those views and because you will probably watch Fox News and listen to Rush and therefore be exposed to those views. Indeed, odds are that you'll simply not believe that Perry really means what he says about Social Security. Of course, it all plays out the same way for Democrats. As for swing voters, what we know about them is that they are usually among the least attentive voters; they're the least likely to know what Rick Perry said in a book a couple of years ago. They're the ones who are pushed primarily by the economy and, perhaps, other events. Now, granted, Barack Obama will probably do what he can to make sure that they know, and the evidence is that ideological extremism is indeed a net negative...but Goldwater or McGovern range extremism only costs a few points on election day in November.

Granted, it's a lot harder to quantify how much those issue positions will help in caucuses and primaries, if at all. But I certainly think they're a clear net plus at this point. And any candidate who is offered a significantly better shot at a presidential nomination in exchange for, say, 3 points off the general election vote should in my view absolutely take that deal. If, that is, he's only interested in winning the presidency and is indifferent about policy.
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