On Labor, Primaries, and Pressure

June 11th, 2010

I wasn’t really planning on writing on this silly spat between the White House and organized labor over the Democratic primary in Arkansas, but there’s a few different angles I want to address. For starters, while I’ll agree that this never should have been said publicly, and if the White House finds out who the source is they probably ought to relieve them of their duties, let’s get one thing straight; the White House official is right.Labor has every right to do what it wants with its money, but it definitely wasted its resources in this race. For one thing, Halter was hardly a progressive lion, and likely wouldn’t vote much differently than Lincoln in the Senate. For another thing, Arkansas just isn’t a state where labor has a lot of clout, making their backing somewhat less valuable than it might have been elsewhere. Indeed, much of Lincoln’s campaign was premised around attacking Halter for being pushed by national labor unions.

On the other hand, there’s the argument that the message was sent anyway; that incumbents better not cross labor less they make your life miserable. Perhaps, but I think the people pushing this line the hardest are looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. The bottom line is that incumbent re-election rates are very high in the U.S., and they’re downright astronomical for sitting Senators in primaries. And, of course, Blanche Lincoln is now a mark in favor of re-election. So even if we assume that labor or other factions of the party can give an incumbent a headache in the primary, the simple fact remains that the incumbent is overwhelmingly likely to win the primary, and much more likely to get beaten in a general election (especially if they’re in a conservative state) than in a primary. For someone who’s only concerned about getting re-elected, this isn’t really a tough call to make at all.

On the other hand, there’s the notion of the White House’s ability to pressure Senators, which Greenwald raises again in typically dense fashion. Yglesias and Bernstein dispose of the nonsense in good fashion, but I’d simply add that, again, there’s a very simple balance of power here; while troubled incumbents may want White House backing in elections, it’s at least technically possible for them to win without it. On the other hand, the White House can’t get its agenda through Congress without sufficient votes from members. With 40 Repuplicans lined up to oppose his agenda no matter what, Obama had to keep every Democrat on board for healthcare reform. If Blanche Lincoln refused to support the bill, that was it. There was no clever way out of things; it was get Blanche Lincoln to support the effort or give up on comprehensive reform. Period. The leverage between individual Senators at the tipping point of votes and the White House is always going to tilt in favor of the Senators (at least in domestic policy) because they have votes in the Senate, and you have to get votes in the Senate to pass bills. The question is how do you get those votes. Greenwald wants to imagine a world where you get them by beating marginal Senators with sticks until they’re cowed like powerless children into doing what you want them to, but that world quite simply doesn’t exist. Senators just aren’t powerless, and thanks to the filibuster, they’re holding the trump card more often than not. The national party or various factions of the party might be able to make life difficult for them, hell they may even be able to slay the dragon, but that vote in the Senate means that the Senator is going to be able to return the favor and then some as long as they have it.

And losing primary challenges does nothing to alter that balance.

MLB Umpires

June 1st, 2010

Is it just me, or does it seem like someone took a nasty piss in the collective corn flakes of Major League Baseball umpires. First Balking Bob Davidson gets in an argument with Carl Crawford and Joe Maddon that would embarrass even the most belligerent drunk buffoon at a bar, then the embarrassing and pathetic Joe West tossed Mark Buehrle and Ozzie Guillen after calling Buehrle for two balks and generally making a spectacle of himself, and now Bill Hohn has gone looking for a fight, tossing out Astros ace Roy Oswalt in yesterday’s game. What is going on? I’m somewhat tempted to think this all started when West took the liberty to call the Yankees and Red Sox “embarrassing and pathetic” for their slow pace of play at the beginning of the year, something that’s just completely indefensible coming from an official, but the truth is, all of these guys have long track records with this sort of thing, particularly for Hohn and West, and nothing has ever happened to them before. Indeed, West is President of the world umpire’s union. So really, why shouldn’t they do this sort of thing? They know good and well nothing is going to happen to them. If Hohn can survive brazenly antagonizing the Braves, including calling time-out himself to go argue with a manager in the dugout, what can’t he survive?

Baseball umpires get a lot of flak for blown calls and odd missing balls and strikes. God knows I’ve criticized them for that multiple times. There are varying degrees of thought as to how bad the problem is, and that’s fine. But this isn’t about blown calls or idiosyncratic strike zones, it’s about the professional conduct of officials. That ought to be non-negotiable. Can you imagine an NFL official criticizing a team for passing too much, causing more clock stoppages than a team who runs the ball 30 times a game? Or an NBA official calling a time-out to stop and argue a foul call with a coach sitting on his bench? Of course not, because these officials would be fired immediately afterwards. And they should, because this sort of thing damages the integrity of the game. And not just because it calls into question the official’s credibility (and it does), but because it can have actual effects on the game. Roy Oswalt getting ejected forces the Astros to go to an inferior reliever, and makes them over-tax their bullpen as well, something that will affect their game-management for a week or more. Let me repeat that, a decision made by an umpire will have effects on games played for the next week.

Officials wield a lot of power on a baseball field, they need to wield that power judiciously. Games, to say nothing of seasons, should not turn on the bad attitude of an umpire on a power trip. Additionally, this isn’t good for the umpires either. Baseball umpires get enough criticism for missed calls, and several people probably aren’t giving them enough credit for doing the difficult job their taxed with. And nothing is hurting the umpire who maybe makes an honest mistake on a call, but nonetheless conducts himself with professionalism and integrity at all times than the Hohns and Wests of the world carrying on like arrogant buffoons. More than just baseball, those umpires, as well as the umpires union, need to speak out and marginalize these bad apples, for the good of the game, as well as their own.

Flotilla Attack Only a Small Measure of Israeli Barbarism

June 1st, 2010

Well would you look at that; the bastion of liberal democracy and respect for human right in the Middle East has caused a ruckus by having their military board a humanitarian mission’s boat (flying the flag of a NATO country), killing at least 10 peace activists on board and injuring dozens more. There’s a lot of things worth saying about how stupid the attack on the relief flotilla was. I don’t think Israel has done this much damage to their (already shoddy) reputation in decades, and there’s basically no way to spin this as benefitting them. Egypt is rescinding their assistance of the Gaza blockade in response, and even the United States is an a bit of a jam here, because Turkey is a NATO ally. If they decide to make a major fuss about it, reflexive, unlimited defense of Israel by the United States could threaten the foundation of the most important defense agreement of the 20th century, and further isolate the US from the rest of the West.

The real story here, however, should be the blockade of Gaza itself. Israel has asserted that they offered to let the flotilla send materials through Israel to be inspected, but this is absurd for a couple of reasons. The first is the casual assumption that the blockade is legal, and that Israel has a ght in the first place to decide what does and doesn’t get sent to Gaza from other countries. The second is that Israel knows good and well that the entire point of the flotilla was to take banned  materials into Gaza, namely building materials Israel has refused to allow in even after they destroyed most of the territory in 2008. Because of this, Gaza remains largely un-rebuilt after the violence, a situation compounding the already miserable existence of the people living in the territory.

It’s very difficult to comprehend the amount of suffering Gazans deal with everyday. You’re talking about the most densely populated piece of land in the world, an urban landscape with 1.5 million people living on it. And it’s basically been demolished. There’s food shortages, lack of electricity, lack of running water, disease, hunger, oppression, and just general misery. And yes, much of that is compounded by the harsh rule of Hamas as well. But this is one of the weakest, most devastated populations on Earth, and the Israeli blockade is just indescribably cruel. Israeli representatives are arguing today that this wasn’t a humanitarian effort, but rather an attempt to end the blockade, and to that I say; I certainly hope so. This blockade needs to be ended, and if Israel won’t do it of its own volition, then the world needs to make it clear to Israel that they won’t respect it. It’s not as if there isn’t precedent. And if it’s that important to Israel, let them face the choice of confronting British, French, German, and, yes, American boats and planes in the effort to physically enforce their brutal oppression.

The world has been jarred to its senses by the brazen umbrage of Israel’s actions yesterday, hopefully it winds up shining some light on the brutal policy those killed were seeking to end, and prompts some action from the west to alleviate the intolerable suffering of over a million Palestinians in Gaza.

Maybe Lindsey is Right

April 26th, 2010

Yesterday, in the context of criticizing a dumb Thomas Friedman column, I more or less took for granted that Lindsey Graham’s threat to abandon working with Democrats on climate change if they took up immigration reform next was evidence of bad faith, especially since Graham has been supportive of the immigration reform effort. Jon Chait doesn’t see it that way:

Hypocrisy? Well, sure. But it seems unfair to accuse him of having “negotiated in bad faith.” Graham has been painstakingly attempting to assemble a political and business coalition for legislation to mitigate climate change. He has also been working on immigration reform, but the Democrats’ weak signals of interest before last week have helped contribute to an atmosphere where nobody expected a bill to advance this year, and thus little headway has been made. There has been no House immigration bill, whereas the House has passed a climate bill already. Graham was set to unveil his bill on Monday when Harry Reid pulled the carpet out from under him by announcing that immigration would come first and climate — which gets harder to do as the elections gets closer — probably never.

Yglesias, Ezra, and Drum all  more or less agree.

For my part, for the sake of not getting stuck on a somewhat minor point, I’ll assume Graham is, indeed, working with Democrats in good faith here, and really does want to see some sort of action on climate this year, and he’s angry because he feels Reid has decided not to go that route, essentially hanging him out to dry. It’s understandable, in a way, but at the same time, that just makes Graham’s tantrum more bizarre. After all, if Graham really wants to achieve something on climate but thinks Democratic leadership has decided against it, the last thing it would make sense for Graham to do is bail on the effort. That doesn’t make action on climate more likely, and gives Democrats an angle to blame Republicans for the lack of action on climate. In every way, it makes it less likely that climate legislation will be taken up this year, if you assume that Graham means it at least.

The key point here is the last paragraph in Ezra’s post. We sort of take it for granted that Congress can only handle one issue at a time, but there’s no reason that has to be true. Graham is ostensibly supportive of both climate legislation and immigration reform, and if he remains committed to getting something done on either or both fronts this year, he can let Harry Reid know that he’d like for work to be done on both. Reid is backing off somewhat today in the face of the amount of work that’s already been done on climate, as well as Graham’s threat, I’d imagine, but if there’s a Republican or two committed to working with the Democrats on one, or both, issues, there’s no reason something can’t be done on climate and immigration this year.

How Much Does ‘Too Big to Fail’ Matter?

April 26th, 2010

One thing that’s throwing me off a bit in the debate over how much effort to put towards breaking up large banks is this notion of focusing on the idea of being “too big to fail.” That is, an institution getting so large that its failure will send intolerable ripples through the rest of the industry/economy, making it imperative that the public not allow such a failure. This is, obviously, the motivating factor behind the bailout of the financial industry and, to a lesser extent, General Motors.  But it seems to me that the concept of resolution authority mostly eliminates that need. The problem with allowing even a relatively small firm like Lehman Brothers to fail is the overall impact it has on the entire industry, essentially creating a panic. Given those sorts of circumstances, some sort of public authority needs to make sure a failure doesn’t happen. But if the FDIC has the authority to seize failed shadow banks and unwind them orderly and slowly, that theoretically takes care of the problems associated with panics and failures. This, of course, is why we don’t have panics related to deposit banks anymore; there’s a process in place for managing these kinds of failures that’s well understood by the industry, and people can anticipate what it means for their firms. Plus, receivership eliminates the problem of failed banks flooding the market with assets, devaluing similar assets on everyone else’s balance sheets. In this sort of structure, no one is too big to fail, because receivership is there as a sort of safety net to slowly manage the collapse of the bank. There are other problems associated with large banks to be sure, so I think the excess attention paid to failures is probably distorting more than it’s clarifying.

Why Is The Mustache Getting Paid?

April 25th, 2010

Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times today is just gob-smackingly stupid. That’s fairly normal for Friedman, of course, but today’s is a real doozy even by his standards. Here’s how he opens:

I’ve been trying to understand the Tea Party Movement. Sounds like a lot of angry people who want to get the government out of their lives and cut both taxes and the deficit. Nothing wrong with that — although one does wonder where they were in the Bush years. Never mind. I’m sure like all such protest movements the Tea Partiers will get their 10 to 20 percent of the vote. But should the Tea Partiers actually aspire to break out of that range, attract lots of young people and become something more than just entertainment for Fox News, I have a suggestion:

Become the Green Tea Party.
Oh no, it gets even dumber:

The manifesto is easy, too: “We, the Green Tea Party, believe that the most effective way to advance America’s national security and economic vitality would be to impose a $10 “Patriot Fee” on every barrel of imported oil, with all proceeds going to pay down our national debt.”

This is just beyond stupid. For one, there’s the name. Do you really see the right-wing calling themselves the “green tea” anything? The people who use arugala and dijon mustard as short-hand for effete elitism now? Yeah, didn’t think so. But more than that, this just kind of ignores the fact that, you know, the teabaggers are the right-wing. They don’t care about the climate. They don’t believe in global warming. They’re the assholes who tell you how they’re going to leave all their lights on or drive around as much as they can in their SUV on Earth Day for the sheer joy of being assholes. And, oh yeah, they’re not big fans of taxes either. I suppose Friedman would probably argue that his “Patriot Fee” isn’t a tax, but good luck getting them to buy it. But what’s extra confounding is that Friedman concedes that he knows this is all stupid nonsense:

Yes, I know, dream on. The Tea Party is heading to the hard libertarian right and would never support an energy bill that puts a fee on carbon.

Ok, so you just wasted 300 words. Awesome. What’s the point then?

So if there is going to be a Green Tea Party, it will have to emerge from a different place — the radical center, a center committed to a radical departure from business as usual. Acting on that impulse, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman had forged a bipartisan climate/energy/jobs bill that deserves an energetic centrist Green Tea Party to support it.

This critical piece of energy legislation was supposed to be unveiled by the three senators on Monday, but it was suddenly postponed late Saturday because of Senator Graham’s fury that the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the White House were planning to take up a highly controversial immigration measure before the energy bill.

If this is what the Obama administration is doing — to score a few cheap political points with Hispanics — it is a travesty. The bipartisan energy bill is ready to go. It is far from perfect. Indeed, it is a shame the fossil fuel industries still have such a stranglehold on Congress. But it’s the best we’re going to get, and we have got to get started. However, without a centrist Green Tea Party movement — one that brings the same passion to cutting emissions that the Tea Party brings to cutting deficits — even this effort will never pass.

A couple of things here. First of all, what the hell would a “radical center” even look like? The center, by definition, is defined by other points. So a “radical” center, I suppose, would dogmatically insist on plopping itself right in the middle of the left and the right and refusing to move? Or refusing to acknowledge that maybe being precisely in the middle isn’t the right place to be? I mean, where does one find the middle of something like the debate over whether or not to invade Iraq? Declare that they won’t support invading Iraq, but that they could get behind invading the Ivory Coast? It’s all very confusing to me, as these poorly thought out pieces of pretension from writers like Friedman usually are. But I digress.

The other problem here is that this is just drastically ignorant of the underlying politics. Lindsay Graham has, in the past, been a supporter of immigration reform efforts. He’s touted his support for comprehensive immigration reform, in fact. There’s no obvious reason why moving forward with legislation on that issue should cause him to drop support for another worthwhile bill he’s supported. It’s a naked political ploy by Graham to turn his back on the bill, and gum up two Democratic initiatives at the same time ahead of the election. If Democrats acquiesce and shelve immigration reform, Graham will just find another reason to oppose the bill, the same way he used the passage of healthcare reform to pivot to a position of being unable to support immigration reform anymore. But then, even if Democrats do go ahead with immigration reform and climate legislation, it doesn’t really make much sense to blame them for Graham’s temper tantrum. Lindsay Graham is a big boy. He’s a United States Senator fergawdsake. And, at best, he’s using his potential support for a bill he ostensibly supports, regarding an issue he ostensibly recognizes as being vitally important, to ransom the very large Senate majority into dropping another item on their agenda. That’s despicable behavior, particularly if you actually believe Graham appreciates how serious climate issues are. And yet, Friedman is chastising the majority over it, rather than calling out the United States Senator acting like a psychopathic adolescent.

I don’t really expect major newspaper columnists to write intelligent things anymore, but it still puzzles me why publications that seem to regard themselves seriously, like the Times, pays people who seem to know nothing about American politics to write about the subject on such valuable space. Especially if they’re having financial problems.

Distrust of Government at Historic Highs*

April 20th, 2010

This poll result from Pew has been getting a lot of play across the internet today, but I don’t think it really means as much as people are making it out to. To put it simply, I’ d expect distrust of government to be very high during economic downturn. The government plays a sort of abstract role in giving people an entity to project their resentsments, frustrations, and anxiaties onto, and you would expect that to go up during a severe recession. The fact that 61% of respondents want the government to do more to crack down on Wall Street supports this idea, and shoots through any notion that this means what people want is “small government.” Via Mistermix, this chart of some of the polls internals is quite amusing as well:

In other words, Republicans don’t trust the government, unless a Republican is in the White House. In that case, Republicans trust the government more than any other demographic has since before the Vietnam War and Watergate. The right-wing echo chamber has certainly done its job hasn’t it?

Whither the Teabaggers?

April 19th, 2010

Kevin Drum wonders how much longer the Tea Parties have before they flame out:

My take on the tea partiers is that they’re basically a 21st century version of the Birchers of the 60s. Except that where the Birchers had to rely on mimeograph machines to get out their message, the tea partiers have Fox News and the internet. At first glance, this is nothing but bad news: the Birchers were bad enough as it was, so just think what kind of damage they could have done with modern communications technology.

But maybe not! Being limited to flyers and PTA meetings might have slowed the rise of the Birchers, but it also made them a fairly long-lived movement. The tea parties, conversely, skyrocketed to fame in just a few months. And we all know what happens to novelty acts that skyrocket to fame: most of them plummet back to earth within a year or two. We just get bored too quickly these days, and the media moves on to new things. So it’s possible that the tea parties peaked too fast and don’t have much longer to live. In fact, my sense is that the media is starting to get bored with them already.

They’ll certainly last through the November election, but I wonder if they’ll be able to keep up a head of steam much after that?

There’s really two questions here-how long can the teabaggers last and how long will the media remain interested-and the important thing to remember when answering the question is the same in both cases. At the end of the day, no predictions about the tea parties can be made without reminding yourself that there’s nothing all that special about the teabaggers. Rather, they’re just run of the mill right-wing talk radio listeners who have taken to making a spectacle of themselves now that they’re in the opposition. So, in that sense, they’ll always be there, much as the talk radio audience and general right-wing fringe has always been there. How long will they be able to keep up the public spectacle of it all? I doubt that will last much longer, but I could be wrong, although I’m not sure that matters either way. I think it’s more important to keep in mind that much of the media coverage of the teabaggers has been driven by the fact that it was a non-election year, and so therefore anything that provided a narrative of overt conflict-with-theater was bound to attract media attention. But with an election in 2010, there’s less business attraction to the teabaggers for the cablers, and the tea parties will probably fade into the general noise of the election. They are the Republican base, after all, and I don’t really expect them to act much differently now than they ever have, or the media to cover them any differently. So once the campaign season really heats up, expect the tea parties to run out of steam, whether because the GOP fully co-opts it, or because the media loses interest, in which case I suspect most teabaggers will as well.

Community Organizers

April 11th, 2010

Count me in as someone who just doesn’t get the right’s obsession with denigrating community organizers. Aside from the offensives of it all, which Benen lays out nicely, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. At least in the context of the 2008 election it was meant to be a shorthand for “Barack Obama is inexperienced.” Attacks against your opponent’s perceived lack of experience has pretty much never worked in modern American Presidential politics, but what else did the Republicans have to work with after 8 years of Bush? But now, Obama is the actual President. Only 42 other individuals in the history of the United States have done that. And even though he’s only been President for 16 months, that’s infinitely more experience in the job than any of the Republicans criticizing him have. Sarah Palin isn’t very bright, but even she has to realize that it would be absurd for a former half-term Governor and mayor of Wasilla, Alaska to argue they have more relative experience for the Presidency than the incumbent President…right?

How Do You Cut Defense Spending

April 8th, 2010

Responding to Ezra’s musing about the political feasibility of cutting defense spending, Yglesias writes:

The most relevant issue, when thinking about cuts, is thinking about the political fight that ensues. If a President proposed cutting the defense budget and then you had a ton of stories in the press where senior military officers fret off the record that the cuts will endanger America, and every television network trotted out a former general with undisclosed ties to defense contractors as an “independent analyst” to condemn the cuts, and if active duty soldiers sent emails to their civilian family and friends complaining about the cuts, and if think tank experts who depend on cooperation with the military to do their research either complained about the cuts or else stayed silent, then I think you’d have a giant political fiasco on your hands.The relevant issue here, in other words, is that the military is the most trusted institution in America and then on top of that the defense sector of the economy has a lot of money and economic reach. Consequently, it’s very political difficult for a president to do anything that provokes the ire of the defense establishment whether or not it polls well in the abstract. This seems to me to be a huge problem in American political life, but it’s not obvious to me what steps will resolve it.

I’d say Matt is right in his estimation of the political conflict trying to substantially cut defense spending would ensue, but I think the answer to the question of what steps would make it more feasible are much more obvious.

First of all, you’d need a President who was committed to reigning in military spending as a first priority. This seems pretty self-explanatory. Secondly, for better or worse, you need a Republican President. The counter-intuitiveness of a Republican who thought we spent too much money on the Pentagon would make it slightly harder to demonize the effort as some pacifistic military hatefest out of hand, and provide some political cover. Plus, Congressional Republicans are much more apt to fall in line with what they’re told, so a Republican President could probably bring a handful of Congressional votes a Democratic President simply couldn’t get. Finally, you’d need a President with military experience, and experience that reaches into senior command. Think Dwight Eisenhower. It’s rather hard to accuse former generals of hating the military or not being sufficiently knowledgeable about the needs of the military at large.  Conservative hawks intent on demonizing the President would immediately look like lunatics, and hawkswho wanted more credibility would have to reflexively acknowledge the President’s credibility. In other words, you’d need President Petraeus to agree that we spend way too much money on the military, and that this is a big problem that desperately needs to be fixed. Would that be enough to shift the narrative and win the necessary votes in Congress? It’s hard to say, but it’s the only realistic path to that end I see in the near term.

The Benefits of Wacking Blanche

April 2nd, 2010

Yesterday, Jon Chait couldn’t figure out what the benefits of running a primary challenge to Blanch Lincoln, given that she voted for the Affordable Care Act and she actually is representing a fairly conservative state. Today I think he’s much closer to figuring out the logic:

I could see an argument for deploying challengers wherever you can find them just to throw the fear of God into Democrats in Congress. Perhaps the fact that Lincoln is almost certain to lose makes her an especially good target. There was a scene in “The Untouchables” where a federal agent, played by Sean Connery, is trying unsuccessfully to get one of Al Capone’s hireling to talk. So he goes outside the room, picks up the corpse of one of the bad guys, starts interrogating him as if he’s still alive, and then shoots him. The bad guy inside the room, unaware that the colleague that Connery shot was already dead, immediately becomes terrified and starts blabbing.[…]

If you’re not following my analogy, the progressives are Sean Connery and the corpse is Blanche Lincoln. If you’re going to make an example out of somebody, why not pick somebody who’s already (politically) dead? Or so the logic might go.

That’s pretty much the way I’d look at it. Lincoln is almost certainly going to lose anyway, so even if Halter is too liberal for the state, you’re not actually losing anything; the Republican candidate comes out on top either way. And it’s not as though Lincoln is a model Democrat. Yes she voted for the ACA, but she watered it down quite a bit as part of a bloc of conservative Senate Democrats, she flip-flopped on EFCA as soon as Democrats got 60 seats in the Senate, and as the Senator from Wal-Mart and Tyson, she’s not exactly hostile to corporate interests. And for what? Pretty much anyone could have told you she was going to lose her seat no matter what, so if she wanted to, she could have been a solid vote for the Democratic agenda.

There’s a bit of an incentives issue here too. If progressive groups look at Senators seeking re-election from states like Arkansas and give them the freedom to do whatever they have to do to get re-elected, there’s nothing stopping them from running as far right as they can. On the other hand, if they think they have to worry about primary campaigns as well as general election campaigns, that goes a long way towards keeping them on the reservation. And if they’re going to lose their seat anyway, then from a national standpoint you want to get something out of them on their way out, namely their vote on the party’s agenda while they’re still holding the seat.

Say It Again; Conservatives Don’t Care About the Deficits

April 2nd, 2010

Fretting about the deficit, and the difficultly in addressing the deficit, is a constant source of posturing from pundits, but sometimes they remind you that they really have very weird views on the nature of the problem, and the possible ways of addressing it. Consider David Brooks:

Now some people think their elected officials are so rotten that only an unelected commission can save us. Snobs. The history of commissions is the history of failure. Stuart M. Butler of the Heritage Foundation and Henry J. Aaron of the Brookings Institution argue compellingly that it is simply impossible in a democracy to rewrite the social contract without popular consent. Commissions are fine, but they have to be embedded in a broader democratic process.The way to do that is to break free from the polarized committee structure. Invite a dozen handpicked senators and House members and stick them in a room three times a week for six months.

After they’ve come up with a debt-reduction plan, have them send it up in secret to the presidential deficit commission, which President Obama was smart enough to create.

This is a fine idea, so far as it goes, and it’s not something I’d have a problem endorsing. But what’s odd is that Brooks, like basically every other pundit that trades in deficit hawkery, completely ignores the main problem facing people who want to tackle the long-term deficit; Republican elected officials will not under any circumstances accept tax increases. Really, they won’t. Republicans in the federal government haven’t voted for a single tax increase since George H.W. Bush was President, and the conservative base revolted in response to that attempt to address the deficit. What’s even more maddening is the inevitable need to paint the deficit as a problem made by both parties, which both parties are equally reluctant to tackle.

Consider the last 30 years of fiscal policy. When Reagan was in office, he advocated drastic tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, and large increases in defense spending. The result, naturally, was historically large budget deficits. George H.W. Bush attempted to take steps towards deficit reduction, and was villified by most of the Republican Party for it. Then came Clinton, whose 1993 budget not only reduced the size of the deficit, but turned it into a large surplus by the time Clinton left office. And not a single Republican voted for that budget. Every single Republican member of Congress opposed the most significant deficit reduction measure of the last 30 years. Let that sink in. Then of course, Dubya came along with a large surplus on the budget, and through a series of massive tax cuts, a completely unfinanced entitlement expansion, and two unfinanced wars created more historically large budget deficits. The current Democratic government, by contrast, constructed their major legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, in a way that was not just paid for, but actually reduces the deficit in the long term according to the CBO. Yes, there was the stimulus, but that was both a one-time, short term expeniture in the face of a massive economic downturn, and a textbook example of how government is supposed to react in situations where monetary policy is of limited effect in stimulating the economy according to modern economic theory.

The pattern here is pretty simple, moderate and liberal governments budget responsibly, and take deficit reduction seriously, even when it makes legislating more difficult, while conservative administrations mix large tax cuts with new spending on pet projects, specifically wars and military equipment, leading to exploded deficits. And at present, the obvious impediment to serious bi-partisan attempts at deficit reduction is Republican refusal to accept tax increases to generate new revenue. As is usually the case, the fact that pundits who are ostensibly concerned about this issue never make note of the problem suggests that they either don’t take the issue as seriously as they purport to, or simply don’t pay enough attention to know what the actual impediments to their goal are.

Public Has Conflicting Views About Policy Issues

April 1st, 2010

One thing that’s incredibly bizarre about admonishments to pay attention to public opinion polling when crafting policy is that even a cursory overview of various prominent polling outlets makes it clear that the public at large has many views about policy that are in conflict with each other, sometimes downright mutually exclusive. Sometimes this even shows up in the same poll, as with this polling report on public views of the budget deficit from Democracy Corps:

Despite these concerns, voters are reluctant to attack the deficit through tax increases or spending cuts on entitlements. In this economy, voters are wary of raising taxes, even if the revenue raised goes to something they deem important, like paying down the deficit. A majority (51 percent) say that even though the deficit is a big problem, we should not raise taxes to bring it down, while only 43 percent say that we might have to raise taxes to reduce the deficit. This rejection is even more acute among the least educated and lowest income voters, who are being disproportionately hurt by the recession and as such are even more strident in their rejection of a new tax to pay down the deficit.

And by an even wider 2:1 margin, voters reject cuts in Social Security, Medicare or defense spending to bring the deficit down (61 to 30 percent).

Of course, it’s simply not possible to significantly reduce the deficit without cutting spending on Medicare, Social Security, and defense or without raising taxes. So if you listen to the public, you’d seek out to eliminate the deficit, but you’d find yourself simply unable to do so. Part of this is because marginal voters can tip the balance, so that even if a lot of people are willng to take necessary measures to reduce the deficit, a relatively small handful of people who want more services but don’t want to be taxed to pay for them can tip the balance of public opinion. But another, more relevant, explanation is that the public simply doesn’t know that much about relevant facts. I suspect that the people who want the deficit reduced but don’t want to take any meaningful steps to do so are under the impression that the government spends much more than it does, and that the deficit can be reduced without touching any of the major spending programs or levels of taxation.  But it can’t. The fact that a majority of people, or even a dispositive plurality of people, thinks that it can doesn’t change the basic fact of the numbers, and this is why we’re organized into a representative democracy, where we elect people to handle these matters for us.

David Broder Parodies Himself. Again.

April 1st, 2010

It’s normally not worth pointing out a Broderian column from the Broder himself, but for some reason today’s effort is a unique classic of the genre. Broder is examining why people hate Congress and concludes that, you guessed it, it’s because Republicans and Democrats don’t get along, and Barack Obama hasn’t delivered on his promise of post-partisanship:

But the partisanship on both sides was a turnoff to independents. They were the people who had taken Obama seriously when he said he wanted to move Washington beyond the recriminations of the George W. Bush years. Regardless of their views on health care — or the economy or education or anything else — they are turned off by the inability of both parties to overcome their parochial concerns and agree on steps to curb the joblessness and debt that are consuming the country.

There’s two parts of this paragraph that leave me downright angry. The first is the notion that Obama hasn’t moved Washington into the age of post-partisanship. It would be one thing to claim that Obama made a promise, explicitly or implicitly, that he couldn’t keep, but that’s not what Broder is doing. Rather Broder is laying the continued existence of partisanship in Washington at Obama’s feet, which is just absurd, especially coming the day after Obama announced his intention to open up more coastal area for oil exploration. Republicans, on the other hand, have opposed everything in basic lockstep, with individual members reversing past positions to do so and taking absurd stances along the way. The Republican Senate leader has even bragged about how he managed to keep his caucus in unanimous opposition for political ends. That Broder purports to care so much about bipartisanship yet never mentions this implies either that he is stuck in some strange paradox of his own making where he can’t even bring himself to point out that one party is more to blame for legislative gridlock than the other, or that he simply doesn’t pay much attention to what’s actually going on in government.

But even more than that, once again we see the fundamental Broderian assumption of the world; there is one universal Truth, and the existence of political parties functions solely as a barrier towards individuals acknowledging that. There’s no allowance whatsoever that people actually disagree, even fundamentally, about how to address policy questions, and that parties are a reflection of that. In Broder’s world, there’s simply no possibility that, at base, people just have irreconcileable differences about the fundamental issues affecting public policy. On jobs, for example, Democrats have accepted a basic Keynsian framework for how to respond to the recession that’s basically embraced by the vast majority of economists. Republicans, on the other hand, have come to embrace a pre-Depression view of the relationship of government to the economy, and reject the basic idea that the government can take affirmative action to spur economic growth and job creation, and will accept nothing except or beyond permanent tax cuts at the highest marginal rates. There’s absolutely no way to bridge these two views of how the government should respond to economic downturn, and a government that requires these two groups to agree to act is a government that will ultimately do nothing, because you can’t get these two sides to agree. The only answer is that one side, or at least a few members of one side, could agree to capitulate in the name of allowing some sort of action, and sign off on a plan they think is a mistake, but how unprincipled is that?

This is really expending much more mental energy on Broder than he’s worth, but it’s a useful reminder that the vaunted center, as represented by Broder, is actually nothing but an intellectually immature, ignorant, vapid set of nonsense. Broder doesn’t really believe anything (or know anything about public policy), so he just can’t imagine that other people have goals, beliefs, or ideas about matters of policy that will create real fault lines of uncrossable differences. But that’s just proof that Broder has a very narrow, very myopic view of the world, and doesn’t have the inclination to learn anything about actual policy debates. It would be comical, but important political journalists look up to this guy.

McCain the Maverick as a Character Issue

April 1st, 2010

Responding to Jill Lawrence’s observation that, despite John McCain’s claims in the 2008 Presidential campaing, it’s Barack Obama who is making decisions that are angering his party’s base, while a primary challenge from the right has McCain abandoning his previous “Mavericky” positions and toeing the GOP line, Chait writes:

Lawrence ticks off numerous examples. Now, to be sure, the difference is mostly in the positions the two men find themselves in: Obama needs to deal with a Senate where conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans hold swing votes, and McCain is fending off a right-wing primary challenge. Still, acknowledging that fact itself undermines McCain’s contention that his breaks with his party, most of them occurring from 2000-2003, were a mark of character. If they were a mark of character, then his current behavior suggests that McCain lacks character. But I think the evidence suggests that reading characterological traits into “maverick” votes is, at best, a wildly overstated exercise.

That’s true enough, if you assume the mavericky votes were honest expressions of McCain’s idiosyncracy. If, instead, you view them as votes primarily cast in opposition to George W. Bush in a fit of pique by the man Bush beat in a nasty GOP primary, then they make a lot of sense as a manifestation of characterological traits; they paint the picture of a man who is unusually petty and prone to pique, a view that makes even more sense when you consider that McCain was already abandoning his independent persona before J.D. Hayworth announced his challenge when it presented a chance to oppose the administration. And considering that McCain was a pretty down-the-line conservative Senator prior to 2001, I maintain this is the best way to understand John McCain’s professional evolution.

In other news, McCain is also claiming that even if Republicans can’t repeal the ACA because they can’t get past a Presiential veto, that’s okay, they’ll just refuse to fund it. The problem is that most of the spending is mandatory spending, not discretionary spending, which means the funding is automatically ppropriated year to year, and changing that would require passing a new law. Which serves as a nice reminder that on top of being a uniquely petty, crotchety old man, McCain also knows nothing about governanve, budgeting, or Congressional procedure, despite having spent nearly 3 decades in Congress.