Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Puts the "Ape" in Apricot

I'm sorry, I have no idea what Josh Kraushaar is talking about here:
One of President Obama's political weaknesses in his first term has been that he's all-too-willing to avoid making tough decisions, hesitant to expend political capital for potential long-term gain. Throughout his first term in office, he's had a cautious governing style, and has avoided taking on some of his party's core constituencies...when it comes to political bravery, Obama isn't going to win any profiles in courage, either.
He goes on to bash Obama for failing to support Simpson-Bowles, and for supposedly not making specific budget requests during the debt limit fight, and for a few other things, none of which read as anything like "avoiding making tough decisions" to me.

I think what it comes down to is that I don't understand the entire concept of "political bravery" as discussed by the press. I can imagine a few definitions. Bravery generally is about subjecting oneself to danger or risk, particularly in pursuit of some greater goal, right? But I'm not sure I get why, for example, specifying one's position publicly in a negotiation would fit. Kraushaar's criticism only makes sense if (1) Obama perceived it to be better negotiating strategy to make his position public; (2) believed that doing so would be painful or dangerous or risky in some way; and therefore (3) decided not to subject himself to the pain or danger or risk. Does that sound like what happened in any of the negotiations with Republicans so far?

The truth is that running for president takes physical courage, and whatever the kind of courage that's involved in knowingly subjecting yourself to having millions of people say nasty things about you. Matt Bai was actually getting to this today, and while I might quibble a bit with him (natch!) I think he's on the right track. But actually being president doesn't really, as far as I can tell, have a whole lot in common with with choice between meeting the bully on the playground or hiding out in the lunchroom. It's just not about that sort of thing.

Aw, might as well get to the main point that annoys me, which is the notion that courage is about "taking on..."the "party's core constituencies." I'm just baffled by the importance the press places on this, apparently just for it's own sake. It's just nonsense to think that it's often sensible for presidents to do it, and at any rate it has little to do with whatever political bravery is.

Look: George H.W. Bush was famously prudent, perhaps to a fault, and George W. Bush was reckless to a fault, but that doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with courage. I mean, I've seen Obama's choices on bin Laden described as courageous, but I don't really see that, either. They do their jobs, they make decisions (yes, Obama has made plenty, including very tough ones indeed in Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan), and generally they give it their best, which may or may not turn out well. But "political bravery"? In almost every case I recall reading about it, it was just junk to fill columns. I don't think there's much to it at all, and I certainly don't think that Kraushaar is telling us anything about Obama in this case.

Where Campaigns Work Well

A lot of people are commenting on a NYT story this morning about Barack Obama's difficulties in Pennsylvania, with liberals picking up on and frustrated by the attitudes reported by a local Obama supporter who seemed to understand that Obama was getting blocked by Republicans, but nevertheless just wanted Obama to cut through all of that and just get things done. Greg Sargent has a nice item with a follow-up on the supporter; Kevin Drum comments, too, as does Steve Benen, with each of them noting the skewed incentives involved in this kind of approach to the political system. Basically, their concern is that Republicans can deliberately ruin the country, but politically that will only hurt Obama.

I don't want to minimize the problem, which I agree is to some extent real, but I'd also put a bit of context around it.

We're now about eleven months out from the (general) election. Most people tune it out until, well, after the conventions, at any rate. And once they start paying attention, one of the things that campaigns are in fact very good at doing is giving people reasons for doing what they want to do anyway. That is, Obama supporters who at this point are inclined to vote for the president but upset about the economy or whatever are likely to express that as unease by saying, well, whatever comes to their minds, which might be all sorts of stuff. But once they start paying attention, you know what they're apt to say? You got it -- whatever the Obama ads are saying, and whatever the Obama surrogates are saying on their tightly disciplined appearances on every news show local and national, and whatever Obama himself is saying on the stump. Just as Republicans will wind up saying and believing whatever the GOP nominee is saying.

Most of us, most of the time, don't really have explanations for what's going on in the political world. Something is bad -- war, gas prices, unemployment? We have plenty of stuff in our heads about it, but no systematic reason to favor one reason over another, and so what we say often winds up sounding, to professionals, as poorly thought out or confused. Ah, but then: the campaign comes, and the politicians and other opinion leaders we tune in to supply us with explanations, probably incorporating some of that "plenty of stuff" (but selectively, leaving out the parts that make the wrong side look good!). And we wind up not only believing it, but believing that we always believed it. Which, in a way, we sort of did, but in a more straightforward way we really didn't.

Now, of course, there are real swing voters out there, and they might actually choose between the competing explanations that politicians are giving them during the campaign, although even there I suppose most of them decide first and come up with reasons later. But as far as partisans are concerned, the overwhelming majority of them are going to wind up back with their own party's candidate, and the campaign will do an excellent job of teaching them to explain why they're there.

Catch of the Day

Goes to Catherine Rampell, who notes that there's been a real shift over time in public opinion on taxes -- in favor of raising them in order to reduce budget deficits. And that the increased support for taxes has been accompanied by a hardening of the GOP's position in the other direction, which after all didn't exist before about 1978 and didn't really become universal until about 1990. See also a nice graph courtesy of Ezra Klein, and Bruce Bartlett's contribution.

So why do politicians act as if taxes are kryptonite? I'm a big fan of "learning" theories about this kind of stuff. You have three big events: Mondale in 1984, Bush in 1992, and then the GOP landslide in 1994, all coinciding with tax increases.

Which is why the discussion of political science election models is so important. If politicians, campaign operatives, and the press all knew and really accepted how political scientists understand voters and elections, then they be better equipped to avoid this kind of mis-attribution. After all, the 1984 and 1992 elections don't need voter aversion to tax increases to explain the results. 1994, if I recall correctly, is a little trickier; I seem to recall that studies of that election did in fact find that support for some Clinton initiatives was costly, and without looking it up I'm assuming it was guns (in the crime bill) and taxes (in the budget bill). The main point, however, is that it's very easy to draw simple lessons like "saying he would raise taxes cost Walter Mondale the election" and then overlearn them and apply them in the future, even if they were never true in the first place. That's not to say that politicians and operatives should never learn from old campaigns -- of course they should. But all too often what they learn is that everything the winning candidate was or did was brilliant and everything the losing candidate was or did was terrible. The first and easiest step to avoiding that is recognizing how much is really entirely out of the hands of the campaign.

Oh, and getting back to the original point: great catch!

The Ultimate Politico Myopic Story

Oh, we do love Politico -- we all love a good behind-the-scenes version of politics. Sometimes, that even produces very helpful information. But sometimes...well, we get Jonathan Martin's incredibly myopic examination of how an incompetent campaign brought down Herman Cain.

Given that probably every single example of bumbling and ineptitude that Martin documents is exactly true, the problem is that it entirely misses the point. Cain wasn't destroyed because he lost the spin war on the stories of sexual harassment; he was destroyed because the story that he had agreed to settlements with two women over sexual harassment charges were true. The fact of those two settlements -- just that alone, even if it was put in the best possible light and the accusation of assault and the claim of a 13-year-long affair were totally false -- that fact was enough to ensure that the wildly improbable Cain bid had zero chance of succeeding. And of course it seems quite likely that at least some of the accusations (and others?) are in fact true.

This is perhaps related to the 40-year-old myth that "it's the cover-up, not the crime," a myth that somehow overlooks the straightforward idea that people who confess to crimes go to jail. That's why they're covered up! Now, in this case most of what Cain is accused of wouldn't put him in legal jeopardy, but all of it would put him in political jeopardy. Of course, we don't yet know for sure what is true and what is not, but I think it's hard to argue that poor spin control caused the accusations -- and it's the accusations, not the campaign's reactions, that are the real problems here.

The same is true for the other examples Martin gives of campaign blunders. Yes, of course it was silly for the candidate to be talking to a Milwaukee editorial board (and on camera!) when he had nothing to gain from doing so. But here's Martin's conclusion:
Cain’s unfamiliarity with major foreign policy events can only be partially attributed to his campaign. The underlying problem — that the candidate was even talking to the editors and reporters of a newspaper in a state that doesn’t figure prominently in the nominating process — was the decision of campaign manager Mark Block.
Um, no: the underlying problem is that a candidate for President of the United States doesn't appear to be willing and/or able to converse about basic foreign policy issues at a level that wouldn't embarrass a strong high school student. That isn't Mark Block's fault.

Campaigns do matter in presidential nomination politics -- they matter a lot, and a lot more than they matter in the general election. But they aren't everything, and as amusing as the Cain campaign gaffes are, they just aren't what dragged down this candidacy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Conservative Case for Mitt -- Over Newt, That Is

OK, for just one moment, I'm going to take the Newt Ginrich campaign semi-seriously. Ezra Klein has a very nice post on policy positions (sometimes) held in common by Newt, Mitt Romney, and...Barack Obama. It's a good start towards the long list of positions Gingrich has taken that are violations of conservative orthodoxy.

The idea that the Mitt-averse should go to Newt because he's a more reliable conservative is even more preposterous than switching to Newt from Herman Cain because of a search for a candidate with a better marital record. Not as preposterous. More.

Paul Waldman has an excellent post on this out today:
So do Gingrich and Romney share the same character flaw of unbridled opportunism that causes these changes? The answer is no. In fact, even though they share some of the same flips, the way they happened illuminates something essential about who each man is and how they make decisions. Mitt Romney flip-flops carefully, after a period of calculation in which he determines the most appropriate strategic positioning required to achieve his short- and long-term goals. Newt Gingrich flip-flops impulsively, taking positions that sound good at a particular moment without any apparent regard for the past or the future.
So: if you're a mainstream conservative and wind up with Romney as president, you know that he'll betray you sometimes, but -- to the extent this is true -- it will be a careful, thought-out, purposeful betrayal. That means a lot of things. It means the betrayal may be one in which you would agree, if you knew what Romney knew about the situation; it may be one in which organized opposition could prevent the betrayal, because overcoming that opposition would have to factor into the situation; or, at worst, it would be a betrayal that was designed to keep a Republican (that is, Romney) in the White House. Hey, it's still a betrayal -- and you have to figure going in that Romney doesn't actually believe the stuff you believe. But it's somewhat manageable. It's not unlike the Reagan betrayals, or on the other side the Obama betrayals.

Newt? You'll be betrayed by him, too. He's no conservative; he is, as Andrew Sullivan says, a radical, a Jacobin. The problem is that his betrayals will be, essentially, random and personal. As Bruce Bartlett puts it:
This is typical of Mr. Gingrich’s modus operandi. He has always considered himself to be the smartest guy in the room and long chaffed at being corrected by experts when he cooked up some new plan, over which he may have expended 30 seconds of thought, to completely upend and remake the health, tax or education systems.
It's not so much that Gingrich has taken the wrong position (from a conservative point of view) on various things; it's the way he comes to it, which appears to be entirely personal and idiosyncratic. I'm not just saying that he has nothing in common with Burkean conservativism, although Sullivan is certainly correct about that, but that there's no consistency or predictability at all. Or, rather, the only consistency is that he completely wants to redo and remake and tear out everything and start all over again, although what he wants to remake and how it should be remade vary from week to week, or even hour to hour.

Of course, that's on top of the history of ethics violations, the marital stuff, the poor performance as Speaker, and the perhaps relevant fact for Republicans that voters have never really liked the guy at all. All of course I could understand conservatives overlooking if we were talking about, say, a Jim DeMint. That's just not what you have here, and conservatives, in my view, would have to be completely nuts to even consider handing over their party to him.

Barney Frank Had the Right Career

In the wake of Barney Frank's announced retirement, I'm seeing a lot of suggestions that are based, I think, on misunderstandings of Frank's strengths and of the various different skills needed for different roles. So: we have Tim Noah suggesting Frank for Secretary of Treasury; Andrew Sullivan said that "He should have been Speaker, and in a less homophobic world, he would have been"; and apparently someone today suggested he should be HUD Secretary, which he shot down.

I'm probably as big a fan of Frank as anyone, but I think all of this is mistaken for two reasons. First, because his skills were not a good match for those jobs...among other things, you really can't have a Treasury Secretary who is always shooting off his mouth. House leadership? Again, message discipline, rather than rhetorical cleverness, is what's called for in these jobs. Also, I really have no idea how well Frank is suited for running a bureaucracy (as he would be doing at Treasury) or at the kinds of partisan organizing that party leadership is responsible for. What Frank has demonstrated he's good at is legislating, and at speaking forcefully about liberal ideas and specific issues and programs. Those are important skills, but they're the skills of, well, a legislator, as he basically said in yesterday's announcement. As far as I know, the best Speakers of the modern era, Tip O'Neill and Nancy Pelosi, didn't particularly have those skills; for that matter, neither does the current Speaker, John Boehner, who as I've said seems to be pretty good at the job.

And as I sort of said yesterday, and this is the second reason: being a legislator is a big deal. Being an effective committee chair, and before that (pre-1995) a subcommittee chair, is important. There's a tendency that I hear a lot of that the actual important Members of Congress are the ones in the leadership, and no one else really matters much. That's completely wrong in the Senate, and it's mostly wrong in the House. Now, it is true that in the minority party there's very little to be done, but majority-party chairs and subcommittee chairs really do matter. And not all of them are good, by any means, and so it makes quite a bit of difference to the government and the nation to have serious, effective legislators in those positions.

When Congress works well (and in many ways it did during the 111th), it's not just about party leaders; it really takes a lot of Members, in both Houses, with various areas of expertise and lots of legislative skill.

Barney Frank should absolutely be celebrated. Not as a great political talent who might have been or should have been, but as he actually was: a terrific Member of Congress.

Whither Prince Herman's Supporters?

Oh, gosh, I haven't done a post about Prince Herman yet since the last round of good fun was had at his expense (that is, the accusation/revelation that he's had a long-term affair). And now he's threatening to drop out of the race...not that it matters, as his support has been collapsing even before this latest blow. I mean, matters to who will win; political junkies, of course, want him to stay in and continue to provide non-stop amusement. I understand he's giving a foreign policy address tonight -- with any luck, most of it will focus on Iranian mountains.

Ah, but to be sort of serious for a moment...there are basically two ideas that people have about this. The majority opinion is represented in this tweet from the pollsters at PPP (and see their post here):
Herman Cain's supporters love Newt Gingrich and HATE Mitt Romney...true in all 7 GOP polls we've done this month
While the minority opinion would go to a comment over at NRO from a Paul Zummo:
It will be amusing to witness the cognitive dissonance that takes place when Cain drops out and endorses Romney. I'm not sure whose heads will explode with the most force: Cainiacs or Romneybots.
I have no idea whether Cain will drop out this week, or after Iowa, or even after New Hampshire...but I'm with the minority opinion here: that sounds just about right to me. Sure, it's possible that Cain won't endorse the Mittster -- you can't predict individual actions of this sort -- but the pattern of endorsements so far has been very clear, and it hasn't slowed down or halted during Gingrich's surge. That makes me believe we're going to see more mainstream conservatives, and perhaps even some Tea Partiers, backing Romney. Including, I strongly suspect, some of the current candidates as they drop out.

As I've said before, I just don't see a solid, very large anti-Romney block of voters in the GOP. A faction, perhaps 20% or 25% tops, yes, but that's it. And it's clearly true that there's no great enthusiasm for Romney. But the same can be said of all the other candidates, none of whom has been able to approach 50%, either. And party actors have been very reluctant to line up for any of the surge candidates other than (while he was hot) Rick Perry. Which, again, makes me believe that if Perry (somehow) catches fire again he'll have a real shot at the nomination, but the other anti-Romneys just don't.

Sequential Nomination System a Winner

Alec MacGillis has an interesting post yesterday arguing that the national nature of the GOP presidential campaign this cycle hint at a "declining legitimacy" of Iowa and New Hampshire.

That may be true if the justification for the current system is primarily based on the advantages of retail politicking. It's clearly in decline, for this cycle at least (and MacGillis quite properly is cautious about extrapolating out from current trends), or at least if we assume that there won't be a late Santorum surge in Iowa and a Huntsman surge in New Hampshire. Which could, of course, happen.

But I don't believe that retail politics is the real reason to have the current system. No, what is really important is having a sequential system of primaries and caucuses rather than a national primary. And the case for sequential is certainly a lot stronger after this year's clown show during the invisible primary. At least, that's the case if you believe (as I do) that what we've really seen is that practically any candidate can get a temporary bubble.

The problem, of course, is that if that bubble happened with just the correct timing for the national primary, a party might well be stuck with a Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or even Donald Trump. Indeed, that's basically what happened in last year's GOP primaries in Nevada and Delaware; a candidate who couldn't hold up to serious scrutiny peaked at the right time and wound up winning a one-shot primary.

Sequential primaries are a good way to prevent that. And if you're going to go sequential, then sticking with the traditional small states at the beginning of the process seems as good a plan as any, whether or not the supposed benefits of retail politics are real.

Monday, November 28, 2011

That Old Old Senate (and House)


I've been a little negligent on this front; I never got around to talking about the CRS report about the demographic characteristics of the current 112th Congress, especially on age. After, that is, I spent a good part of last year speculating about it. The result was that the 112th fell short of the record oldest Congress, which was the 111th, but is still older than the are the numbers (in years):

Senate  112th  111th 110th   House 112th 111th 110th
            62.2    63.1   61.7                56.7  57.2   55.9

This comes up today because Barney Frank announced that he's retiring after this term. I wrote a bit about Frank over at Greg's place this morning, but in this context I'll emphasize that he will turn 72 in March, so his retirement helps a little as far as average age is concerned. Of course, Congresses elected in years that end in 0 typically have above-average retirements, thanks to redistricting and reapportionment...Frank is the second MA Member of the House to call it quits so far.

Let's see...there are eight retiring Senators. Average age? 70.6. That helps! (Note: I'm just using what Roll Call posts for age; no idea what the "as of..." date is for them, but it's close enough for now). Frank is the 9th Member of the House to retire; average age is 63.3 -- curse, you, 38 year old Dan Boren!

Meanwhile, there are six Members who are 60+ who are leaving the House to run for other offices, including three running for the Senate. Yikes! You can be sure that Plain Blog will be rooting against all of them, all things being equal. For what it's worth, the average age of the 15 Members leaving the House to run for other office is 55, so odds are that replacing them will slightly lower the overall age of the House (new Members this term averaged 48.2 years old).

I figure I should mention...I'm not against old legislators in general; in fact, I think it's very healthy for Congress to feature a good number of experienced, senior Members with long, productive careers. I just think the US right now has way, way, way too many oldsters, and not nearly enough in their 30s and 40s. Or for that matter their 20s.

(Updated, numbers fixed)

GOP Field Conspires With Political Science Profs!

There are two main reasons that presidential nominations are much harder to understand and to predict than other types of elections. One is that there are relatively few iterations of the process, and since that process keeps changing, it's never easy to know which past examples are relevant or how they are relevant. The other is that most of the time, most of the key independent variables tend to vary together: that is, the candidate doing well in the polls is also the candidate picking up endorsements, raising money, having a good organization, and otherwise doing well on all the things that might possibly be important. There's been some variation, thus allowing people to study it to some extent, but it's tough.

But this year! Nate Silver remarked somewhere recently about the split between endorsements and poll ranking, and now Mark Blumenthal, using his great Power Outsiders survey, shows that there's yet another split on organization. Polling and endorsement also-rans Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum may wind up with the best organizations in Iowa; at least, that's the perception from Blumenthal's respondents. And then there are splits in fundraising, and in the candidates themselves, or at least their experience/qualifications going in. The bottom line here is that most of the statistical tools available work a whole lot better (and should work a whole lot better) when the possible explanations for something vary in lots of crazy ways, and for whatever reason it appears that we're really getting a ton of that this time around.

Big, huge, major caveat to anyone thinking of doing this research: there's a huge difference between explaining: who will win Iowa given differences in endorsements, polling, fundraising and organization up to the day of the caucuses; who will win the nomination given those differences; and who will win the nomination overall. All are worthwhile questions, but they're different questions. Note in particular that one serious candidate from this cycle, Tim Pawlenty, was defeated back in August; others (Barbour at least, and perhaps Palin, Thune, Daniels, Christie, and more) tried to win it to some extent but either gave up or were defeated before getting to the full candidacy phase. Any analysis of winning the nomination that ignores Pawlenty and the other on-paper seemingly plausible candidates is, in my view, going to be missing a large part of the story.

But putting that aside, I think all of those who research nominations owe an enormous debt to the 2012 Republican field.

Someone Will Survive Iowa/New Hampshire With Mitt

With Newt Gingrich winning the Union Leader endorsement and all, there was a bit of a twitter conversation yesterday about whether he's a viable candidate (I still think no), and what Mitt Romney should do about it, given that there are more than ample grounds to attack Newt. Dante Scala asked,"So if you're Mitt, do you drop as much of that oppo folder on Newt in December, in hopes of short-circuiting him?"

I don't pretend to be a campaign consultant, so I can't really answer that, exactly. What I can say is that there are real limits to the extent to which Romney can wrap up the nomination by winning in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is tricky I've said many times, I think Romney may well be wrapping up the nomination before Iowas solidifying his hold on the nomination right now, before Iowa, by winning the overwhelming support of party actors. But then there's the part where people vote, and for that there's a very different dynamic.

What Romney needs to know about Iowa and New Hampshire is that some candidate will either win Iowa or finish second behind Romney, and some candidate will either win New Hampshire or finish second behind Romney. The odds are very good that one candidate other than Romney will finish in the top two spots in both states. And at that point, there will be very heavy incentives for the press to play up the chances of that other candidate. After all, Fox News and CNN have a lot of hours to fill, and people are far more interested in presidential nominations than they are in almost every other political story. There is absolutely nothing Romney can do to prevent that from playing out.

Remember, for example, what Walter Mondale got out of completely crushing the field in Iowa in 1984. The former Vice President took 49% of the vote, with Gary Hart a surprise second place far back at 17%...which earned Mondale the silly spin that he fell short of 50%, while Hart got a week of terrific press coverage leading into New Hampshire.

Now, if Romney in fact has a solid lead among GOP party actors, he'll probably survive that sort of thing without all that much trouble, and he'll survive it even more easily if his opponent is a lot weaker than Hart, which is almost certain to be the case.

So what does that imply for Romney's strategy? Well, the most dangerous foe he has is still almost certainly Rick Perry, despite his comically awful campaign to date. Newt isn't ideal; he's in the list of the more plausible implausible nominees. If you're Romney, you would rather be slugging it out with Ron Paul, or Herman Cain. Unfortunately for him, Cain is probably not recovering at this point, and if Paul manages to do well it's possible the press will look right past him to the next option. But Newt isn't bad at all as an opponent, and my guess is that Romney's best bet is to let all of that play out, and then be ready to unload if and when it's ever needed.

What I do think that Romney should be doing is to make sure that there are plenty of elite-level reminders, perhaps targeting people who weren't around  back in the 1990s, of how Washington Republicans simply didn't find Speaker Gingrich very trustworthy. But beyond that, I think Romney's strategy of focusing on Barack Obama has been the best bet for him, and will continue to be so until he's finally in a true head-to-head matchup. And, if he's lucky, even then.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

So, what do you think of the Solyndra thing?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

What if anything do you think Barack Obama should be doing about the Eurozone? The GOP presidential candidates appear to be not very interested in discussing the subject; what kind of platform should they have about it?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

I'm going to need everyone's help this time...I've been on the road and all, and consequently I've probably missed quite a bit. It's safe as usual to say Europe, though, right? And then we have North Africa and the Middle East: Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc.

But that's all I have. Nothing in the presidential race, although it was another week in which Mitt Romney continued to consolidate his support. I don't know -- what do you think mattered this week?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

GOP Convention Delegates?

All of this talk about deadlocked conventions leads me to a question that I really don't know the answer to, at least not definitively, so I'm throwing it open to anyone who knows. It's about how individual delegates to the Republican National Convention are actually slated and chosen. Not about how they are apportioned between the candidates; that's well known. But about who these folks actually are.

Now, on the Democratic side, I'm pretty sure I know the answer. The way it works for regular delegates is that each candidate forms a slate and ranks delegates within the slate, and then once delegates are apportioned between the candidates the top people from the slate become delegates. That is, if 100 delegates are up for grabs, the candidate will have a list of 100 delegate candidates, and if she wins 25 delegates then the top 25 people on the list go to the national convention. The importance of all this is that the candidates naturally only slate the most insanely loyal supporters to be their delegate candidates, and therefore those delegates are unlikely to be "bossed" by anyone other than their presidential candidate should it ever matter. Of course, the Democrats also have superdelegates, but that's another and much smaller question.

I'm not sure, however, whether the same thing applies to Republicans -- that is, whether any Gingrich delegates who are chosen will have been slated on the basis of their intense loyalty to Newt, or if they are merely Republicans who are assigned to support Newt based on primary results. Or if it varies by states, if there's any sense of overall where that leaves the convention. I really should know this -- after all, I am the co-editor of a brand-new must-have edited volume about presidential nominations, coming soon in various formats -- but I don't. I've asked a couple people who I thought would know, and come up blank, so I'll throw the question out to everyone: how do Republicans decide who the actual delegates are?

Ugh (Brokered Convention Edition)

The good news is that we're finally past the "new candidate will jump in" season. The bad news is that we're now entering prime "we'll get a brokered convention" season. So as long as we keep getting these arguments, I might as well keep knocking them down. Don't worry, there won't be a deadlocked convention. Not going to happen. Really, truly.

The latest is from Howard Megdal over at Salon (via Goddard). It's based, to a large degree, on a complete misunderstanding of the latest reform to the nomination process, which claims that Republican delegates in early states will be apportioned by proportional representation. But that reform, or at least that interpretation of it, is simply a myth, as Josh Putnam has explained. Only some delegates in early states will be chosen using p.r. A lot of them will still be winner-take-all -- not by state, but by congressional district. Meglal uses Missouri as an example, but in fact only half of Missouri's delegates will be chosen by p.r.

Megdal also puts a lot of weight on the possibility that winnowing won't work this time around. Of course, that ignores the fact that the field has already been winnowed. But of the remaining candidates, only Ron Paul only has a seriously dedicated base that gives him the capacity to keep going and taking a non-trivial share of the vote after the earlier states without having any chance to win. Megdal says that "The same will be true for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry if they stay in the race — and the latter has plenty of cash still on hand." But that's just not how it works. Bachmann, of course, has already tanked in the polls; how is she going to revive after getting drubbed in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina? As for Perry, the cash on hand helps keep him viable in Iowa, but he's going to spend it all, and won't raise a cent more unless he starts showing something for it.

One more thing. Megdal supposes that a deadlocked convention would automatically turn to a blemish-free Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, or John Thune, who would exit the convention with momentum to spare and an easy path to victory. This is wrong on both counts. First of all, there are no brokers; most delegates are loyal to the candidate who they were chosen to vote for, and aren't likely to go along with the Bush or Thune plan. Chaos is a far more likely outcome.

And then, post-convention? A totally unprepared candidate chosen in a back-room deal would suddenly have to face the national press in full campaign mode. It's not impossible that could work out well, but ask Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin, and others how it's worked out. Oh, if you think they were just the wrong people, look at what happened to nomination contest overnight hits such as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann in this cycle, or a long list of others going back at least to Gary Hart in 1984 and John Anderson in 1980.  About the best you can say is that it doesn't always end in complete disaster.

At any rate, it's not going to come to that. I increasingly think that the contest will be over by South Carolina, and could well be essentially decided sooner than that, but regardless of that there's just nothing at all so far in this cycle to indicate that there's a reasonable chance of a deadlocked convention.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Kenyan, Greek, Whatever

I've been going through George H.W. Bush's 1988 convention acceptance speech for another project, and came across a couple of fun items.

First, one of the great rhetorical tricks...of course, this was a lot fresher then than it is when they use it now:
But let's be frank. Things aren't perfect in this country. There are people who haven't tasted the fruits of the expansion. I've talked to farmers about the bills they can't pay. I've been to the factories that feel the strain of change. I've seen the urban children who play amidst the shattered glass and shattered lives. And there are the homeless. And you know, it doesn't do any good to debate endlessly which policy mistake of the '70's is responsible. They're there. We have to help them.
Got that? It's 1988, and there are, inexplicably, things still wrong in the nation despite eight years of Ronald which policy mistake of the 1970s was responsible? Cute.

I liked that one a lot, but I'm sure many of you will like this better...I know it's come up, but I had forgotten how old this one was:
He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader - a unique nation with a special role in the world.
Yes, it's now been almost 25 years that Republicans have been throwing that one at Democrats. The cool part of this, of course, is that we have various personality-based explanations of why Barack Obama believes these un-American things...except it turns out that somehow Michael Dukakis wound up supposedly believing the same things despite the absence of Kenyan anti-colonial thinking. Weird, huh?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Catch of the Day


Newt Gingrich has targeted...CBO, which (via Goddard) he called today a "reactionary socialist institution." CNN had a great response from conservative Republican former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin:
I think if you parse that phrase carefully, he got one out of three right. I do agree it is an institution. If you're playing baseball, that's a decent batting average.
Well, Newt does love his words, doesn't he? And as has been the case for over thirty years, his standard operating procedure is to find institutions to tear down so that he can inherit the mess. Conservatives who are foolish enough to go along with his joke of a presidential campaign, beware: he'll turn against your institutions, too, if he thinks there's short-term advantage (or cash) to be had from it. And he's not even an especially good judge of that, either. Well, maybe the cash part; I don't really know.

The best texts on Newt, both of which I've mentioned many times, are John Barry's The Ambition and the Power and David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, "Tell Newt to Shut Up!"

Or you can just listen to the guy for five minutes.

Update: This.

Supercommittee Superthoughts

I don't recall anything that's been so thoroughly misreported as the demise of the Joint Select Committee, which of course (1) was widely anticipated by everyone who follows budget politics, and (2) doesn't add a single nickel to the deficit.

For a much-needed corrective, head over to Jonathan Chait, who explains what the actual goal of the JSC was, and why it was entirely successful:
The whole plan was to start talking about something other than the debt ceiling, in hopes that the tea party would find some different shiny object to pick up and try to smash with a rock. And it worked!
Click through for the full, smart, explanation. You'll want to also check out Andrew Sprung's reaction.

As to the future, I've been agreeing with those who note how nothing that happens now can bind future Congresses, and that it's likely that the sequester won't happen the way it's written into law...but I also wrote something over the weekend arguing that undoing the trigger on defense cuts isn't going to be the slam-dunk some seem to think it will be.

Also, Ezra Klein had some very good points this morning about the immediate Congressional agenda in the wake of the JSC demise.

But the people who are running around talking about supercommittee failure -- the NYT right now has "hopes were dashed" as their headline -- should really stop and ask themselves if they perhaps have this story entirely wrong. Since, after all, they do.

The Conservative Case for State & Local Automatic Stabilizers

From the Sunday NYT story about North Las Vegas:
When North Las Vegas started to draw up plans for the new City Hall some five years ago, cash flow was no problem...During the good times, the city created parks filled with features that would make even the wealthiest towns envious — a life-size stegosaurus in one, fully lighted tennis courts in another. It created recreation centers with top-of-the-line equipment and built new libraries in rapidly expanding corners of the community. And it drew up plans for City Hall, with a wellness center where bureaucrats could work out between their civic tasks.
Of course: when times are good, governments are going to find it almost impossible to put money aside for a rainy day. After all, no one in Vegas thought the good times were going to end.

If, however, local and state governments were automatically given extra funding during hard times and were required to repay it when they were flush, then they would avoid overspending when it was possible, in favor of a more even approach. Which, of course, is exactly what good economic policy would recommend. But beside from that, it seems to me that conservatives should be particularly against the boom-and-bust cycle in state and local governments, precisely because it is (I would guess) likely to lead to more spending in the long run. After all, there are much stronger constituencies in favor of keeping existing programs than there are for starting new ones. So a government that expands rapidly during good times is unlikely to really retrench as much during recessions.

The strongest reason for some sort of long-term budget neutral automatic stabilizers for state and local governments (LTBNASSLG? Someone needs to come up with a clever short-hand way to refer to this) is the same as the reason for unemployment insurance or FDIC or any of the other depression-proofing that were built-in as part of the New Deal or later adaptations: it's simply good economic practice. But even if conservatives don't believe the Keynesian idea that governments should run deficits during recessions and make it up during booms, they should still, in my view, support a scheme that as they see it should depress the growth of state and local governments.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Question for Liberals

Same question as the question for conservatives: has the last thirty years been one in which conservatives dominated US politics and policy? Has it been, in other words, the Reagan era? And if so, did that end in 2006 and 2008, or are we still in the Reagan era?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

This one was sparked by a new record-length discussion thread here at Plain Blog that spun off from my comments about Drew Westen during the week. In particular, I'm interested in the question of whether conservatives and liberals believe that the years beginning in 1980 were in fact an era of conservative triumph, either ending in 2006 and 2008, or perhaps continuing right up to the present.

So, how do you think of the last 30 years of American politics? Has it been a Reagan era, with conservative policies winning? Or has it basically been a liberal era, despite occasional Republican electoral victories? If in between, is it closer to one than the other? And if it was a conservative era, is it still, or did it end with Barack Obama's presidency?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Mattered This Week?

How many weeks in a row is the economic situation in Europe the first thing on the list?

What else? Syria, certainly. Congress managed to kick the can down the road a bit on FY 2012 Appropriations, plus actually finished some of it, so that's nice. I don't think anything important happened with the Joint Select Committee...I don't remember much of anything of importance in the presidential election, either.

The Supremes took the health care case this week, too...also the Prop 8 case in California moved ahead. I'll call both of those things that matter.

And I guess the Occupy developments, although I can see arguments either way.

What did you think mattered this week?

Friday Baseball Post

Realignment, the Bud Selig way. Ugh.

OK, let's start with what's good about it. Expanding the playoffs with a one-game play in...well, it's not my favorite solution, but I guess I mildly prefer it to the status quo. The big plus is that it restores, to a very large extent, the possibility of two great teams having a meaningful pennant race (fine, I know, division-title race). That's been missing since the realignment after 1993, and it's a big deal, IMO. I think Christina Kahrl doesn't give enough credit to that in her discussion of it.

But otherwise, Christina is right and this stinks. know what? I'm not convinced that anyone likes interleague play, other than for the intracity rivalries. The only worthwhile thing about it, as far as I'm concerned, is that it did break up the schedule a bit, which isn't a bad thing over a six month season. It was a nice little ritual that helped shape things. That's to be gone now, replaced by one interleague matchup at all times. And forever: it's going to be a real pain to get around it, although I suppose that another round of expansion will come sooner or later. So there's that.

More importantly, the problem with Wild Cards in general is that it's a format that's bad for meaningful games. In the first half of two thirds of the season, a WC contender doesn't even know who its competition is, so you can't get all excited for the big games. That stinks.

Then -- well, it depends, and I don't think we know yet whether we're headed for a balanced or unbalanced schedule. Both work badly with WCs. Unbalanced (lots of games within the division) works badly because it introduces unfairness, since teams competing for the same slot play very different schedules (note that interleague play adds to the problem). A balanced schedule solves that, but it's bad for meaningful and rivalry games.

WCs are, indeed, bad for rivalries in general. The normal course of things in league or division competition is that you build rivalries by having hard-fought, meaningful contests. If you have relatively small divisions, and unbalanced schedules, you build history with the other division teams over the years. Part of what that does is cushion against the down years -- Giants fans loved knocking the Dodgers out in 1982, and Dodgers fans loved returning the favor in 1993.

Oh, odd numbers of teams in each division are a problem, too, because it means that one team has to be playing out of the division at the end of the season, thus reducing the chance of great head-to-head elimination series (like the great Tigers/Blue Jays last week in 1987).

Now, the other thing I'd say about the Selig re-alignment is that I think the odds of it being long-term stable are very low. The odds of something that seems horribly unfair are high, whether it's a sub-90 (or sub-81) win division winner getting in automatically while two better (higher win) teams have to play in, or a play-in game between two WCs with a huge spread between their records, or a few other possibilities (again, see Christina's article). I'm mostly OK with those things, but people will see them as unfair, and they'll wind up changing it depending on the random draw of which "unfair" things happen first.

All in all, I'm not thrilled but not too upset about the 2nd WC (I'm still convinced that there's a much better solution out there), but I'm definitely not happy about the 15/15 business.

It really is like Bud Selig doesn't understand the product he's selling, isn't it? I mean, football doesn't need to worry about meaningful games, because with their schedule every game is an event. That's great, for football. But baseball just has different strengths, and its schedule should be set up to emphasize the strengths. Selig just doesn't get that.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Read Stuff, You Should

Here's some stuff for your weekend reading. By the way, the weekend should be normal schedule around here, and then I'd guess that next week will be irregular in some way, but I'm not really sure how yet. At any rate, on to the good stuff:

1. I'll start with a couple of CotD contenders what for whatever reason I didn't wind up using: Igor Volsky had Michele Bachmann's seven-foot-tall doctor who told her crazy things she believed, and Suzy Khimm takes on factually-challenged polling about the supercommittee.

2. Jordan Ragusa on the relationship between legislative salaries and corruption. Also partisanship and pizza from John Sides.

3. Paul Waldman on negative campaigning.

4. Barry Ritholtz tries his hardest to take down the "big lie" of the Great Recession.

5. Worshiping Calvin Coolidge, from David Greenberg.

6. More Newt! Much more Newt! Mark Blumenthal's Outsiders on the disgraced former Speaker, a wonderful piece on the (sometimes) lucrative field of housing history consulting from Alec MacGillis, and Kevin Drum analyzes Peak Newt.

7. Andrew Sprung has the most fun take on Cain and Libya that you'll read.

8. I don't entirely agree with Julian Sanchez on democracy and Occupy, but he's well worth reading as usual.

9. One of the best things you'll read about Citizens United and corporations as people, from Neil Sinhababu

10. Want a good example of how to do responsible third-party speculation? Steve Kornacki is it.

11. Ramesh Pannuru tries to talk sense to conservatives about the Bush years. Good luck with that. Daniel Larison chimes in.

12. Supercommittee negotiations, from Jonathan Chait.

13. And an excellent essay by Cord Jefferson about popularity, the internet, and Community. Also, ten Americans who deserve biopics, from Alyssa Rosenberg.

Debates in the Nomination Process

Did Rick Perry have a momentary, comical brain freeze in the midst of delivering a potentially powerful conservative message of slashing government, one that he’s dealt with brilliantly by defusing it with self-deprecating humor? Or did he prove by forgetting the easiest of talking points that he’s not even remotely capable of representing the Republican Party as its presidential nominee?

The answer, of course, is both, or neither; it depends on how you look at it. And for most voters, the way they’ll look at it is by how it’s covered by various news outlets; for most Republican primary voters, that means how it’s covered by Fox News Channel, by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts, and to a lesser extent how it’s discussed in the conservative blogosphere. That’s even true of the people who were actually watching the debate -- we're much more apt to remember the clips we see again, and to place what we saw in the context of what everyone is saying about it. But it’s obviously true of everyone else. And remember, even with the debates having unusually large audiences this year, we're still talking about no more than about 6 million viewers, which is small even in the context of the low rates of primary election participation.

Which means that what really matters is how the people who make decisions at those outlets saw Perry's flub...or, more accurately, how they choose to portray it, whatever they may think about it. So what really matters is what the various producers, reporters, and writers want to say, and in turn what and who influences them, which might be ratings/page views, or other institutional incentives, or their own personal political views, or what GOP opinion leaders say, or whatever.

This comes up because Jonathan Chait speculated this week that perhaps party control of nominations will be loosened this cycle because of the effects of the debates:
The more important function of the debates is that they circumvent the party apparatus. Republicans are less dependent on tuning into the media – in this case, usually Party organs like Fox News – to learn who the leading candidates are. They can squeeze the merchandise themselves.
I think that's not only wrong, but backwards. Debates are more mediated through party leaders than the older methods of contacting voters: direct contact in the living rooms and doorsteps of Iowa and New Hampshire, and TV ads.

Now, we don't really know exactly how what I call the GOP-aligned media works...hey, there's enough trouble trying to figure out all the biases in the old neutral media. It is certainly possible that the rise (or revival, since it dominated the 19th century) of the partisan press empowers some party factions and actors at the expense of other ones. And it's true that even if party actors completely control the nomination process that they still must form opinions of the candidates in some way (given that we're talking about too many people to meet with all of the candidates one-on-one), and so it's very possible that some of them use the debates to form their own view of the candidates. So I'm not going to say that the debates don't or can't matter in the nomination process. They can, and do, matter.

What they don't do is provide an unmediated interaction between candidates and rank-and-file voters. Debates are far more mediated than ads or direct campaign contacts. And that means that to understand the effects of the debates, we need to know who is interpreting them and how.

Counting Hits

Good data today from Eric Ostermeier over at Smart Politics about who is attacking who in the GOP debates this fall. The whole thing is worth looking at, and the big headline is that no one is hitting Newt; as they count it, there hasn't been a single attack on Newt Gingrich in any of the last seven debates (via Goddard).

Well, it's an excellent study, but I'll make a small dissent on the coding. From the most recent encounter:
MITT ROMNEY: I don't think you are going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do. I have been married to the same woman for 25 -- excuse me, I will get in trouble, for 42 years.
ROMNEY: I have been in the same church my entire life.
Gosh, is there anyone in the GOP field who is well known for changing wives -- and churches -- all the time? I seem to remember one candidate who sort of fits that profile...maybe Mitt could remind us?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Catch of the Day

Conor Friedersdorf has been watching the (wonderful) C-SPAN archives, and stumbled into a great one.
The part that give me the biggest kick is when Newt Gingrich, a guest at the meeting, lists what he regards as the GOP's values and behaviors. "I though I'd list three to be a little bit controversial," he said. "Free enterprise -- clearly our solution to jobs. Anti-communism -- in a sense, that's an extension of the Lincoln tradition of being in favor of freedom. And third, we're afraid of the news media."
He added, "Those are real characteristics of our party."
And so they remain.

Of course, it's also not exactly hard to go back through Newt's career and find all sorts of nonsense, including various versions of the Three Values of Civilization or the Five Key Points to American Virtue or the Six Visions of a Better World or whatever he's calling it this week. Note: those are all made up ones. I think. Each of them comes with various grandiose claims and assertions and whatnot, mostly inconsistent with the last version. Oh well; it's good fun while it lasts, and really he's not going to be the nominee. Meanwhile, if you want some fun Newt links, try a very nice one by Joe Conason, and another excellent one by Linda Killian.

Mostly, though, just listen to the snake oil salesman himself, as Friedersdorf did.

Great catch!

The NYT Should Be Ashamed of Itself (Again)

Drew Westen is the Worst Thing in the New York Times. Hands down.

Yes, I have a running item complaining about Matt Bai, but as I've said he also, at least when he's reporting, has serious value added: he's actually quite good at the reporting side of what he does, the poking around and finding out what's going on out there. It's only when he turns to drawing conclusions and other analysis that the problems start (well, that and factual assertions about the past).

But Westen, who I guess is now a regular of sorts in the new NYT "Campaign Stops" thingy, is considerably worse. He brings you all the disregard for factual accuracy and lack of knowledge about how the government and politics work, but with none of the value added at all, as far as I can see.

His latest piece, again, is a total nightmare. Some highlights...First, facts:
After his grand bargain on the debt, for example, the president’s approval ratings plummeted.
Never happened. Just did not happen.  The debt limit deal was reached on July 31. Gallup's July 28-30 reading had Barack Obama at 41% approval. By August 20-22, Obama had fallen all the way to...38%, which he never dropped below, at least so far. Indeed, if you look at the weekly numbers, you have no change at all in the week before and after the deal, with the president bottoming out eventually at all of 40%. As I've said before, what's actually happened is that Obama's approval ratings have been stable for some time now, except for a spike when bin Laden was killed and, yes, a gradual deterioration over time. The only plunge happen in spring and early summer 2009.

So, factual mistakes are bad, and why the Times allows them I can't guess. But I found the next bit even more telling:
Matters were even worse the summer before with the president’s signature issue, health care reform. The law might well have catapulted Democrats to victory rather than a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections if its most popular provisions — especially the elimination of “pre-existing conditions” and providing coverage for tens of millions of working people who can’t afford insurance — had taken effect in September of 2010, instead of in 2013 and 2014.
ACA passed in March 2010. There is simply no way, no way at all, that the exchanges could have been up and running by September 2010. The exchanges are to be set up by the states -- a lot of state legislatures weren't even going to meet at all between March and September 2010, let alone pass legislation and implement it. To suppose that ACA could have been up and running by September 2010 betrays such an astonishing ignorance of how policy is made and implemented and how this law in particular works...I mean, it's just breathtaking.

There is a legitimate argument that ACA could have been implemented by September 2012, although I've read some policy analysts who think that would have been a mistake. And, yes, I think that the motive of putting off implementation in order to keep the price tag below an arbitrary number was foolish; if that moved it from 2012 to 2014, I think it was a clear mistake. But September 2010? That's nonsense.

And so Westen's big conclusion is:
No modern American president has ever managed to make it through nearly three years in the White House with so few people really having any idea what he believes on so many key issues — let alone what his vision for the country is.
Wow. What an incredibly stupid statement. Quiz: what did George H.W. Bush believe about taxes? What did George W. Bush believe about balanced budgets? For that matter, what did Ronald Reagan believe about taxes, or arms control, or balanced budgets? What did Bill Clinton believe about anything? Or Roosevelt? Was he a Keynesian, or did he believe in austerity? Gosh, it seems that he flipped back and forth between them, just as Reagan hated taxes except when he was raising them, and on and on and on. These folks are politicians, not theologists; we don't get to know what they believe, and much of the time it doesn't really matter, anyway.

Ah, FDR. The main theme of Westen's piece is that Obama is a wuss and a loser because he keeps kicking the can down the road, until after the election:
The decision to put off a political decision has turned out to be a defining characteristic of this administration. Typically the magic number is 2013...
Now, never mind that Westen doesn't really nail down this point. He has Obama delaying the pipeline decision, which fits what he's trying to say. But his other examples are ACA implementation, which I covered already, and the implementation of the trigger in the debt deal, which doesn't fit either. The debt deal just called for some defined cuts now and then a second round to begin later; or. in other words, it's a policy that starts now and continues into the future, just like any other policy. But even if we were to grant him that such a pattern exists:

Drew Westen, we've seen in previous pieces in the Times, thinks that FDR was a great president.

You know what can FDR kicked down the road for political reasons, to be dealt with after an election? A little something called WORLD WAR II.

I mean, really; that's what smart presidents do. They put off unpopular stuff until after elections. I suppose I can understand the argument that they shouldn't, although I strongly disagree with it, but I really can't understand the idea that Obama is in any way at all unusual in this respect. You can't get more normal presidential behavior. Of course, if you start understanding a president as often -- not entirely of course, but often -- driven by institutional, partisan, and electoral incentives, then you can't pin it all on some psychological theory of what makes the president tick, which Westen goes for, too.

I have no idea why the Times thinks it's a good idea to harm its  reputation by giving this guy a regular slot, but it's just awful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ACA and Long Term Partisan Trends

Lots of talk about health care expert Jonathan Gruber's shot at Mitt Romney today, but I wanted to challenge one thing he said (via Greg):
Look, if this succeeds, then Obama becomes F.D.R. This is the most important social policy accomplishment since the 1960s. And if this succeeds, this could be the kind of benefit to the Democratic Party that Social Security was. So if I was the Republicans, I'd be screaming and kicking and scratching to kill it too, on purely political grounds," he said.
I'm pretty skeptical about all of this. Social Security became law in 1935, and began paying benefits in 1940. Does it really explain much of FDR's success and Democratic success in general in the 1930s and 1940s, or in later years? I doubt it. Certainly there was a massive shift to the Democrats, but that's almost certainly a consequence of the Depression and FDR's perceived responsibility for saving the country from Depression and then from Nazis. The only clear cases, that is, where I think Social Security helped the Democrats was when despite its overwhelming popularity Republicans chose to oppose it, or to trim benefits, or to mess with it in some other way. The story seems even more clear-cut with Medicare; after all, it's also wildly popular, but Democrats lost five of the six presidential elections after it was passed.

Now, granted, a whole lot more is going on in any of those elections than Social Security or Medicare. Still, my guess is that when these things pass and become popular, it probably helps the current incumbent a bit if he's up for re-election, but after that it's all a wash; it quickly becomes just part of the background, something that's always been there and that everyone supports and takes for granted.

Of course, if it doesn't become popular, then that's a whole different story. But if ACA survives the courts, and survives the outcome of the 2012 elections, and gets implemented and turns out to work more or less the way that Gruber (and Barack Obama) believe it will, my guess is that it will have virtually no direct political effect going forward, and little or no indirect effect.

Catch of the Day

Lots of folks had this one, but the one I read first (and I think he had it first) was Matt Yglesias, so I'll give him the CotD. For some prime Tom Friedman bashing, after Friedman complained that no one knows what Barack Obama wants to do on the budget:
[T]hose of us familiar with the world-flattening capabilities of the Internet are able to find such documents as “Living Within Our Means And Investing In The Future: The President’s Plan for Economic Growth and Deficit Reduction” (PDF) published by the Office of Management and Budget in September. As you might gather from the title, it contains a plan, endorsed by the president, for economic growth and deficit reduction. The details on the tax side are spelled out starting on page 43, with other sections dealing with mandatory savings and health savings separately. There are a bunch of summary tables in the back, too. Unfortunately the tables are too wide to be reproduced on the blog in a way that preserves legibility. But interested parties can and should download the document! My guess is that if Friedman phones up the OMB press office someone there would be happy to walk him through it.
 As Steve Benen documents, this isn't a momentary slip by Friedman; it's perhaps his most consistent theme that Barack Obama won't take a position on things that Obama has in fact taken a position on, often in hard-to-miss ways such as State of the Union speeches. And I think Greg Sargent is right; there's a good institutional reason that Friedman would want to appear non-partisan and even-handed even though his actual views line up quite consistently with the president's, and his absurd ignorance of what the White House is up to fits that goal quite well.

Whatever the reason for it, the result is that Friedman makes himself into a laughingstock, and an annoying one to boot.

Nice catch!

Candidates, Ideology, and Campaign Effects

There's a lot more to be said about the recent discussion of election forecasting, which now includes a very long post by Nate Silver today (and see Brendan Nyhan's excellent response). I'm interested in the forecasting question, but for now I want to just make a more narrow point about candidates and ideology.

Silver writes:
One of those variables is the left-right ideology of the candidate, which I do include in my model and which political scientists have sometimes included in the past...It does not seem plausible, meanwhile, as some political scientists’ models imply, that the difference between Representative Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney would amount to only 1 or 2 points at the polls.
Well, of course it does not seem plausible. Romney is a normal presidential candidate with reasonably normal credentials who has shown fairly strong campaign skills and is probably on his way to winning a  nomination fairly easily despite in some ways being a fairly bad fit for his party in ways that shouldn't much harm him in the general election. Michele Bachmann is a fringe crackpot who talks about a worldwide nuclear war against Israel and the socialist plot to replace Medicare with market-based insurance and how if we'd all emulate Communist China we'd be far better off; she's such a fringe figure that despite being a current Member of the House she hasn't managed to score a single endorsement from her colleagues there. Yes, a bit of that might properly be classified as ideology, but not most of it.

We can analyze the effects of ideology on presidential vote because we have examples to work from. There is no example of a major party in modern times coming even vaguely close to nominating someone without conventional credentials such as Bachmann or Prince Herman, or even a thrice-married, scandal-tarred former Speaker who has been out of office for over a decade and has ever-multiplying skeletons in his various closets. So we really don't know what kind of effect that would have on the general election, and it's very plausible to believe it could be far higher than the normal apparent penalty for ideological extremism. Or not! After all, we would be in a world in which someone, for example, who apparently knows virtually nothing about US foreign policy and national security would be able to win a major party nomination, and who knows what they world would be like?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Catch of the Day

To Joshua Tucker at the Monkey Cage, for calling out Adam Nagourney of the New York Times for (1) claiming that college students will be less enthusiastic for Barack Obama in 2012 than they were in 2008 without placing that in the context that enthusiasm for Obama is down overall, and (2) supporting that claim by interviewing four then-students who report that they'll be less likely to volunteer this time, without taking into account at all that college students are fairly well known for having more flexibility in their schedules than are those recently graduated from college.

Both terrific points. The first one, about setting things in context, just shows up over and over again, and really should be avoided by careful reporters. Not that they shouldn't write about specific groups; in most cases, all that's needed is to keep the context firmly in mind.

So: keep your eyes open. What's the most obscure group that some reporter will notice is somewhat less excited about Barack Obama this year than it was in 2008?

And: nice catch!

An Amateur Congress? No Thanks

Rick Perry wants an amateur Congress. Jamelle Bouie is on it:
Here’s what you would get by adopting Perry’s “reforms.” Already, congresspeople are buffeted with concerns from constituents and interest groups on a variety of policies, to say nothing of the pressure of fundraising and reelection. Absent the time to educate themselves or the staff necessary to collect information, something has to give, and more often than not, that something is independence. When lawmakers are pressed for time, resources, and cash, they’re far more likely to rely on lobbyists for information, and even written legislation. After all, of the people in or around government, lobbyists (and assorted advocates) have the most time and resources for changing the direction of policy. Professionalized legislatures aren’t perfect, but they stand as something of a bulwark to the undue influence of interest groups. Take that away, and you’ve turned Congress into an institution more porous than it already is.
Exactly correct.

The only major thing I'd add is that an amateur Congress wouldn't just mean more influence for lobbyists. It would also empower everyone else in the system, but particularly the bureaucracy, which would have much less to worry about from Congressional oversight of existing operations, and would probably have more influence on drafting bills. Moreover, it's likely that an amateur Congress would tend to write more vague and less detailed bills, which would leave more discretion to the bureaucracy (and, for that matter, to the courts).

Bottom line: if you like (representative) democracy, you should arrange for the politicians to be important within the system.

On the other hand, as a campaign move, Congress-bashing is always a winner. So who knows whether Perry in particular will survive, but Congress-bashing surely isn't going away any time soon.

Representation, Governing, Elections, and Deceit

I'm a big Andrew Sprung fan, and of course I'm always flattered when anyone bothers to critique what I've said, so I owe a response to Sprung's weekend post concluding that I'm a bit inconsistent on representation, and generally continuing his critique of how I deal with the subject.

This all goes back to my view of representation (which owes a lot in turn to Hanna Pitkin and Richard Fenno, but of course I take responsibility for my interpretation of their work and my synthesis of it). The gist is that I want to say that good representation involves politicians making and keeping promises to their constituents, and that those promises can be not only matters of public policy but also all sorts of questions of behavior and style. As Sprung says, I also follow Richard Neustadt in suggesting that presidents who look out for their own interests in building influence (Neustadt's "power") will tend to have the side effect of producing viable public policy.

So: last week I attacked Luntzism, although I didn't use that name at the time...Luntzism is the fallacy that if you find the words that poll well and perform well in focus groups that you can slap them on any policy and then mistakenly believe that the underlying policy will be successful. Sprung asks why Luntzism is wrong:
Wait a minute. Suppose a pol's "contract" with her voters consists of 'promising' always to push their hot buttons -- pandering to their prejudices, regardless of policy outcomes? Suppose voters repeatedly reward such rhetoric irrespective of policy...In other words, suppose poll-tested terminology works, either by asserting a distinction between the attacker's policies and his opponents where none exists, or by effectively lying about the opponent's policies? In some cases, it may not matter whether the underlying policies are popular. Is Bernstein suggesting that such manipulation of language -- say, excoriating "regulations" to create a space for gutting regulations that voters would support if they knew their content -- will not work in the long run, that voters will sniff out the truth? Or that poll-tested language deployed to mislead will work in the sense of helping to get the smearer elected, but not work in the sense of serving voters' interests?
I'll say a few things in response. One is that as a practical matter, I'm convinced that Luntzism just doesn't work. Since neither side has a monopoly on political information, the other side is going to undermine whatever happy talk you come up with to describe your policy proposals. Of course, in many cases it just doesn't matter, since in many cases people aren't voting on the basis of specific policy proposals. But if the policy in question is one that people do focus on, I just don't think it will work. See, for example, the Iraq War after the insurgency started and the Bush Social Security proposal. The second, again as a practical matter, is that my stance against Luntzism isn't so much about attempting to fool constituents as it is about mistakenly fooling politicians. During the Contract for America period, we have stories of GOP Members who were assured that various Republican proposals were wildly popular and supported them on that basis, when in fact all that was popular was the question wording.

More broadly, and this holds whether I'm right or wrong about all of that: we shouldn't, in my view, assume too close a link between representation and election outcomes. Both are really complicated, and they overlap, but they're not the same thing. A politician, in my view, can have an excellent representative relationship with his constituency and still be defeated, for example if a national partisan tide has a massive effect on a local constituency. Or the other way around: a politician who has a weak representative relationship can still hang on for years. And then there's the additional problem that we know very well that much (most? nearly all?) of the constituency is not actively engaged in their side of the representational relationship. Which I've written about, but I don't think blogged's a very difficult problem.

And then...well, I do think Sprung is pushing it a bit. I just watched the one where Buffy tells Giles to lie to's a wonderful scene, and Giles is indeed doing what Buffy requests when he lies to her and tells her how easy the world is. We have no evidence, however, in the case of Luntzism that either side is actually building a relationship based on "lie to me." I'm open to saying that a "lie to me" representative style could be a healthy one, but I really doubt that such a thing is very common. Now, could a politician "promise" (as Sprung says) to always push constituents hot buttons, regardless of policy? Sure. But that sure sounds like a very partisan representation style -- which is fine (as far as my view of representation is concerned), but it implies weak connections outside the partisan core, and at any rate it's not usually a winning formula for a district featuring a partisan balance.

Again: part of this is that I think Sprung is trying to link three separate things I've said, things that I would agree can go together, but which I don't believe are quite as tightly connected as he takes them to be. Good representation is about making and keeping promises and about explaining actions in office. For presidents, and perhaps for other elected officials, a positive side-effect of seeking to increase influence is that it tends to create viable public policy. And viable public policy and good representation help in re-election. I do think all of these things are true, and together they do a lot of the work of real democracy...but the latter two are tendencies, not absolutes, and the links between all of them are tricky indeed.

Let me put it another can, for argument, entirely separate elections and representation, and think separately about how they constrain politicians. Elections give pols a general incentive to keep constituents happy -- to produce policy that works (yes, I know about mixed incentives from divided government in the US, but put that aside). Produce a recession, and voters will vote against you, end of story, end of career. Good times? Everyone gets re-elected.

Representation works by constraining politicians to explain what they're up to and to keep their promises. As long as pols want to have strong representational relationships, and we have good evidence from Fenno and others that they do (perhaps for electoral reasons, perhaps not), then they stay within those constraints.

Both of these are factors in making representative democracy work, even with an electorate that's only minimally engaged. Which is, and has been since at least Madison, a terribly difficult problem.

Monday, November 14, 2011

There Is No (Clear) Anti-Romney Vote


As regular readers might guess, I mostly liked Jay Newton-Small's argument for why Rick Perry isn't quite through yet. I continue to believe that if Mitt Romney doesn't win, Perry remains the most likely nominee. And Newton-Small makes a good case for why Perry should at any rate stay in the race for now.

But I'm going to call out one claim: that "The anti-Mitt Romney vote is still at 70%." There's just no reason to read the polls that way. Yes, I know, for those of us who have been following the GOP race since midnight or so on election night 2008, it seems that Romney has been running forever and that anyone who isn't with him now has probably made an actual decision to oppose him. But that's just not true. Voters (as Newton-Small notes elsewhere) just aren't paying attention yet. Really. They don't see Romney as a guy who has been running forever; they see the whole thing as just a bunch of shuffling around well before the real election happens next year. They are in many ways wrong about the contest in general -- but not, of course, about their own perception of it.

Let me put it this way...a whole lot of you are going to watch the Super Bowl, right? But a whole lot of you who will be watching in January and February have no real idea of who is doing well so far this season. I know I often run into casual baseball fans in late September who will watch some of the playoffs and World Series, and they ask me which teams are in it this year. They just don't focus that early. And yet by the end of the World Series, they'll not only be watching, but they'll wind up with strong opinions about various players and strategies and the rest.

What seems to be driving the various surges for fringe candidates, whether it's Trump, Bachmann, Cain, or Gingrich (and, to be sure, the same was true for Perry's brief stay on top of the polls) is more like approval of the name that's been dominating the news lately. In other words, I don't think voters who are asked their current vote intentions are carefully considering the various choices; they're hearing in the list of candidates the one who they've heard about a lot lately, and saying that they like that candidate. Now, granted, that's not all, because we can see some of the variation by party group that we would expect if these were real preferences. Essentially, I do think that a fair-sized chunk of the GOP electorate really has settled on Romney. But for the rest, they're just (probably) echoing back and approving of whoever is in the news. They won't have to choose between the candidates for a while now (if at all), and so mostly they aren't doing that.

The best hint you can get of Romney's ceiling isn't the horse race head-to-head numbers; it's his unfavorable numbers, which run right now at around 20% of all Republicans (24% of those who recognize his name). But even that has very limited utility; after all, we've just seen Newt Gingrich dramatically improve his favorable/unfavorable ratings, and surely Newt's unfavorables were a lot more deep-seated than Romney's. I do think it would be nice to see some one-on-one trial heats, by the way; I don't recall seeing any during this cycle, but those might give us some more useful hints.

It remains possible that there are groups of Republicans out there who absolutely oppose Romney, and that his support really is capped. It just isn't the case that we know that yet. So far, we can't say that there is an anti-Romney vote, and it's a mistake to interpret his stable-but-lowish polling numbers as if they imply a cap.


Via  Patrick Moynihan, it turns out that MSNBC did run a couple of head-to-heads in their current poll, way down at page 18. Turns out that Romney basically ties with Cain: Romney 49, Cain 48. And he crushes Perry, 62-33. That's not at all consistent with even a soft ceiling of 40%.

(Also a typo fixed)

Obama and Management

Today's topic seems to be whether Barack Obama fell short as a manager during his first two years. Matt Yglesias:
I have this sense that when history looks back on 2009-2010 in American political history, it’s going to come away with the conclusion that a larger-than-currently-understood share of the problems had to do with poor handling of routine managerial issues.
See also Ezra Klein. On the other hand, Kevin Drum:
Overall, my sense is that when it comes to routine management, the Obama White House is clearly better than either the Carter or Clinton administrations in their first couple of years, and probably better than the Bush Jr. administration too...FWIW, my guess is that when history looks back on 2009-10, it's going to come away with two quite different conclusions. First, that Obama was more productive than his contemporaries gave him credit for. Second, the global financial meltdown was way worse than initially thought, and the response of leaders throughout the world was woefully inadequate.
I think I want to split the difference. My feeling is that internal White House management was quite good, both for the transition and the first two years in office. "Quite good" is still going to leave plenty of counterexamples, and doesn't prevent poor policy choices, but it seems to me that the evidence we have is that the process was pretty good in most cases, and there were relatively few unforced errors from within the White House. But I do think that the emphasis from the beginning was on the White House and Congress, and that the executive branch agencies and departments too often took a back seat. That's most obvious in appointments, but I suspect we'll find down the road that there are all sorts of nooks and crannies where Obama allowed the status quo to continue without a fight. For the most part that's all about 2nd and 3rd (and 4th and 5th) tier issues, but those matter too. The idea of being a good manager is to increase the influence of the president across the board, and to the extent Obama didn't do that at various spots in the exec branch, that's a real failure.

All that said...I've increasingly come be believe that the big mistake they made was in failing to push Congress to an emergency schedule in spring 2009. I still don't really think they could have passed a larger immediate stimulus through the Benator and the others whose votes they needed at the time. But I suspect they could have done three other things. First, some sort of long-term neutral automatic stabilizer for state budgets. Second, Dodd-Frank: yes, major legislation usually takes time, but my impression is that the ingredients were all there, and putting it together quickly might have actually meant that it would have drawn (then-needed) GOP votes. And the third one is the one I and others have talked about forever, which is getting the exec branch fully staffed quickly. All of this would have required Congress to work a lot faster than normal in January through, say, May 2009, but as a short-term strategy I think that would have been feasible.

But failing to do that, especially the first two but also to some extent the nominations, wasn't as far as I can see a consequence of poor management. (Clarification: I think some of the problem with nominations was about the WH/Congress emphasis, but another part was probably deferring to Harry Ried's estimates of how much could be done and how fast it could be done).

With one big caveat, which is that I haven't even read all the stuff that's been published so far claiming to show what's happening behind the scenes, and we'll no doubt know a whole lot more at some point in the future. So all of this is very much provisional and based on my understanding, which could itself be wrong, of what we think we know at this point.

The Torture Party GOP Isn't Obama's Fault

Andrew Cohen today takes Barack Obama to task for failing to hold people responsible for torture during the George W. Bush administration, which I think is correct, and assigns some blame to Obama for the GOP pro-torture position, which I think is too strong.

Cohen believes that Obama should have convened a Truth Commission back in 2009. I agree. It would be a very good thing to get on the record, as clearly as possible, whatever intelligence gains -- and deficits -- resulted from torture during the Bush years. I'm fairly confident that torture was a net loss just in its immediate, direct effects, and more so if the indirect effects of damaging US prestige are counted, but I'd be more confident about that if we had a full accounting. (For related points, see Adam Serwer today).

But realistically, there is exactly zero chance that any Truth Commission could change the overwhelming fact that the former Republican Vice President of the United States is going to be out there advocating for torture, and that without something to trump that the odds are very high that a whole lot of other GOP opinion leaders will chose Cheney's position over Barack Obama's, at least as long as Obama is in the Oval Office.

A new Republican president would instantly marginalize Cheney, and if that president chose to publicly re-assert the traditional American opposition to torture then there's a good chance that favoring torture would rapidly become a fringe position again. Until that point, there really is only person who has an excellent chance of marginalizing Cheney and Cheneyism: George W. Bush. If Mr. War On Terror was to declare that torture didn't work, and that it was all a horrible but well-intentioned mistake, I think there's a pretty good chance that most GOP politicians would go along.

That was the thinking, I assume, behind Andrew Sullivan's wonderful open letter to Bush last year; it's the thinking behind my suggestions that Obama issue a blanket pardon for Bush-era torturers, because that might change the incentives for Bush. But in both cases there's really nothing that Obama can do to force the issue, just as there's nothing that Obama can do to get Dick Cheney himself to accept the traditional consensus view. Andrew Cohen should recall that there was a Congressional committee on Iran-Contra, and it totally failed to get Republicans to accept the facts of the case, primarily because the Republicans on the committee -- led by none other than Dick Cheney -- dissented. And while Cohen argues that the 9/11 Commission put conspiracy theories about that event in fringe territory, I don't think that's right, either. Those conspiracy theories were always on the fringe, but the 9/11 Commission did nothing to quiet those conservatives who believed, for example, that Iraq was behind the terrorist attacks.

So, yes, blame Obama for not addressing an issue he should have addressed, but do remember that controlling what the opposition says and believes is far beyond the powers of the presidency.
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