Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Mattered This Week?

The presidential race: a week ago it was still plausible that Barack Obama's lead was unchanged from August but artificially large from a temporary convention bounce. Now, it's not. He's winning by four points at the end of September...maybe a point of that is still convention bounce, but a four point lead right now puts him from having a small edge to being a real favorite. Not a sure thing: there's a lot of premature certainty, in my view. But the current lead seems a lot more solid to me than it did even one week ago.

I'm inclined to think that the semi-kerfuffle about what the administration said about Libya and when it said it is a prime "doesn't matter." If it turns out that there was significant negligence before the attack, that could be a real scandal, and the attack itself and the aftermath certainly seem like real things to me. But the rest of it? Not so much.

So that's what I have. What do you have? What do you think mattered this week?


  1. This poll by YWCA of women. In 2008, more women then men voted in the election. If that trend continues, these concerns are the concerns of the electorate moving forward. And a point to mention here is that the interviews were all held before Sept. 4; so Romney's dissing nearly half the population as moochers and victims is not reflected; I'd expect the same survey taken today would reflect that, since it's showing up in presidential polls.

  2. The question of whether the Libyan consulate was properly protected is a valid one, and an investigation is appropriate. As with most things in diplomacy, it probably won't be as straightforward as people expect. Normally, at an embassy, the host country is responsible for perimeter protection, but there are occasions for putting Diplomatic Security (the State Department's "Secret Service") and/or marines within the compound. Now this was a consulate, so it has a lower status than and embassy and I don't know how much of a "compound" there was. I also don't know if the issue was raised but brought objections from Libyan factions fretting about sovereignty. It seems that the FBI still hasn't been allowed to investigate the site (or as much of the site as remains after fire and looting), and I don't know how much of that is related to security concerns and how much to sovereignty concerns.

    The question of whether the Obama administration withheld information, engaged in a coverup, or changed its story too much, as far as I'm concerned, is all electoral hype. The Republicans are trolling for things to complain about. The Democrats would do much the same if the roles had been reversed. That's the name of the game. If you don't say the CIA intercepted a call the day after it happened, then you're engaged in a coverup; if you do say it, then you're playing politics with national security by leaking confidential intelligence information. Complaints that the story has "evolved" since the day of the incident can only make me demand an explanation of why it would not be expected to evolve as new information comes in and is analyzed. You would think Mitt Romney's comments on the night of the attack (not to mention the invasion of Iraq to get WMD) would have more people cautious about shooting their mouths off. One bit of intelligence (the interception of a telephone call)released selectively does not mean that the CIA knew everything there was to know from that moment on. We don't know (and probably never will know) how much contradictory evidence they were sorting through at the time. Anyone interested in that topic should take a look at a fifty-year-old book about Pearl Harbor by Roberta Wohlstetter. It's all about how obvious everything appears after the fact, when you look through the evidence retrospectively, knowing that Pear Harbor was bombed, because you simply ignore everything that doesn't point in that direction. Yes, it's true that Naval intelligence knew in advance that Japanese intelligence was seeking information about what ships were stationed at Pearl Harbor, and conspiracy theorists point to that to argue that Naval intelligence knew the attack was coming and pretended not to. Yet the conspiracy theorists ignore the fact that Japanese intelligence was seeking the exact same information about every port from Vancouver to Panama City, none of which were attacked.

    If the Obama administration is being cautious about its handling of information, I suspect it's for two reasons (apart from the usual sources-and-means issues). First, they don't want to release information that they'll have to retract later. Second, they're afraid that the Republicans will jump on them for anything they get wrong or that can be made to look wrong.

    1. Got a little long-winded there.

    2. No need to apologize! Lots of good points there.

    3. You hinted at, but I'll emphasize how much Romney stepping on his tongue in a rush to make hay on the Benghazi attack less then 12 hours after the news broke hindered Romney's chance of actually making hay on the issue.

      - - - - - - - - - -

      Remember Romney on the 47% tape, speaking to contributors about a potential foreign policy incident: "if something of that nature presents itself, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity."

      - - - - - - - - - -

      All the major media reaction has been about Romney being a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy. (The Times front paging the question today will make this issue 'fair game' again, but the first debate is all on domestic policy.) And then who is there in Congress to run an investigation between now and the election?

      I believe it was an actual desire of the administration to downplay the attack for diplomatic/regional reasons, but Romney's ham-handed overplay helped obscure that we had a 9/11 terrorist attack on a US Consulate.

      (Also consider that the only thing the GOP can go to policy wise is try to gin up voters to want to start another war, and not even the one Romney's neo-cons want with Iran. It doesn't help Mitt that once again, he can only criticize Obama, not offer an alternative policy that might play with voters.)

  3. There are several plausible ways that "ostrich" Republicans (the sincere and intelligent heirs of Goldwater and Buckley) might finally stand up and wrest the GOP away from the crazies.

    1) End gerrymandering. Several blue states, including California, have seen citizen rebellions against this vile crime by BOTH parties of the political caste. Two reforms - redistricting and top-two run-offs - have already had stunning effects. Now, politicians no longer are beholden to their district's radical base. Instead, democratic "safe districts" see two dems seeking support from moderate republicans... more attention than Republicans ever got before in those districts. And vice versa in GOP majority areas.

    If gerrymandering were treated as the criminal conspiracy that it is, then radicalism in American politics would suffer its worst blow. Alas, this supreme court will never rule against it. But maybe the court will change. Meanwhile note this. ONLY in (some) blue states have citizens found the gumption to rebel against this crime. Only blue states. Not one red state. Not one.

    Pres. Obama should make it an issue. He should.

    2) The Libertarian Party, for the first time this year, is led by two moderates, instead of lapel-grabbing Ayn Randian kooks. And Gary Johnson's poll numbers are rising. If he climbed high enough to get into a debate, he could prove to be a death blow to Mitt Romney, by offering those Ostrich (sane but in denial) Republicans a place to flee the madness that has taken over the Party of Lincoln.

    3) The GOP may act crazy, but the craziness is stage managed by a coterie of billionaires. If a bigger, richer coterie decided they had had enough of the horrifically lobotomizing Culture War incited by Rupert Murdoch and the Kochs and the Saudi princes, then... well... it is a scenario under which Buckley types might be subsidized (it would be expensive!) to stand up and finger-wag the movement back to some degree of genuine patriotism and sense.

    Hey I didn't say it was likely, just possible. But there is a special interest group that will fight against any reform of conservatism or banishing of its insanity. What interest group? Why the State of Arizona's electric utilities companies!

    They are currently drawing 17% of Arizona's power - for free - from magnets and coils arranged around the spinning in Barry Goldwater's grave.

    -- David Brin, author of The Postman and EXISTENCE

    1. David, nice to see you here. I'm a long-time fan. Saw you speak about 20+ years ago at MIT on how humans learned to abstract things about 10,000 years ago. I understand the tribesman, walking to the river, hearing "Walk down to the river." But short of already having abstract abilities, I still can't figure out how the chief was able to tell the tribesman to walk to the river in the first place. But that's another day, and it happened long ago. Or long, long ago.

      Here's a nice look at gerrymandering from Eric McGhee at Monkey Cage. I found it most helpful in understanding the topic:

      Just ordered Existence, can't wait to read it. Thanks for bringing it to my notice with your post here.

    2. Oooh, a celebrity! I'm sort of thrilled. Not really a reader alas; I've really curtailed my science fiction reading over the last several years. I did read and enjoy very much the Foundation book.

      As to the point: on theoretical grounds I'm mostly pro-gerrymandering (that is, I'm in favor of politicians drawing lines), but regardless: it's not very likely that gerrymandering produces partisanship or the current dysfunctional GOP. After all, whatever importance gerrymandering has in the House (and it does have some, but it's very possible to overstate it), it has no importance at all in the Senate and presidential elections.

      The overall question of the GOP and the crazy is, to be sure a difficult one. I agree with what I think is the spirit of the comment: the people who are most screwed over by it are the bulk of perfectly sane Republicans.

    3. I think you underestimate the significance of gerrymandering. Not too wild about your short definition either -- politicians have essentially always done redistricting every ten years, but gerrymandering is the attempt to serve especially insidious objectives through the process.

      I read in The Atlantic a good while ago -- perhaps 20 years -- about the practice of gerrymandering in red states. Georgia was the prime example, where a House delegation was transformed from roughly even to 10-1 Republican, with a single massively safe Democratic district carved out of African-American communities throughout metro Atlanta and beyond. And recall that the famous Texas Democratic legislators' flight to Oklahoma was touched off by a redistricting dispute.

      For some time now most seats in the U.S. House have been safe for both sides, a trend that has strengthened over the last 20 years. One recent estimate considers 2/3 of the Southern Republican seats as safe, with the Democratic advantage in the blue coastal states nearly as pronounced.

      I think there's little question that gerrymandering discourages any forthcoming return to sanity for the GOP. Any Republican who shows signs of heterodoxy simply invites a challenge from the right in the next primary, while there is little or no downside to walking the crazy talk all the way through the next general election.

    4. Steven:

      I'll try to respond to your points by expand upon the general political science consensus upon which Bernstein is making his argument.

      1) Political scientists think parties and partisanship are essential for proper functioning elections, and partisan redistricting (gerrymandering) is part of that.

      2) Gerrymandering does not cause partisan / ideological polarization; at best it may have contributed slightly to House and state legislative polarization. Link

      3) Partisan gerrymandering has probably not increased uncompetitive elections; and there is evidence that the gerrymandering has slightly decreased incumbent safety. Here's a John Sides : Monkey Cage post

      3) You mention that there is something insidious about recent partisan gerrymandering, referencing CA and GA. But, extreme partisan gerrymandering has been in existence almost as long as the Constitution. The term gerrymandering was coined in 1812 as a critique of an "extreme" partisan redistricting process in near the Essex County, MA home of Elbridge Gerry.

      4) You could argue that politicians have less freedom to draw districts than in the past, largely because of Voting Rights Act enforcement and judicial decisions, which place emphasis on issues of racial equality, and so constrain partisan gerrymanders.

      5) Eric McGhee argues that the 2010 redistricting process will have no effect on the partisan breakdown in Congress in 2012.

      6) And, in fact, he argues that one party controlled 2010 redistricting only produced very small seat gains favoring the controlling party in 3 states, whereas in 5 states, the one party controlled redistricting helped the opposing party!

    5. Thanks Jason, great stuff.

      One slight caveat on point #1. Most, but not all, political scientists would agree that parties are generally a good thing, but I'd say that political scientists are more mixed on the question of who should draw the lines. As usual, I'm an anti-goo goo person on this one, but it's not a consensus position by any means.

      But on the empirical side of things, those are great points and very helpful links.

  4. I'd say the leadership shakeup in China certainly matters (largest population in the world, nuclear armed, 3rd largest economy in the the world etc.)

    And if Monje gonna ramble let me to:

    One thing I think is matter is the Holyier Than Thous in Congress that head of the House Comittee for Goverment Reform and Oversight have declared war on the city of Saint Paul Minnesota and are demanding a massive probe into some slum lords that got shut down under Mayor Randy Kelly (who isn't the mayor anymore) back in 2002. I kid you not. Can we just acnowledge that this is the worst Congress ever? John Slides over at Monkey Cage recently had a graph that showed this Congress has passed fewer bills than any since, well the 1880's (again I kid you not). Oh and 20% of those bills were about renaming post offices and plazas...oh, they also passed a bill to order the United States Mint to mint commeorative baseball coins to help fund the Baseball Hall of Fame, but alas, that bill died in comittee in the Senate. Recently the independent investiagtion of that whole "Fast and Furious" thing came out that showed that Holder was completly in the clear, and the whole "investigation" by Congress was pretty much a joke. Basically some guys in a ATF field office employed some highly dubious investigative strategies with bad results, but no, the Attorney General was not aware of this (there are over 14,000 swore FBI agents in the country, and thousands more of civilian personnel, no the Attorney General is not aware of everything they do every day and that's just one agency he oversees) and didn't do anything wrong. So the whole thing was basically an absurd show trial joke. And now Congress is demanding the City of Saint Paul pony up 180 million smackers, and why? Well because of discrimination against poor slum lords or something. And stuff. And Obama is a socialist. Essentially the City decided not to take a case to the supreme court after the NAACP and a whole lot of other people like former Vice President Walter Mondale said that this Supreme Court could use slum lords getting shut down as a a legal pretense to gut all fair housing legislation passed in the last 40 years. So the City of Saint Paul decided not to risk the role of the dice in front of Tony Scalia and that means they obstructed justice, and that means they need to pay 180 million dollars. And why? Well because of discrimination against poor slum lords or something. And stuff. And Obama is a socialist. Because Congress said so.

    Anyway, it is the worst Congress ever.

    1. Okay, just realized I didn't run spell check before I posted that. Sorry about that.

    2. No problem, but "Congress" or "House"?

    3. Just because the House is historically silly, doesn't mean the Senate is running according to historical norms of comity. Record number of filibusters, so few 'routine' judicial nominees getting voted on (whether or not Obama could have sent more names up to the hill), inability to get a farm bill compromise with the House, some goober putting a hold on VA benefits.

      Just because the House is packed with Honey Boo Boos, that doesn't make the Kim Kardashians in the Senate model citizens.

    4. @JB gah, yeah I know. I meant the House but used "Congress" and "House" interchangeably. Last night was clearly amateur night on my part.

  5. The economic reports out this week mattered in sense of showing us how the economy is recovering slowly. The Euromess mattered. Does that video of Tommy Thompson promising to end entitlements matter?

    1. Don't forget Linda McMahon being heard on tape, then doubling down on wanting to put Medicare and Social Security up for "sunset" consideration every 10 years.

      Thanks, Tea Party!

  6. What also mattered this week: the polls that showed the devastating effect Romney's 47% remarks were having, as well as Ryan on the ticket. Absent Romney managing to change the topic, these point to the strategy Dems will employ for the rest of the campaign.

    Also a few indications that the voter suppression efforts have contributed to energizing Dems: early voting in Iowa, a quarter million new registrations in North Carolina, registration drives in Texas, etc.

  7. I'd say the reportage of Bernanke's behind the scenes negotiations with the Fed Open Market Committee mattered a lot. I surmise that when Greenspan ran the Fed it was much more opaque ("whatever the former Objectivist oracle says perfectly encapsulates the economy") and more top-down. The piece in the Washington Post showed Bernanke applying soft pressure over months to shift the groupthink of the Fed while maintaining consensus. Heck, even Narayana Kocherlakota, one of the hawks par excellence (in support of raising interest rates way back in 2010) is now reading from the gospel of do whatever's necessary to get unemployment down to 5%.

    That's change I can believe in, and for all the criticism that Krugman and others have lobbed at Bernanke, the piece shows you how Ben operates, puts liberals a little at ease regarding monetary policy (I myself was wishing Obama could replace Bernanke before 2014), and reveals a governing approach that is uncannily similar to Obama's preferred approach, giving us a window into how Obama was convinced to renominate him, even though many observers give his crisis response high grades and his response since 2010 barely passing marks.

  8. According to the HuffPost Election Dashboard Thingy, the last six state-level changes have moved in the direction of Romney. If this had been a one-time observation, the odds of it happening by chance would be about 3%.

    That might matter. Jonathan characterized a four-point lead as "solid favorite"; is 4 points outside the MOE? If it is, it would seem not by much.

    Romney, whose debating skills are among the only legitimate "political" skills he possesses, heads into Wednesday with low expectations resulting from greatly exaggerated rumors of his demise. If HuffPo is correct, the electoral map is currently tinging reddish...

    ...I think this election may yet hold a few surprises.

    1. From what understand the expectation is for the race to tighten, just as the 04 race tightened around the time of the debates. The only caveat this time is that Romneys pick of Ryan and his 47 percent video will likely hold Romney at a lower vote share than he'd otherwise win. Like instead of winning 49.8 percent to Obamas 50.2 he'll win 48 or 47 percent. It'll be interesting to see...

    2. Debating skills are Romney's only legitimate "political" skills? What happened to his corporate management skills? His fundraising prowess? Just because they haven't appeared to help him doesn't mean that he doesn't have them.

  9. btw, apropos of nothing and reflecting my own lack of hipster cred, I (finally) discovered the National last night, and then spent a couple hours working and listening to that Top Tracks feature on YouTube, which as another aside is one of the best things about the intertubes.

    Mildly relevant here, that band's most famous song must have a great Romney parody in it. The title, obviously. The bit about owing money to the money, etc. The chorus could include "I'm not John Kerry/But Ohio don't remember me..."

    Best of all, the second verse starts with "Lay my head on the hood of your car...". Replace 'head' with 'dog' and 'hood' with 'roof', and you're in business...


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