Thursday, February 28, 2013

February 28, 1973

The New York Times the next day, under the headline "Reluctant F.B.I. Gave Aide of Nixon Watergate Files."
L. Patrick Gray 3rd., the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said today that he had originally resisted making the bureau's file on the Watergate affair available to the White House, but that he had finally allowed a record of the investigation to be given to a Presidential assistant.

Hey, Pollsters: What's "Waste"?

I recommend to everyone an excellent Mark Blumenthal summary of the polling on government spending. The results are familiar, but still worth re-reading: Americans generally want to cut government spending, but do not want to cut spending on specific programs; indeed, most people want to spend more on most programs.

Blumenthal brings in Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who tries to square the circle by noting that most people also believe that large portions of federal spending are simply wasted. Now, that doesn't quite work, at least not entirely; unless people actually believe there's an account marked "Waste" they still support increases in specific programs even though (presumably) they believe that those programs waste money. In other words, I don't think you can really interpret the poll findings without attributing quite a bit of inconsistency to respondents.

Still, "waste" is an interesting topic. Indeed: Bobby Jindal's column today about sequestration was based, more than anything, on incredulity that Barack Obama couldn't find enough waste to cut that sequestration could be implemented "without jeopardizing critical services." Granted, he has no actual suggestions about waste; his only specific suggestion for replacing sequestration is to delay ACA implementation of exchanges and Medicaid expansion. Presumably, that's not "waste" -- whether or not one supports Medicaid for people just over the poverty line and subsidized health care insurance for those making more than that, it's a fairly efficient expenditure in terms of buying what the government intends.

Of course, the question here is what counts as waste. And here's where we could use some help. As far as I know, we have questions about waste, or waste-fraud-abuse, but no good questions about what they means to voters. To me, "waste" would mean, for example, that it takes six government workers to do something that one private sector worker would do. Or: waste would be a government agency buying, say, lots of extra computers which then sit in boxes because they weren't actually needed. Or what Al Gore used to talk about: buying office supplies for ten times what they would cost at Staples because of bureaucratically-mandated procedures. On the other hand, money spent on some government program I don't like -- say, building a wall on the Mexican border -- wouldn't count to me as "waste" in this context, as long as it was done efficiently. But I certainly could imagine someone thinking that such money (or enforcement of drug laws if you think those drugs should be legal, or the Iraq War if you think it was a mistake, or I suppose Social Security if you are against that program) is "government waste." Not only that, but anyone who thinks of it that way is certainly correct that there's plenty of that kind of waste -- but your waste, then, might be my vital program.

That is, there's no "correct" answer about how to interpret all of this. What we need, then, is to learn more about what polling respondents (and, for that matter, politicians) mean when they say that there's tons of government waste. Hey, pollsters! How about some questions to help us understand it. And, hey, reporters! How about pressing politicians when they claim there's lots of waste.

Catch of the Day

Well, it was yesterday, but nevertheless: conservative columnist Philip Klein notices that there's no health care panel at the upcoming CPAC shindig and says that for most conservatives, interest in health care policy turned out to be a "fad":
The biggest conservative policy victories, such as the advancement of supply-side economics in the 1980s and welfare reform in the 1990s, came when conservative intellectuals and activists rallied around ideas at times when liberals didn't have compelling answers to important problems. But conservative activists often disregard health care as a liberal issue -- unlike taxes and guns -- and only become engaged when liberals attempt to advance big government solutions.
Klein's argument is basically that when conservatives cede policy to liberals, liberals tend to win. Sounds correct!

Kevin Drum argues that "conservatives actually don't care much about healthcare. Just like they don't care much about income inequality or particulate poisoning." On the one hand, one has to be very careful with these generalizations; certainly there are some conservatives do care about these issues. But Drum is correct in his larger point, which is that conservatives, as a movement, really don't seem to care about, well, very many of the major substantive issues affecting most US citizens at all. Symbolic issues? Yes. But substantive issues? Just taxes, and perhaps inflation. Nothing else seems to really get conservative interest going.

And, yes, I'm excluding both budget deficits and jobs. Budgets I've talked plenty about, so I'll skip that, but jobs? Lots of rhetoric; lots of opposition to whatever Obama proposes; very, very, little in the way of actual policy ideas of their own. And again, that's not something inherent in conservative thought; Reagan era conservatives did have real ideas on many of these topics.

Anyway, Klein has been consistent on this one, including bashing House Republicans during the last two years when they ignored their promise to put forward a "replace" bill for ACA and settled for repealing it a few dozen times. Nice catch!

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Gavin McLeod, 82.

Some good stuff:

1. Kevin Drum on outrages.

2. Worth reading: Ross Douthat on Rand Paul's foreign policy.

3. Joe White on sequestration and how we got here.

4. And Brad DeLong on Amity Shlaes and Calvin Coolidge. It's a good thing he stopped reading before he got to the point where she blames FDR for the Depression. Not for prolonging it. Just for the Depression.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Catch of the Day

Goes to Theodoric Meyer for an excellent reported piece on executive branch vacancies. Guess what? There are more at this point of the Obama Administration than at similar points during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies (via Goddard). Not an overwhelming difference, but still a real one.

Meyer does a good job of not only detailing the difference, but pointing out the consequences of these missed opportunities:

The lack of appointed leaders can create problems. Too many vacancies can put agencies “in stand-down, waiting for policymakers to show up,” said Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied appointments.

Acting heads of agencies “don’t make any big decisions,” said Cal Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College who has studied appointments since the 1970s. “Your authority is not going to be recognized in the same way a Senate-confirmed appointee is going to be recognized.”
Meyer is absolutely correct that both Obama and the Senate are at fault. As far as what can be done, regular readers know my suggestions: more presidential attention to appointments; a lot less vetting from both the president and the Senate; and, as I argued again today, simple-majority cloture for executive branch nominations.

The first step, however, is to identify the problem and to realize it's important and has important consequences. So: nice catch!

Dept. of Phony Reagan/Real Reagan Examples

Oy, Bob Woodward:

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward attacked President Barack Obama on Wednesday, saying the commander-in-chief’s decision not to deploy an aircraft carrier because of budget cuts is “a kind of madness.”

“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?’” Woodward said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
I've seen multiple reactions blaming Woodward for suggesting that Barack Obama should, basically, ignore the law -- but so far, none that have actually called him out on the "Reagan" part of this.

Because Ronald Reagan wasn't just told by Congress not to deploy a ship; he was told by Congress to shut down a proxy war. And when he didn't listen, it became a full-blown disaster.

This is the story of the Boland Amendment, in which Congress to shut down a US proxy war in Nicaragua. The US had not only been funding the anti-government "Contras," but the CIA had taken direct action (mining harbors, for example) against Nicaragua. The history of this stuff is pretty complicated, but I think it's fair to say three things. First, the Boland Amendment had a real effect.  In some real and important ways, he followed the law, Woodward's hypothetical Reagan notwithstanding.

On the other hand, he also did attempt to get around the law. The law said that no US money could be spent, so Reagan had the National Security Council staff solicit private and third-country funds for the Contras. The third-party  funding was clearly legal, since it was beyond the scope of Congress. However, the use of NSC staff was not necessarily legal; it was based on a supposed loophole in the law since the NSC wasn't specifically mentioned. Third, however, the Reagan team clearly went beyond the law in the "Iran-Contra" affair by selling arms to the Iranians with the intent of sending the profits to the Contras.

When Iran-Contra was revealed, it was a total disaster for Reagan. His approval ratings suffered a severe and long-lasting hit (about 15 points, basically lasting from late fall 1986 through mid-1988). He lost his Chief of Staff and National Security Adviser. He suffered through major televised hearings exposing various embarrassing Administration details. And a special prosecutor was appointed, who wound up (for better or worse) hounding the administration up until George H.W. Bush issued pardons in 1992.

Now, I usually think about Iran-Contra in the context of "imperial presidency" discussions and argue that the lesson of Iran-Contra is the same as the lesson of Watergate: it is extremely dangerous to a presidency to attempt to act within the Presidential Branch -- in this case, the National Security Council -- instead of through the properly equipped and authorized departments and agencies of the Executive Branch proper.

But of course the more obvious lesson is: Presidents who defy the laws that Congress has passed risk big trouble!

In other words, its not just that Bob Woodward's (current) view of presidential supremacy is both historical and Constitutional nonsense; it's that it's a really, really, really bad idea for presidents who are interested in their own continued influence. For Woodward to blithely assert that presidents should be like Reagan and get around the will of Congress is, well, about as misguided as it gets.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Adam Baldwin, 51. I really need to watch Full Metal Jacket again; I've seen bits and pieces here and there over the years, but haven't seen it all the way through since it was brand new. Perhaps not as great as Strangelove and Paths of Glory, but I'm not as certain of that as most are. Of course, for me he's always Jayne -- wonderful character, amazing performance. I'm terribly jealous of the political writers he's been in twitter arguments with.

How about a little good stuff:

1. I'm not a huge fan of "false equivalence" stuff, but I am a fan of James Fallows, so I'll go ahead and send you to his latest on it.

2. Dan Larison, very good on "hard-liners" and how they police what counts as pro-Israel in US politics. It's lose-lose!

3. No one knows what they're doing. Paul Waldman. Hey, there's a closely related Iron Law of Politics about that.

4. State budgets update, and what they should be up to, from Abby Rapoport.

5. Reporting-while-female, by Marin Cogan.

6. And Steve Rubio asks: why do you care about who wins Oscars? Gives me a chance to make a point I hope I haven't made before around here without doing a whole post about it...I have a sort of rule of thumb about this, which I try to follow and mostly succeed: pick one award to care about, and try real hard not to care about any other. The one I care about, as regular readers know, is the baseball HOF. Which has the advantage that, as awards go, it's a pretty good one; sure, there are mistakes, but they aren't Crash-level mistakes (it's even a larger difference than that; the general "ballplayers that HOF voters like" overlaps heavily with "the most deserving HOFers on the merits." It's pretty obvious to everyone that "movies that Oscar likes" has only the slimmest overlap with "the best movies." Still, I don't think that makes the HOF better to follow, particularly). Anyway, I can't say I follow it all the time...there are a handful of performers who I'm annoyed that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame won't honor, and of course there's my Little Richard/Kennedy Center obsession. But mostly, I stick with it, really. I mean, I'm happy when an actor I like wins an Oscar if I'm watching the show, but that's about it. Same with the other awards. Even the baseball ones; obviously I'm happy when Giants win, but I really don't get engaged in it. (Okay, sorry to run on like that).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Incentives in Limiting Presidential Nomination Debates

Josh Putnam has an interesting item up about talk within the GOP of finding a way to limit debates during the next nomination cycle. I agree with him that it's unlikely that they'll wind up doing it through the rules.

He also walks us through some of the incentives. As he notes, frontrunners presumably prefer to have few debates; longshots want more. It's also true that minority groups and factions within the party might prefer more debates; they give those voices within the party an opportunity to be heard.

One might also say that the candidates as a group might have some interest in having the party clamp down on the number of debates. There's a bit of a collective action problem here. Candidates, regardless of their strategic incentives, are known to not especially like having a schedule dominated by debates, but they of course have strong incentives to show up once someone schedules one.

Meanwhile, there's the problem of crank "candidates" who basically have no real interest or chance of winning a nomination but are primarily in it to win a Fox News contract (or MSNBC show). The problem for the parties is that the debates tend to be the face of the party (especially during the year before Iowa, when there's no election results to drive the coverage) and a few of those crank candidates can really distort the party's image.

As far as the incentives to hold debates: in addition to interest from trailing candidates and crank candidates, there's also the interest of host groups (who like the attention, whether it's local parties or universities or other groups) and the TV folks, especially the cable news networks, who get inexpensive, relatively high-profile programming.

Against that, in addition to the frontrunning candidates who don't want to give their opponents a platform and the (real) candidates collectively who don't like doing to many of them is the interest of the party, collectively, in the free publicity. After all, if you actually are putting on a good show, it presumably is going to make the party look good!

My guess is that you would find the parties' attitudes towards debates totally dominated, then, by their impression of how the last round went. Sometimes (Democrats in 2008, perhaps Republicans in 2000) the debates are perceived as successful. Sometimes (Republicans 2012) they are not.

But getting back to Josh's point...when you have something like this where the parties' perceptions change from cycle to cycle, it's really unlikely that you're going to get reform by rules. After all, it's hard enough to come up with rules to push the caucuses and primaries back, and for that one the party-as-party has a clear and consistent interest in doing it.

And the real important thing for the Republicans, it seems to me, is to figure out some way to either get those crank candidates off the stage or, at least, make them behave themselves even though all the incentives for them work the other way (how do you get a Fox News gig if you don't say outrageous things?). How to do that, however, I have no idea.

Talking about the Hagel Filibuster

The Senate is taking up cloture on the Chuck Hagel nomination today, and this time it's expected to pass, most likely easily -- I haven't seen any estimates, but I'm guessing it will be around 70 votes (maybe more; again, I haven't seen anything about what Republicans will do). Some time after that, we'll get a final vote on Hagel; he'll probably fall short of 60 yes votes.

So it turns out we had not only had one or more "yes/no" votes, who were yes on cloture but no on the nomination, but quite a few no/yes/no votes: against cloture the first time, for it the second time, while eventually voting against confirmation.

The trick for reporters is how to write about and talk about what's happened.

Was there a filibuster?

Yes. Of course.

One more time: requiring 60 is a filibuster. Every Republican supports that standard. There are no Republicans who believe that 60 should never or only rarely be invoked; the only question is whether, in this particular case, any particular case, they will support the filibuster. That there is a filibuster, on everything, is both assumed and institutionalized.

Moreover, every Republican who opposed cloture on the first go-round was supporting the filibuster. As it will turn out, some of those Republicans were only supporting the filibuster for a limited time. That still means they supported it!

Also, and as obvious as this is I've seen lots of people get confused by it: the fact that a filibuster is eventually defeated makes it a failed or defeated filibuster; it doesn't mean that there was no filibuster at all (or else Strom Thurmond's record-setting filibuster against civil rights wasn't really a filibuster!).

Perhaps some of the confusion on this has to do with the motives of filibustering Senators. That's what PolitiFact gets wrong in a piece they did on the Hagel filibuster a while ago (they properly cited Greg Koger, Sarah Binder, and Steve Smith all saying that it was a filibuster, and yet wound up calling GOP claims that it was not a filibuster only "Mostly False" rather than "False" or "Pants on Fire"). It is quite true that Senators may try to delay a final vote for various reasons. They may be attempting to prevent any final vote and therefore defeat the measure under consideration, but they may also use a delay in order to make a deal, or simply to allow more time for opposition to form. Indeed, it appears in Hagel nomination that GOP opposition of cloture the first time around was a combination of all those things. Some Senators -- Inhofe, Cruz, maybe as many as 30 or 35 others -- just wanted to defeat Hagel. Lindsey Graham said at the time that he wanted to block the nomination until the Obama Administration turned over information to him. And McCain (joined by up to about 15 others) sometimes joined in Graham's argument, and at other times just said he wanted more time in case some "bombshell" was found.

Those are all different, and worth distinguishing -- but they're all filibusters!

Indeed, assuming that cloture is invoked today, the next step would be a vote, but if Republicans insist on taking up the full available hours of post-cloture time, then technically it would be proper to say that the filibuster continues. Even though at that point all the filibuster does is delay the vote further to a time certain, it's still a delay, and a delay is a filibuster.

The one thing that I'll say is a bit tricky is whether it's correct to say that "Republicans" are filibustering. In this case, for example, a few Republicans did support cloture the first time around; certainly they were not supporting the filibuster...but most Republicans were. Sometimes, however, it's harder to know, especially when the delay doesn't produce an actual cloture vote, or when Republicans are more split. It seems to me that it's correct to say that Republicans are filibustering in that all of them, without exception, support the 60-vote standard -- even for those times when they are part of the 60. But clearly not all Republicans actually support the filibuster on everything; sometimes, very few of them support the filibuster, even though they all support the concept of the 60-vote standard. Yes, it's tricky to write about that; what I think reporters should strive to do is to find language that reflects the reality of the Republican-imposed 60-vote standard, on top of language that reflects what Republicans (and, for that matter, Democrats) are actually doing on any vote.

At any rate, there's no question about whether there has been a filibuster on Chuck Hagel. What I'd say is that there's also no question about whether there's been a filibuster against every nominee; there has been. Even the ones who had unanimous support. As long as they insist on 60, it's a filibuster.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Fats Domino, 85.

Good stuff, good stuff:

1. That "clearing the field" idea is back; Ed Kilgore has a good take on it.

2. Jonathan Chait on Bob Woodward.

3. Michelle Cottle on what Rove's up to.

4. And the Academy Awards? Here's Shani O. Hilton; here's Alyssa Rosenberg; and one more here.

Monday Movies Post

Ever heard of a movie called "Men Must Fight"? It's an MGM film from 1933, directed by Edgar Selwyn (from a play by Reginald Lawrence and S. K. Lauren). Here's the original NYT review. The main person you're likely to recognize is Lewis Stone, who plays the Secretary of State; also in it is Robert Young, in a brief part, and Hedda Hopper, three years before she transitioned from actor to gossip columnist. You may also recognize Robert Greig, a large man who is, as usual, cast as a butler (he's in The Lady Eve and other Preston Sturges movies); also, May Robson, who plays Stone's mother, you should know from "Bringing Up Baby." The star, Diana Wynyard, is I suppose famous for the British version of "Gaslight."

I won't go through the plot, but it's essentially an argument between female pacifism and male honor. I have no idea how the original play balanced it, but here the argument is awfully close to a draw. Stone, the Secretary of State, spends his career making peace, but war comes in futuristic 1940 and he rallies to his duty -- while his wife opposes him both in public (she leads antiwar rallies) and within the family, where they fight for the loyalty of their son. Will he remain a pacifist, or will he enlist?

As a movie, it has the advantages and disadvantages of its time. It's very talky; they move the action around a fair amount, but it still has the sensibility of a theatrical play. Which obviously worked sometimes, but falls short in many films of that era. What "Men Must Fight" does have going for it are special effects, including a spectacular enemy air raid on New York City. Okay, it's not 21st century effects, or even 1970s effects, but it's still fun. As is the television in their 1940 "future" -- I wonder if this movie features the first-ever time anyone ever tossed something through a TV screen out of anger.

The contest between pacifism and honor, at least in my reading, was even enough that I was never really sure which side the movie was on, although I wouldn't say it's a particularly deep study of the subject. Alas, it's a bit undermined, to my eyes, at least, because Stone versus Wynyard is an unfair match; Stone is a pure screen actor, while Wynyard (at least here) seems theatrical, in that awkward way that many stars of the era had.

What's interesting is that the plot largely serves to take a group of people who have various attitudes towards patriotism and war and eventually realign them strictly on gender lines. That is, Stone is a man of peace between the wars, but once war threatens he's honor-bound to support it; the suggestion that he should resign in protest is beyond his understanding. Other characters, too, switch sides as the move goes along. The gender politics is made explicit in the final scene...well, that, and the title. Indeed, the title basically is the argument of the story; men, we're told, really must (by their natures) fight.

(By the way, Wynyard's character is could easily be the inspiration for Joan Collins in "City on the Edge of Forever." Not saying she was, at all, just the she could have been).

I said it had the advantages of the era; one of them is that it's short and efficient, at just 72 minutes. Certainly held my attention. That said, it's by no means a great movie. I'll give it a very mild recommendation; you'll probably find it worth the hour plus if you're particularly interested in what folks in 1933 through of war, or if you're interested in gender and politics of that era.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Elsewhere: Budget

Well, I found out today that the phone lines here at Plain Blog World Headquarters can't withstand a mild breeze, and so blogging was slower than expected (it was a bit windy; I wound up getting disconnected and having to reboot four times so far. Not fun).

But I do have new posts out, both about sequestration, elsewhere. At Greg's place, I hit the GOP for pretending that the 2012 elections never happened. Truth is that the GOP rhetoric surrounding the budget has gone from weak to weaker...there's just no way that anyone is going to be convinced by what they are saying. Not, of course, that it's all that big a deal, but still. Anyway, at PP I suggested the two reasons that we keep getting impasses on the budget: it might be because it's natural for budget negotiations to wind up going to the last minute, but it also might be because Republicans won't reconcile their own views about taxes and deficits.

And as long as I'm here...if you missed it over the weekend, my Salon column was about how the GOP spin on sequestration undermines productive budget negotiations.

2012 and GOP Candidates

Dave Weigel on Friday argued that there's been too much emphasis on disastrous GOP Senate candidates, especially the Tea Party ones; Ramesh Ponnuru follows up on that today by pointing out (again) that Mitt Romney ran ahead of most GOP Senate candidates. I think I agree with the main point each of them makes...but there's a lot going on here. I'll go bullet-point style:

* As I've said many times, the out-party candidate challenging an incumbent president just isn't very important.

* The big thing that the out-party candidate can get wrong is being perceived as an ideological outlier; in my view, Romney probably did about as well on that as any Republican could have done in 2012.

* That still leaves open the possibility that Romney lost a point or two on ideology; if so, it was certainly because of the GOP, not him.

* I agree with Weigel that the direct costs of awful Tea Party candidates is probably a bit overstated, and almost certainly gets more attention that it deserves.

* However, the indirect effects are likely large -- because fringe primary winners, including those who go on to win general elections, surely deter strong candidates from entering in the first place.

* While it's impossible to prove a direct one-to-one connection, that recruitment failure was the actual big story of 2012, with Republicans unable to nominate strong candidates in potentially competitive states including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

* To the extent it's true, that recruitment disincentive is a potentially huge effect (there can even be third-order effects from it, with Democrats able to deploy resources better because of dud GOP candidates).

* That said...Republicans certainly had solid-on-paper candidates in Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota, and none of them did well. In Wisconsin, they just mistook former Governor Tommy Thompson for a strong general election candidate; can't blame Tea Partiers for that one.

* Although in at least some of these cases, the party may make it difficult for those candidates to run their strongest races.

* While, again, I think the general point that Romney did okay given the fundamentals is fine, one needs to be very, very, careful about comparing presidential results with any single other statewide race; candidates and campaign can make a large difference in the latter, so one can't really judge the presidential candidate by simple comparisons to state-election results.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Monte Irvin, 94.

The good stuff:

1. Garance Franke-Ruta on activism, politics, life, AIDS...must read.

2. The reality, or lack thereof, of future US government debt. Jeff Spross explains.

3. And Sarah Kliff on some interesting ACA polling.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Question for Liberals

I think this is another repeat question, but since I wrote a thing this week saying again that Barack Obama's biggest mistake has been failing to promptly make appointments, I figured I might as well ask all of you: what do you think has been Obama's biggest mistake?

Mind you, I'm especially interested in "mistakes" which were things that were actually within his ability to do. But as usual with Sunday questions, interpret it however you like; I'm just interested in what liberals (and conservatives) think about things.

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Over the last two weeks, Republican reformers have written several critiques that have received a fair amount of attention (I thought Ross Douthat's summary was good and important), which makes it a good time for an assessment: what do you think of the Republican reaction to the 2012 elections so far?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

What Mattered This Week?

Quiet news week, no? I'll go ahead and pick the developments in Syria as something that mattered, or at least could matter. 

And a cheat for what didn't matter -- I'll pick the argument over who originally proposed sequestration. The truth of it doesn't really matter, but I argued in my Salon column today that the fact that Republicans chose that as their spin is quite bad for current and future negotiations.

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

Friday, February 22, 2013

February 22, 1973

Howard Baker, the top Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee meets secretly in the White House with the president in the Oval Office -- there's no record of it in the White House official records of such things. Baker tells the president (according to a conversation between Nixon and Erhlichman the next day) that the committee intends to build up slowly to the major witnesses; in Nixon's words, they would "call of a lot of pipsqueak witnesses, little, little shitasses over periods of weeks to build it up, and then build the pressure to call" the headliners. The fight, from the White House, is to keep Colson, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman -- and Dean, too -- from testifying based on a doctrine of executive privilege; the committee is going to try to defeat that by making it politically impossible for Nixon to refuse. Baker suggests just having the big names go first, in order to deflate the whole thing, but as Nixon tells Erhlichman the problem with it is exposing Haldeman and Colson (and, presumably, Ehrlichman too) to perjury. To Baker, he suggests some sort of deal in which the top men give testimony privately, but Baker won't go for it -- and, Emery points out, was in no position to grant it anyway.

Friday Baseball Post

The Friday Baseball Post is really an elsewhere this week; for those who didn't see it earlier, I wrote something for Baseball Prospectus about Paul Richards (who regular readers will know I had developed a bit of an obsession with). So there's that. Bonus fact. You know Walker Cooper, right? He managed exactly two years, both in the minors. The first year, with the 1958 Indianapolis Indians, he managed Joe Altobelli, Sam Mele, and Bobby Winkles. Perhaps not the greatest set of managers of all time, but that's a still a lot of games managed for one minor league roster, no? Also -- the team had Killebrew, Norm Cash, and Johnny Callison. That's not bad.

Beyond that, I'm very much looking forward to listening to the first weekend of games from Arizona for the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. Excellent!

Safe Seats Do Not Mean Gerrymandering

I guess we're not explaining this well enough.

Dave Weigel:
I enjoy the new, #slatepitchy argument that gerrymandering is overrated as an issue, and that it doesn't influence whether members moderate their votes or not, but sequestration's putting that to a test.
Kevin Drum:
Hold on a second. Who's saying that? The argument I've heard making the rounds lately is that gerrymandering is probably responsible for a fairly modest change in the number of House seats Republicans won last year...But who's been saying that gerrymandering has no effect on whether members feel any need to moderate their votes or their rhetoric? What have I missed?
What both of these normally astute writers are missing is that gerrymandering (drawing district lines for political reasons) is only one reason for safe seats.

Why are there safe seats? Lots of reasons, including:

* Geographic distribution of partisans. If Democrats and Republicans live in different neighborhoods, or different cities, or are differently drawn from urban, suburban, and rural areas, then you're very likely to get lots of safe partisan seats unless districts are very specifically drawn to prevent it.

* Partisan voting. As voting by party increases, any Republican in a Republican seat becomes safer, as do Democrats in Democratic seats.

* Incumbency. Even Republicans in Democratic districts can be safe if incumbency advantages are strong enough.

* Information. To the extent that, say, Republicans get most of their political information from the GOP-aligned partisan press, they're very likely to support their current Republican Member of Congress. Note that the old "neutral" press tended to be extremely incumbent-friendly to their Congressional delegations.

* Gerrymandering. Be careful, though. The kind of gerrymandering that tends to create safe seats, especially for the majority party, is bipartisan gerrymandering -- the kind in which incumbents from both parties cooperate to draft lines that protect all incumbents. See California, 2002-2010, for a famous example. Partisan gerrymandering tends to yield more seats for the majority party at the cost of each of those seats being relatively less safe. However, partisan gerrymandering, to the extent it's successful, should make the "victim" party have safe seats; the idea is to pack as many of the minority party into as few seats as possible, but to use majority voters more efficiently.

So: yes, gerrymandering has effects, although they're less impressive than many think. But when it comes to safe seats, gerrymandering on the whole won't be a major factor, and partisan gerrymanders in particular shouldn't (overall) produce more truly safe seats for the majority party. Of course, it may produce some; one of Weigel's example is a Member whose seat was made safer through partisan redistricting. On the other hand, however, perhaps without that gerrymander (and I haven't looked into what happened in this case) the seat wouldn't have been a safe Republican seat at all; maybe it would have been a Democratic seat.

Generally, this reminder: for whatever reason, people really, really, really like attributing effects to gerrymanders. So if you come across one of these, by careful: it's very possible that something else is really at work.

Catch of the Day

The Catch goes to Jane Mayer, who turns up a nice example of Ted Cruz going all McCarthy on the Harvard Law School faculty from, she says, a speech two and a half years ago:

He then went on to assert that Obama, who attended Harvard Law School four years ahead of him, “would have made a perfect president of Harvard Law School.” The reason, said Cruz, was that, “There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists! There was one Republican. But there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”
Mayer then checks with Republican Charles Fried, of the Harvard Law School faculty, who reports that there are at least four Republicans...and, no, no one who believes in "the Communists overthrowing the United States government."

Now, Chuck Gunner Ted is a smart guy by all accounts; it's unlikely that he really believes the stuff that he's saying, but he knows exactly where the rewards lie in the current GOP.

That's why the effort by Alec MacGillis to defend Cruz is really wrong. Yes, it's true that there's really no reason that new Senators should just shut up and respect their elders for their first several years in office, and it's true that we should be suspicious of stories that quote veteran Senators who are upset with newly elected politicians who won't keep their mouths closed. But if what they're guilty of is McCarthyite tactics, then, yes, the right thing to do is to call them out on it. Whether they've been in the Senate for a few weeks or a few decades. And whether or not it's easier to get confirming quotes from actual Senators for unrelated reasons.

Put it this way: Ted Cruz is choosing what kind of reputation he wants. He's going to be rewarded for that from the sorts of people who promote "Friends of Hamas." Is he also going to suffer penalties from everyone else? He certainly should.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Jonathan Demme, 69. I don't understand why Paul Le Mat didn't become a star, but I guess that's for another day.

So let's get to the good stuff:

1. Ross Douthat on Republican reformers and the states.

2. Good Conor Friedersdorf piece on the GOP-aligned partisan press.

3. They send letters, don't they? Official ones. Dave Weigel on a 19th century custom that works for the 21st century.

4. And I'm very proud of my brother's obsession with politicians at work.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

February 21, 1973

Very little today; Haldeman's diary says that he spoke to the president only once but Nixon "covered an amazing array and range of subjects. His first concern was the meeting he had with Rex Scott [?] about the colors in the [new White House] bowling alley..."

Jimmy Who?

I see on twitter that Jimmy Carter will go on Piers Morgan tonight to whine about how Barack Obama isn't nice enough to him.

This naturally got me thinking about what sitcom character most resembles, resembles isn't exactly it. Captures the idea of Jimmy Carter? Helps explain Carter? It's somewhere in there.

My first thought, perhaps because I've been watching quite a bit of 30 Rock, was Jenna Maroney, who nicely captures Carter's constant emphasis on himself. Jenna, too, was ambitious beyond her talents (although she is talented, right?), and could be quite vicious on behalf of herself. They're both Southern, too.

On the other about Diane Chambers? Diane may not have been quite as all-about-me as Jenna, but she's fairly close, and I like that her ambitions usually end in disaster, which fits better. Diane is smart, too, and Carter is certainly smart. Diane, too, gets the sanctimonious side of Carter, including that Diane is sometimes right. Self-centered, sanctimonious....that's also George Costanza, no? I don't quite see him as Carter; neither the nebbishness nor the sarcasm really fit.

I really like Carter as a show-biz narcissist who thinks of his narcassism as virtuous. That rules out, say, Larry Sanders, who knows (at least one one level) that he's a horrible person. Or Tracy Jordon, who knows (again, on at least one level) that he's preposterous. Which is why Jenna really appeals to me. She seems to honestly believe that it's all about her, and it should be all about her. Not that Jimmy Carter has that level of bluntness -- he doesn't at all. But it's what he should be self-aware about.

But maybe someone has a better idea? If not, Jenna is my frontrunner for now.

What Will 2016 Dems Fight About?

I have a piece up at TAP trying to predict the issues that might divide Democratic candidates in 2016; yes, it's early, but as I say over there, if it's not too early to rank the candidates, why not also rank the issues? I'm not looking at the issues they'll run on, so much, but on those that might spark real disagreement. After all, in contested primaries, issues are one of the ways that candidates attempt to differentiate themselves from the pack. At the same time, while party-aligned groups may try to achieve consensus (as health care reform advocates basically did in 2008, or as marriage equality advocates will surely do in 2016), they also mayget candidates to compete for who has the best positions. And then, of course, party-aligned groups may disagree on what exactly is the best policy.

I picked climate, drones and terror, work and families, Pentagon spending, and agriculture/energy as likely topics for disagreement. In some cases (drones, Pentagon, perhaps energy) because the party really is divided; in others (climate, work and families, perhaps energy) because they're united on goals but unsure on the best policy to achieve them. Oh, and I'll probably do a list for the Republicans next week, either over there or back here.

So, what do you think? Did I get any of them wrong? What am I missing?

Read Stuff, You Should

So many good choices, but Happy Birthday to Alan Rickman, 67.

Also, good stuff:

1. Friends of Hamas are everywhere -- Tim Murphy reports. As does Adam Serwer.

2. Apparently the way the US does security clearances is a few decades behind the times. No surprise. John Hamre proposes an update.

3. Matt Yglesias on BipartisanThink.

4. Since I linked to the original: CAP's Neera Tanden responds to TNR on think tanks.

5. And Andrew Gelman cites Bill James correctly.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

February 20, 1973

Haldeman's Diary:


John [Ehrlichman, presumably] and I had a long meeting this evening with John Dean, on the whole Watergate question. Dean is very concerned, especially about the financial-support aspects. But doesn't know how to handle his concern, and feels that we've got to get Mitchell into it and get some help from him.

The Possible Sequester Deal

Kevin Drum thinks that "There is No Possible Sequester Deal to be Made" and goes through the various possibilities, showing that every permutation but one -- kicking the can down the road -- is worse than the status quo for one side or the other.

So for example, replacing the defense cuts with more domestic cuts is worse for Democrats than just letting the sequester take effect; replacing the defense cuts with new taxes is worse for Republicans than letting the sequester kick in.

I think, however, there is a possible deal that could be made that he's missing: one in which Democrats win on substance, but Republicans get symbolic wins. What that would entail would be much smaller and better targeted real spending cuts, but no new revenues and most of the sequester replaced by phony cuts.

If it happened, it would presumably be for the late-March deadline which requires a new CR or else the government shuts down; as I've been saying (and Stan Collender has been saying) and as Greg Sargent reports today, it looks as if that's the target for the real deal. After all, anything that gets cut on March 1 can always be restored in the must-pass bill that will either keep the government operating or, if they miss the deadline, re-open it.

For Democrats, a mostly-phony cuts deal would be better than nothing because it would protect both the programs Democrats support and, presumably, the economy (from taking an austerity hit). True, they would have to support another cuts-only deficit reduction package instead of a "balanced" approach, but if the size was right virtually everything in the package could be things that Democrats actually want to cut.

For Republicans, the main virtue of that kind of deal would be to put budget politics behind them for a while without having to accept any new revenues. Granted, they wouldn't get the deficit reduction they say they want, but then again all signs are they don't really care about that. Also, they wouldn't get some of the real cuts they probably do want. That's a cost, but then again most of those cuts are protected by the sequester, so they don't get them with or without a deal.

I think as far as substance is concerned, that's a win for both sides compared with the status quo. Actually striking the deal, and selling it to partisans, might be harder, but thanks to Washington Monument strategies it's at least possible that a month from now constituents on both sides will be eager to accept anything that sounds good.

Behind Incoherent GOP Spin

Conservative Byron York today blasts the Republicans, and Speaker Boehner in particular, for incoherent spin on the sequester.

I basically agree with him...the GOP message is that the sequester is (1) terrible and all Barack Obama's fault; and (2) better than smaller cuts, with or without additional revenues; and, (3) just a small down payment on the size of the cuts that are really needed...basically makes no sense. 

The question is: why? And I think the answer is the same as the answer for why Mitt Romney's campaign was incoherent much of the time: the effects of the GOP-aligned press and the conservative information feedback loop. Basically, it's just too easy for Republicans. They compose talking points, feed them to Fox News and the rest, and partisan Republicans eat them up. The only real danger is that someone in the GOP press seeking to one-up everyone else will deem the talking points insufficiently conservative. That's the beauty of the otherwise insipid "the sequester was Obama's idea" line: if there's one thing that's pretty safe from being labeled "RINO," it's bashing Barack Obama.

Notice that coming up with spin that might be effective outside the conservative loop not only is a lot harder -- but also risks that RINO tag. 

But I've said before, for those who compose the talking points, it must just be so rewarding to decide today that "the sequester was Obama's idea" and then in a week see it show up "spontaneously" in the mouths of rank-and-file Republicans -- in talk-show callers, blog commenters, in letters to your boss, even in regular conversation with your conservative friends and family outside Washington. It must really feel like you've accomplished something. 

And, in turn, not only does that make picking a message that will be unquestioningly accepted by Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them very tempting, but it also removes most of the incentives for fashioning an actually persuasive message.

Now: all that said, as you may suspect I still don't think it matters very much. If the sequester hits, most of the political effect will not be determined by who has the most coherent spin. But as far as it goes, that sure seems to be what's at work.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Anthony Stewart Head, 59.

1. Brendan Nyhan also wrote about parties, third parties, and change yesterday. His is really good, and has numbered points. I think it's shorter than mine, too. Did I mention it's really good?

2. Also excellent: Seth Masket on ideology and the GOP. I agree with his main point that Republicans are not in any extreme electoral danger over extremism, although I do think it's very possible that their lousy image cost them a bit in 2012. But Obama's margin of victory was too large to attribute to GOP extremism, especially when objective factors were on the Democrats' side. What I've been saying is that what's wrong with the GOP (and surely there is something wrong) matters much more to governing than to elections.

3. Think tanks can make you rich. Hey, if anyone wants me, I'll do it for less! Ken Silverstein reports.

4. Nate Silver thinks about where Marco Rubio is on an ideology, and how that fits for GOP WH 2016.

5. And Alyssa Rosenberg on the movies, making a point about our topsy-turvy world: we're well on the way to a time in which everyone watches TV shows on their own schedules, but movies are watched at almost the same time (that is, on the night or at least the weekend that they open). 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Substance, Style, and Knowing the Difference

I finally got to the NYT Style section from Sunday, and spotted this gem:
“The fabric of politics has always been gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes,” he said, a little angrily. “I mean, Dukakis in the tank, that’s a meme. Political coverage that wants to be solely high-minded is missing huge chunks of the actual interplay of personality and power that is what actually drives things.” 
He in this case being Buzzfeed's Ben Smith.

Look: it's really, really okay to cover "gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes." That stuff is fun to read! I love a lot of it!

But don't feel that you have to justify it by saying that it "actually drives things" when it doesn't. Dukakis in a tank didn't "actually drive things," other than a bit of press coverage that voters paid no attention to. To bring us up to date: etch-a-sketch didn't actually drive things, nor did...ah, I think that John Sides had a list of them, but I can't find it just now.

Granted, there's some "high-minded" stuff that doesn't drive things either! But that's okay, too.

Reporters: it's totally fine for you to cover the fun parts of politics. You're telling your readers and viewers interesting stories; that's fine -- and at least from my perspective, much better than turning yourselves into glorified local news reporters (weather! murders! cruise ship mishaps!). All you have to do to keep me and others from being cranky is to stop claiming more for your stories than they can support.

Both the style and the substance of politics are worthwhile subjects for reporters. Just don't confuse them. Okay?

A Whole Lot About Parties, Third Parties, and Change

Recall that Ron Fournier wrote a recent column about how the Republicans and Democrats are in danger of cracking up, and that Brendan Nyhan and I wrote responses bashing him a bit. Well, Fournier apparently doesn't read TAP, but he did respond to Nyhan in a column today that I think is very helpful at sorting out where Fournier -- and his informants, who are political professionals -- have something worth saying, and where they get things wrong.

The short version: what Fournier and the political professionals are seeing is the potential for change within the parties. They are (or he is) mistakenly confusing it for the potential for third-party change.

I'll start with what's useful, which is what Fournier reports about what the world looks like to established party professionals. For them, the world is unstable; new technologies mean that new people, and new movements, can emerge at any point and from anywhere.

They're right! Partially right: I'm not convinced that technology is the cause, or at least not this particular set of technologies.

Indeed, a lot of this is just "it's always been that way." There's never been a point in time in which top-down national parties controlled everything, and the only way to get involved was to work one's way up within that party. Presidential campaigns have always been contested, and often won, by outsiders who challenge party leadership and then partially displace and partially are absorbed by the old leadership. For that matter, the idea that the Washington party establishment was a separate, self-sustaining thing is itself on the new side: until some 50 years ago, there were very few party professionals (formal party staff, consultants, Hill and White House staff, and more) in Washington.

That's also true for Fournier's concern about the party committees. He says:

A senior official inside the Democratic National Committee told me that he considers Obama to be the head of an independent party. The president built an infrastructure outside the DNC, the official argued, and wields powers once monopolized by the DNC: Fundraising, messaging and voter persuasion.

In a sense, we already have a third party -- the BOP, Barack Obama Party. Isn’t it possible that Obama paved a path for a more radical readjustment?
But the party committees never really have a "monopoly" on party activity even when the party doesn't have the White House, and when the party does have the White House there's always a president's party that co-exists, usually with a fair amount of tension, with the formal party organization.  That's just a function of the way that the US political parties are organized, which in turn is in part historical accident, in part the consequences of political regulation, and probably in part the consequences of a largely decentralized system.

What else does Fournier have?
I believe that Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean and even Wesley Clark are examples of how a political system can be challenged by a disaffected electorate, even in the absence of a strong candidate. In particular, Dean’s campaign illustrated the magnifying effect of technology. What if Perot and Buchanan had access to the Internet?
Well...since Dean's campaign failed to, you know, win anywhere, it's hard to be too impressed by its mythology. But regardless: all of these candidates other than Perot (and I suppose Buchanan in '00) were very much party efforts to control their own party. That they failed, or that Obama's sort-of insurgent campaign succeeded, may tell us something about influence within the parties, and within the party presidential nomination process, but it doesn't say anything at all about third parties. In fact, the Buchanan story is useful for that. As an insurgent conservative campaign against a president who had disappointed conservatives, Buchanan was able to make a fair amount of noise; as a factional nomination candidate in 1996, Buchanan was able to win a quarter of the votes in many states in a crowded field. As an independent candidate in 2000, however, Buchanan was a big nothing.

What that leaves is Perot. Perot -- and John Anderson, before him -- certainly shows that when the conditions are right it's possible for a third-party or independent candidate to make a significant showing. But Perot and Anderson also show that they can do so without having any lasting effects whatsoever. And that's because Perot and Anderson were almost exclusively voter-supported ego trips. They weren't pushed into their campaigns by organized groups frustrated at their lack of representation by the major parties, or by dissatisfied organized groups within the major parties.

And the key thing here is that these two points -- the Dean, Clark or Buchanan party attempted takeovers, and the lack of any significant third-party candidate with significant organized group support since at least 1968 -- go together. Our political parties are (apparently) doing a good job of assimilating new groups and new movements and new interests. Tea Partiers don't need an alternative to the Republican Party because they believed (with good reason) that they could get much of what they wanted out of the Republican Party. Opponents of the Iraq War didn't need an alternative to the Democratic Party because they believed (with good reason) that they could turn the Democrats from mixed on Iraq to almost solidly opposed. Nor are there large pools of emerging interest groups who are shut out by the existing parties.

Granted: each party is always going to have some internal tensions, and it's always possible, if you squint hard enough, to imagine cleavages that could emerge. What if the Wall Street portion of the GOP finally gets fed up with the evangelical portion of the GOP? But for the most part, what we've seen over the last fifty years is that if groups do want to split, they're usually more than welcome in the other party. And most of the time they don't want to split; to say that there are tensions is a long, long way from saying that they're better off on their own.

One important part of that is partisanship itself. One of the effects of the growth of truly national parties and stronger state parties in the last fifty years is that both institutional structure and partisan networks have been established on both sides, and that the strength of those structures makes breaking with them relatively more costly. If you're a politician thinking about entering a House race in Michigan or Georgia, the fact of national party networks makes your job much easier. Hiring a pollster who won't just make up numbers, a fundraiser who won't steal from you, a media outfit that will give you what they promise...that's a lot easier if you can rely on your party network and party institutions. So is tapping into existing fundraising networks -- even in these days of easier fundraising.

Moreover, because parties are now more network-based than they once are, and what ties all these different parts of the party together is partisanship, I suspect it's a lot harder to split off than it once was. Think about a stereotypical 19th century party, which might take the form of a series of fiefdoms -- urban or rural machines of one kind or another, with a Boss at the top of each. What ties the various fiefdoms together is the need to come together to nominate candidates -- governors, or presidents. It seems to me that there's relatively little to keep a Boss from switching sides (that is, from one political party to the other) or, perhaps, for Bosses on the losing end from both parties to agree to team up and form a new party. Since the fiefdoms are largely independent outside of presidential (or statewide) races, they can do that without changing anything within the Boss's territory.

That's not what parties look like these days. Instead, local, state, and national parties are interconnected in all sorts of ways. Leaving almost certainly has higher costs. And because the parties are less hierarchical, the choice of sticking and fighting is more appealing.

So, to put it all together as far as third parties are concerned...while one can never fully predict what will happen, what we can say is that the current major parties are very strong. Neither shows any of the kinds of weaknesses that could lead to a crack-up and a third party forming. It is still true, nevertheless, that an independent run is possible at any time, although it's less likely to happen in an open-seat presidential contest that we'll have in 2016 and it's at least a bit suggestive that nothing turned up in 2012 when the circumstances might have been fairly good for one. If we do get a strong independent run, it's even vaguely possible it could do as well as Perot or even better, although there are good structural reasons that it's very unlikely. Even if it happens, however, the most likely aftermath is that it will disappear without a trace.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Smokey Robinson, 73. Have to throw in a link to songs written by Robinson, too.  Also: how does "A Love She Can Count On" fail to reach the Top Ten, anyway?

Ah, the good stuff:

1. Jonathan Chait on Republican reformers.

2. Brits, too, need to move on from Maggie, says Alex Massie.

3. Andrew Sprung on where the missing great lines are.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Against P Day

(My regular, rerun post for the holiday)

Presidents Day is a terrible idea for a holiday.  Just an awful idea.  In this republic, there's absolutely no good reason to take a day to honor our presidents.

On the other hand, Washington's Birthday is a perfectly good idea.  If we're going to honor great Americans, and we should, I'm not going to argue with those who put George Washington first on the list of those to be honored.  In fact, the official federal holiday is Washington's Birthday, but lots of states have renamed it to Presidents Day or something similar.

The consensus Three Greatest Presidents are Washington, Lincoln, and (Franklin) Roosevelt, and I wouldn't argue with any celebration of those three. The other two Greatest Men Who Were Presidents are Jefferson and the sadly undercommemorated Madison, and I'm also on board with honoring them (I'm not a huge Jefferson fan, but I don't really object to his status as a great American. Want to argue Adams?  Ike?  Take it to comments).  On the other hand, I'm also pretty comfortable with Washington and King being the only two Americans honored with national holidays.

So, Happy Washington's Birthday, even if it isn't actually Washington's birthday, and even if most of what you're seeing are references to Presidents Day, President's Day, or Presidents' Day -- any way you spell it, a really bad idea.  Which reminds me -- if you happen to think of James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, or Richard Nixon today, I think what you're supposed to do is spit twice over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Question for Liberals

And the same question, again more or less for the holiday tomorrow: which US president has been overrated? Underrated?

To give a sense of how they're rated (critical to questions about under- and overrating!), use this excellent wikipedia page. Oh, and I'll set the same rules for the liberals that I set for conservatives: let's leave Barack Obama out of it.

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Let's do one for the holiday tomorrow, more or less: which US president has been overrated? Underrated?

To give a sense of how they're rated (critical to questions about under- and overrating!), use this excellent wikipedia page. Oh, and let's leave Barack Obama out of it; I don't take seriously the one survey to date which includes him.

Elsewhere: 3rd Parties, Hagel, More

I've been negligent on these posts again, but catching up now. My weekend column at Salon was about the Hagel filibuster, and what it indicates about any Supreme Court nomination. It's what I've been saying for some time: of course there's going to be a 60 vote standard, although that doesn't mean that all Republicans who oppose a SCOTUS pick will necessarily vote against cloture. But most will.

At TAP on Friday, I knocked down the idea that technology or whatever will lead to a crack-up of the Democrats and Republicans.

I'm not going to link specifically to everything else, but earlier in the week at PP I talked about the GOP and symbolic politics with regard to the new push for a Balanced Budget Amendment. And at Greg's place I've been pushing the idea that Democrats should at least threaten to reopen Senate reform, at least with regard to executive branch nominations.

February 16, 1973

Why did Richard Nixon decide to nominate L. Patrick Gray to be the director of the FBI? Apparently, it was all about loyalty, which Nixon decided was more important than brains -- which he didn't think Gray really had -- or the risks that were involved in having someone go up for confirmation hearings who wasn't really fully part of the cover-up but nonetheless had plenty of guilty knowledge.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What Mattered This Week?

Well, it was SOTU week; that matters. On policy, I think the big question isn't whether Obama makes much progress on his preschool plan -- he probably won't -- but whether it starts moving up on the priority list of Democrats, which it certainly might.

It's hard to see how the North Korea nuke test matters.

That's what I have -- what about you? What do you think mattered this week?

Friday Baseball Post

Nothing long today, because I'm actually working on a longer baseball thing, but: Pitchers and Catchers Report! Are there better words in the American language? Not that I know of.

I've talked before about how great it was growing up in Phoenix in the earlier days of the Cactus League, when the ballparks were not crowded, and everything was smaller scale. And how we used to drive to Francisco Grande every spring to see the Giants workouts. Back then, there were only a handful of teams, and they weren't all in the Phoenix area -- the Angels were in Palm Springs, the Padres in Yuma, the Indians in Tucson. But spring training was great fun. Of course, the other thing that young'ns probably don't realize is that well into the 1970s the opportunities to see major league baseball at all were very limited if you weren't in a big league city. There was the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week, and for a while ABC had Monday Night Baseball, but that was it outside of the All Star Game and the postseason. And of course the team selection for those games was just like today's Sunday games on ESPN: if your team wasn't very good and wasn't in New York, you might see them once or twice a season. So it was just an incredible treat to see spring training games.

By the way, did I mention that the team in Scottsdale is the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants? It sure doesn't get old.

Friday, February 15, 2013

When the "Personal" is Party Business

One more quick one on Chuck Hagel. Kevin Drum argues that GOP opposition to Hagel is personal, based on his lack of loyalty to the party: "It's crazy and off the rails, but it's also personal."

I think it's reasonable to suspect that Hagel's turncoat actions made him a target, and I think Drum is right to say that it's been underappreciated (including by me, in my item earlier today). But if it's really exactly that -- what an article Drum quotes from lists as tacit support for Obama over McCain in 2008, and support for Bob Kerrrey over Deb Fischer in last year's Nebraska Senate contest -- then I'm not sure that I'd really say it's personal.

Parties have very strong incentives to enforce partisan loyalty on their elected officials. That's especially true, and difficult, in the US system, with it's decentralized and relatively open nomination system. Basically, it's really hard to punish incumbents when renomination has an enormous incumbency advantage.

Now, given that we're talking about McCain, it's certainly possible that it's purely personal...McCain certainly appears to be acting on personal grudges half the time, regardless of what other incentives are going on. And it's also possible that there are other things in the "personal' column having to do with Republican Senators relationship with Hagel when they were in the Senate together.

But as far as institutional incentives: when you get a chance to punish a disloyal party politician, it makes sense to do so. That's not personal; it's (party) business.

Ted Cruz and the Hagel Fight

Twitter back-and-forth caught my eye:
Philip Klein: Imagine how differently the Hagel vote would have turned out had Dewhurst won TX Sen primary.

Dan Drezner: Not an iota's worth.

Philip Klein: Disagree. Cruz was the leader of the opposition publicly & privately & his presence is has moved Cornyn to the right.

Dan Drezner: Cruz has alienated as many as he impressed. And in yesterday's vote, wavering GOP senators followed McCain's lead, not Cruz.
If the honest answer is probably "we don't know," it's still worth a bit of speculation.

Would Republicans in general decided to target Hagel if Cruz wasn't a public and private leader of the opposition? It seems fairly likely to me that they would have. Republicans really love the theme of accusing people of abandoning Israel. It works for them on many levels. Not just the almost certainly futile effort to win Jewish votes, and not just currying favor with pro-Israel Christians. It's also a rare area of foreign policy in which they can advance a plausibly popular position that doesn't actually involve advocating war or the threat of war. Without, that is, alienating the party's hawks. In other words, considering both unity within the party and popularity outside of it, ultrafanatical support of Israel may be the best possible issue within foreign policy and national security for the GOP. The only real drawback is that it doesn't actually involve differences with anyone, but that's made up by exaggerating or inventing any deviation from standard American political support for Israel. Thus, the enthusiasm of the GOP in opposing Hagel.

What Drezner says about wavering Senators following McCain's lead is probably correct, although that doesn't answer the question of why McCain supported cloture. Suppose that without Cruz we still get basically the same anti-Hagel sentiment among Republicans, perhaps with someone else grandstanding (and, as Drezner hints, perhaps in a less irresponsible way). Would McCain still have stuck with the opponents through the first cloture vote? Possibly! On the other hand -- maybe better leadership for Hagel opponents would have put McCain solidly on board with the filibuster, thus putting Hagel in far more trouble than he currently appears to be (McCain and several other Republicans who voted against cloture yesterday have said that they plan to flip and vote for cloture after the Senate recess next week).

What we do know is that he's certainly impressed parts of the GOP-aligned press -- and that he's annoyed enough Senators to have generated, say, an item by Elspeth Reeve today reporting on public and private GOP rebukes to Cruz. Careful, however: those kinds of stories are almost always meaningful, but can be tricky to interpret (that is, some Senators are almost certainly annoyed by Cruz's behavior, but that doesn't necessarily mean he isn't influencing them).

My best guess would be that Cruz himself didn't make a lot of difference on Hagel. The idea that there was a norm against cabinet filibusters followed by Republicans the last few years, in my view, doesn't hold up at all. All that's happened is that for a variety of reasons we haven't had a nomination come to the floor with solid GOP opposition, so it hasn't really been put to the test. But I'll fully admit that's a best guess, not fact.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Nate Schierholtz, 29. Hey, he might not be much, but he was a piece of the 2010 World Series Champs, and I suppose he was sort of a piece of the 2012 World Series Champs, too.

A bit of good stuff:

1. Wait, deregulation may not have lowered airline fares? Huh. Kevin Drum brings us all up to date. Either way, airline deregulation in 1979 remains one of the strong pieces of evidence against "Reagan changed everything."

2. The anti-sequester plans, collected and explained by Brad Plumer.

3. And your MA-SEN special update, from David S. Bernstein.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Catch of the Day


Here's some good reporting: Dave Weigel digs through a claim that Chuck Hagel is "linked" to a group called "Friends of Hamas," and guess what? It's a group that apparently does not exist. Which hasn't stopped the GOP-aligned media from making a big deal of it, and from some GOP politicians -- including Senator Rand Paul -- from buying into the idea that Hagel should be blocked because of it.

Just to be clear: outside of the nonsense of phony, non-existent groups, the whole idea that a nominee should be held accountable for second and third degree "links" of this sort is absolutely reprehensible to begin with. It would be of legitimate concern to the Senate if Hagel was personally accepting money from scary-sounding (or actually scary) groups, at least in some circumstances. But to say that he should be help responsible for everyone who funds a group that in turn pays Hagel to give a talk? That's a witch hunt. And once you go down that road, there's no real limit to it; perhaps someone who donated to an organization who paid Hagel for something once had lunch with someone who sat on a board of an organization which had a donor who also donated to Hamas! Horrors!

At which point you might as well just invent a group and accuse Hagel of secretly taking money from them....oh, right, that's what actually happened.

Oh, and remember: we know exactly how information travels within the conservative feedback loop. There is precisely zero chance that "Friends of Hamas" will disappear just because it turns out to be phony; we'll be hearing occasionally about this one for years.

Regardless: nice catch!

Update: I came back in to fix the link, but as long as I'm here, I want to expand a bit on that last "feedback loop" paragraph. Assuming that Weigel is correct, here's what's going to happen. The person who concocted this thing will almost certainly will not be set back on his career within the GOP-aligned media in any way. Most of the folks who cited this thing -- Hewitt, Styles, Dobbs, McCarthy, and more -- will not issue corrections; some, in fact, will continue using it. No one within the GOP-aligned press will be any more skeptical of the next such story to emerge from the same place, or more hesitant to pick up stories from there. Nor will those who bought and spread the story be held accountable by anyone within the conservative movement, or suffer anything at all to their reputations within it.

It is absolutely not true that everyone within the conservative press are frauds, hacks, and charlatans. But it is true that all too often the incentives there do not encourage good work

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Scott McClellan, 45. As I've said before, I'm a fan of every single White House press secretary. Tough job.

1. Scott Walker's alternative to Medicaid expansion, from Sarah Kliff.

2. Dan Larison on smearing Hagel.

3. From Stephen Benedict Dyson, some evidence that Obama's SOTU and Inaugural are more assertive than his first term speeches.

4. And Spencer Ackerman on the Battle of Hoth -- and several responses.One question: Robert Farley is awful impressed by the clones as a fighting force. I don't know...the clones, with full Jedi support, were unable to defeat the droid army, which sure didn't seem all that impressive to me. Now, once must be careful about drawing conclusions from the Clone Wars, which we must remember at all times was a rigged contest designed and manipulated to be a prolonged stalemate...but still, logic suggests that the clones couldn't have been all that good.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

February 13, 1973

Back in Washington, after the weekend planning session in California. Haldeman says that on the plane back, on the 12th, the president "asked for a general rundown on the Watergate thing, and seemed to be in agreement with our overall approach as covered on the weekend." Which really doesn't amount to much, however.

Meanwhile, on the 13th, Haldeman reports that now Nixon is "inclining to go along with Gray at the FBI." That would indeed turn out to be an important decision.

Also, Chuck Colson is now leaving the White House and the government, on the theory that he'll be more valuable to Nixon outside than in. On the 13th and 14th the two of them discuss Watergate some more -- in particular the idea that perhaps they should get ahead of the Senate by having John Mitchell accept responsibility for ordering the break-in. It's a very attractive plan for not only Colson, but Haldeman and Ehrlichman (and presumably Dean) as well; if the campaign takes full responsibility for Watergate, and assuming Hunt and Liddy would still stay silent about the Plumbers, then the role of the White House in any crimes would still be covered up. Yes, it would still throw suspicion at the president because Nixon and Mitchell were close, but at least it's a plausible firewall.The problem with it, however, as it's been since June, is that there's still no real reason for Mitchell (and his deputy Magruder) to take the bullet for Haldeman and the rest of them at the White House.

Regardless: whatever the advantages of having a more plausible cover story (given the evidence, which made a rogue Liddy/Hunt operation implausible) back in June, by February there's probably too many people involved in the "post" activities -- the cover-up -- to make it work. At least, to make it work politically. Still, at least it would have had the advantage of pushing investigations away from Hunt and Liddy. Because through them are not just Watergate, but the Plumbers, and the difference between an out-of-control campaign and an out-of-control government.

Dept. of Not Ready for Prime Time

Okay, the water thing was fun but rapidly hit overkill; the fact that he was just repeating standard GOP rhetoric was true but unsurprising; and I figured there was no reason to get into the whole business because the SOTU response is a hopeless task, anyway. But this deserves noting:
But let's talk for a moment about his humbleboast, "I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in." Yes, that would be West Miami, where Rubio has been trying to sell that house for an un-working-class-like $675,000 so he can up and move his family to GODLESS ELITE DC.
That's (via Goddard) from a Miami New Times blogger who appears to be no friend of Rubio at all.

But of course if you're giving a national political address, then the national press is going to pick up on these things; whatever you've said in the past (and I have no idea whether this is standard Rubio boilerplate or not, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was) has to be scrubbed of anything that has a high probability of blowing up on you. Even if you've gotten away with it many times before. Even if you may have been called out on it before by some minor blogger or whatever but haven't worried because no one you care about reads that stuff. In other words, the story here is not so much that the Miami New Times had the story but that Taegan Goddard's Political Wire picked it up. Because of course Goddard is going to grab something like that about the SOTU response.

Rule One of national political rhetoric has got to be to never, never, never, say something about oneself that can't be disproved by a reporter in twenty minutes of poking around. It's just not worth the bother.

No, this one won't kill off Rubio's presidential ambitions. But three of these...two of these, even...could start giving him a reputation. It happened to Paul Ryan, remember, during his VP run. I suspect that neither Rubio nor Ryan is particularly dishonest about their personal stories; it's just that there's a different standard of "honesty" when you're talking about the national press than there is for House or even Senate elections.

A Disappointing Voting Initiative

For those who would like to see voting become easier, last night's SOTU riff and the planned presidential commission have to be disappointing.

Here's what Obama said:

We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes one of the most fundamental right of a democracy: the right to vote. When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.
So tonight, I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement. I’m asking two long-time experts in the field -- who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign -- to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it, and so does our democracy.

So, to begin with, Obama is defining the problem (as he has since election night) simply as long voting lines. While it's certainly true that reducing voting lines is part of making voting easier, it omits registration hassles, restrictions on who can vote, and other ways voting is more difficult than it could be.

A commission, meanwhile, is unlikely to solve the problem. As I've said before, presidential commissions are most useful when everyone agrees that they want something done but no one wants the blame. That's certainly not the case with voting.

And picking partisan election lawyers (Democrat Robert Bauer and Republican Ben Ginsberg) to head the commission doesn't help. I'd much rather have current or former legislators -- people whose reputations would be enhanced by cutting a deal, rather than people whose reputations depend on fighting as hard as they can for their partisan interests.

Now, it's also true that no one should have had much hope for progress on this given the GOP position and divided government. So I'm not sure exactly what Obama could have done to actually effect change. However, this may be a case in which he might as well use the bully pulpit. Better, I think, to propose strong legislation to Congress -- and perhaps draw up model legislation or at least goals for the states -- than to pass it off to a commission, which isn't likely to do much more than the post-2000 voting commission. At least then it would be clear what really could be done, and what could be done about it. I do think there's a fair chance that 2012 will shame Florida and perhaps a few other states into slightly improving the election day situation, but that's only the most visible sign of the problem, not the entire thing.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Stockard Channing, 69. For what it's worth: I believe that's two days in a row with someone who has played Barbara Gordon.

And for the good stuff:

1. No list of items today; just SOTU pieces by Ezra Klein; by Jamelle Bouie; by Greg Sargent; by Philip Klein; by Andrew Sprung; and by Ann Friedman.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


State of the Union speeches are plagued by the format. They have to be laundry lists; that's the nature of it. At best, a president can drop in a nice phrase or two, a nice moment. But mostly, as speeches, they just aren't going to be memorable.

Tonight's? No exception. I counted one moment that stood out, Barack Obama's demand for a vote on gun legislation in the name of the victims of gun violence. The rest was fine, but nothing special as oratory. Nor has Obama really mastered the Joint Session of Congress setting. He's okay; better than either Bush, I'd say. But he doesn't fully embrace the majesty of the setting the way that Ronald Reagan did; nor does he use a rapport with the Members of Congress to reinforce his authority and mastery of the material the way that Bill Clinton did. He's still a first-rate speaker, but he hasn't been at his best in these addresses.

I'm not going to comment on the substance for now...just wanted to put up something tonight (and I'm already late; yup, I watched it late. Sorry; the Tuesday evening pick-up game came first for me this time. Which meant that I watched it after seeing the headlines from it, but I watched it, for a change, without the constant distraction of twitter).

So: fine speech, nothing particularly memorable, some interesting policy stuff worth thinking more about. More later, I'm sure.

Hey, Reporters: 60 Votes Required Means Filibuster

Okay, this may appear to be redundant and overkill, but as long as people are still getting it wrong...

I've been criticizing some reporters on the Hagel nomination because they've been saying either that Republicans won't filibuster or that it's not clear whether Republicans will filibuster, when in fact it's been clear for four years that Republicans have established a 60 vote requirement on practically everything.

Josh Rogin's reporting made it a bit more clear today what's going on:

"We're going to require a 60-vote threshold," Inhofe told The Cable. 

Cornyn told The Cable, "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination."
Look, you can't get clearer than that last one, from the Senate Republican Whip. Can you?

Now, Republicans seem to find the word "filibuser" toxic, so Inhofe also said "It's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word." That's up to him, but reporters need to take note and be careful: it's not sufficient to ask Republicans about "filibusters." You might get spin, and not reality.

In the real world, however, what matters is what Cornyn said. It takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate. That's true whatever they call it, and it's true whether or not anyone actually forces a cloture vote.

And, yes, that's a filibuster.

Which is why it's ridiculous to claim that there's never been a filibuster against a cabinet nomination before; every single nominee that Barack Obama has sent up has been subject to 60 votes.

I wrote more about the Hagel situation earlier today, but again, this is really simple. Everyone covering the Senate needs to understand that Republicans are requiring 60 votes for everything; that they've been doing so since January 2009; that prior to 2009, filibusters were frequent (since January 1993) but not universal; that very few Republicans have voted yes on cloture but no on the underlying substance on anything since January 2009; and that the name for requiring 60 votes is "filibuster."

And I'll remind everyone again: to say that something is being filibustered does not mean that it has lost; sometimes things are defeated by filibuster while sometimes they pass despite a filibuster. A bit trickier is how to write about whether "Republicans" are filibustering; I usually feel comfortable saying they are because all Republicans back the 60-vote standard even when they are part of the 60, but I could imagine other ways of discussing it. What is important to avoid is the notion that something was not filibustered, even if it had very few opponents; surely, those opponents were not simply opposing, but filibustering.
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