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Why I Hope Obama Wins

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

If only American voters knew, in advance, which candidate’s plans would be better for the economy and the world. How fortunate would we be if history conspired to test out their general approaches before we vote on Tuesday? Remarkably, it has. And, no, I’m not just referring to the G.W. Bush presidency, which Romney hopes will turn out better as a sequel. Rather, England and other European nations experimented with the government slashing austerity that conservatives predict will lead to the economic boom we all desire.

If you look at the pink shading, you’ll see the predicted paths of growth for the US and the UK following the financial crisis. Now, check out the real growth for each. The American economy infused with Obama’s policies exceeded the expected growth (purple line); the British Conservatives who cut government hoping to produce market confidence left the UK underperforming (dark blue line).

In February of 2009, Obama and the Democrats passed the stimulus bill in the middle of a tanking economy. Unemployment stood at 8.3% and climbed every month. Fiscal and monetary stimulus slowed the free fall and the economy eventually began to turn around. Now we’ve had 32 straight months of private sector job growth. The unemployment rate is down to 7.9% from a high of 10%.

In Europe, the trend is different. In February of ’09, unemployment was 8.2%. Today, it’s 11.6%.

Despite the positive trend here, what’s the most direct reason unemployment isn’t even lower in the US right now? In contrast to past recessions, we now have a Republican Tea Party congress that prevents any more aid going the states, forcing layoffs of public sector workers (green line).

But what if Romney shifts once in office and doesn’t cut spending as the right-wing fantasizes? It’s possible Romney just repeals Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation and then passes another budget busting tax cut. As the private sector and homeowners continue to deleverage and as the Fed continues its monetary stimulus, we are going to continue out of this economic rut and eventually see faster growth. So if Romney doesn’t torpedo the recovery with short-term fiscal contraction, Americans might associate the repeal of universal healthcare and financial regulation as keys to success. It’d be easy enough to confuse voters with that simple correlation even though the cause of recovery differs.

The historic passage of universal healthcare will be doomed. Another generation will see millions of Americans suffer with inadequate care and go bankrupt from medical bills. Without a universal system, American workers won’t have the mobility to always take better jobs if that opportunity risks their coverage. And the financial system will continue the destructive risk-taking that put us in this economic mess.

It’s vital to remember that Obama isn’t perfect and has broken enough important promises and principles to warrant changing course. Unfortunately, the only viable challenger is likely worse on these same issues. As a consequentialist, I can’t endorse swing-state voters risking the election of Mitt Romney, but it’s worth reviewing where Obama has gone terribly wrong. Lower ticket elections are crucial to pressure executive policy change.

Obama admirably put us on course to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but despite his 2008 campaign rhetoric, he initiated a war in Libya without congressional approval, violating the War Powers Act. His challenger may repeal the ban on torture, but Obama continues to personally accept the horrific treatment of Bradley Manning. Obama has extended the Patriot Act and continues to spy on Americans without warrants or proper oversight. This president also signed the NDAA, which grants the power to indefinitely detain American citizens under his personal discretion.

The president was right to refocus the war on terror against Al Qaeda and Bin Laden specifically, but the increase in drone strikes, often against targets whose identities we don’t know, is an immoral and dangerous power no president should have. As reported in the New York Times, president Obama has also created a secret kill list that includes American citizens living abroad. This unconstitutional power has no checks to prevent abuse or to ensure due process. These abhorrent policies will be left to future administrations to expand and abuse along with the status quo destruction of poor communities through the War on Drugs. If a feasible alternative existed, they should be elected. Disappointingly, our electoral system makes it so Mitt Romney is our only likely substitute. He supports all these programs and his neoconservative foreign policy team seems more likely to start a costly new war with Iran no matter what the unintended consequences.

On the substantive issue differences between the two major candidates, we have a clear contrast. We have a president that supports full equality for gay Americans. A challenger that supports 2nd class citizenship. A president that is more likely to end the cruelty against innocent children of immigrants. A challenger who’s nativist party doesn’t trust the citizenship of anyone who looks foreign. A president that supports the right of women to control their own bodies. A challenger with policies that could end birth control or force women to get unnecessary and invasive vaginal probes. I don’t share the same overwhelming fear of the national debt that many conservatives do during Democratic administrations, but both candidates seem eager to pass a long-term deficit deal. If it must be done; I trust Obama not to do it entirely on the backs of the poor like a Romney-Ryan plan surely would.

Too often voters punish incumbents on squishy feelings or without examining the likely course of policy consequences. Even in The Economist‘s endorsement of Barack Obama it lamented that he didn’t appear polite enough to businesses or social enough with Republican congressmen by playing more rounds of golf with them. This complaint springs from the cult of comity, a theological belief system that believes bi-partisanship and cordiality are goods in themselves. It’s not how policies are made that matters, it’s the results of them.

Nevermind the reality that Republicans agreed before Obama’s election to oppose everything he did. Since the special election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, the legislative branch has been dysfunctionally obstructionist against providing the president any further accomplishments.  Even with the obstruction, Obama’s legislative victories would make most presidents jealous, but it’s necessary to solidify them and ensure they’re carried out responsibly. The Obama administration has staffed its agencies with professionals that want government to work. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the response to Hurricane Sandy. Republicans with their deep ideological aversion to government doing things well make appointments that create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Is anyone surprised that Bush’s FEMA head incompetently bungled the response to Katrina, while Obama’s appointment has received high accolades for his performance?

If you want government to run well and to focus on policies to help all Americans, your best hope is the reelection of Barack Obama.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Categories: Politics

Electoral Collage: Fragments of a Defense

October 23, 2012 1 comment

Responding to some new polling data suggesting Romney might win the popular vote, yet lose the electoral college Daniel Foster marshals of a preemptive defense to his fellow conservatives.

In short, the College reflects the formal and constitutional fact that the president is elected chief executive of a union of states – federated but sovereign – and not a glomeration of people. The executive of the Constitution, of the Founders, is president of the United States, not president of America. Its detractors consider it an anachronism, but if federalism still means anything – and sadly, that’s something of an open question – then the College is as vital as ever. It affirms that we vote as citizens of the several states, not mere residents of arbitrarily drawn administrative districts.

Let’s examine this and other dubious arguments:

The executive of the Constitution, of the Founders, is president of the United States, not president of America.

Just because something sounds profound doesn’t mean it is. The United States is America, which is why we’re, ya know, “united.” Foster seems to be making an argument that the president should represent the interests of states not of individual people. But states don’t have interests; people do. The geography of Nebraska doesn’t care or not if the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act remains the law of the land. Whether particular states populations have coherent interests or not, the electoral college is just a top-down government intervention into the free voting market, inefficiently subsidizing swing state issues over others.

It affirms that we vote as citizens of the several states, not mere residents of arbitrarily drawn administrative districts.

Foster might worry that federalism might have its feelings hurt if we don’t “affirm” it, but the presidential election’s real purpose is to choose the head of the national executive branch. Furthermore, what happened to his earlier suggestion that the president serves the states not “a glomeration of people?” A state, by definition, is an “arbitrarily drawn administrative district.”  Is it good to lump people by arbitrary lines on a map or not?

Even if the president was the representative of the United States, not of the American people (whatever that means), the electoral college doesn’t even seem up to that task. We don’t just add up who won more states and decide that way. In a concession to slaveholders, the Founders gave smaller states more power. Rather than dividing up the electors equitably, each state gets 2 extra electoral votes and the rest get assigned proportionally by population size. So now voters in New Hampshire and Iowa’s votes count more those of Californians.

He goes on to argue that the electoral college ensures presidential candidates will take more broadly popular opinions instead of pandering to narrow “factions.” Apparently, Foster or Tara Ross, who he’s channelling, never heard of Yucca Mountain, corn ethanol, or any other swing-state concern.

Foster never makes it clear how a small percentage of votes in Ohio transubstantiates into the embodiment of the United States, while a national vote or similar scheme results in an unsuitable president. He warns of “potentially disastrous” repercussions, but never specifies what those might be. That’s unsurprising since Foster’s true concern is structure and signaling not consequences. So even though small state votes count more, swing voter issues matter more, and a president can be elected without the popular will or even without an electoral college majority, Foster and other conservatives and contrarians support this outdated and poorly designed institution.

Charges of Hypocrisy Are Almost Always Overrated

You may have seen this Townhall story about the Obama campaign checking photo IDs on your conservative friends’ facebook pages. See, Obama opposes strict photo ID rules at the voting booth but not at his events!

This is a great example of why hypocrisy is the least satisfying critique of a person’s policy preferences. President Obama, and others, favor different photo ID policies at different places because the consequences of those policies differ. What’s next, a Townhall headline that the president approves of checking IDs for purchasing alcohol?

Oh wait.

Anyway, why don’t we go through a couple obvious differences:

  • Voting is a constitutional right. Attending a campaign rally is not.
  • Romney supporters were causing problems at the event. In-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent and, therefore, not a problem.

Campaign events are for supporters; if a few don’t get in it doesn’t undermine the outcome of the event. In contrast, Voter ID laws may undermine democracy. According to Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Pennsylvania, his party is proud to have passed “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Turzai and the Republican Party might be perfectly consistent in their support for checking IDs, but that shouldn’t absolve them of criticism.

How We Know that Politicians and the Media Don’t Take Politics Seriously

The political battles surrounding the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden reveal an important truth about our political and media class. After the Obama campaign released an ad celebrating the president’s decision and questioning how Romney might have acted, Republicans started hyperventilating and the media started asking if it’s appropriate for Obama to “politicize” this.

I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together –Mitt Romney

[Obama has] managed to turn it into a divisive, partisan political attack –Ed Gillespie

Politics of bin Laden: ‘Fair game’ vs. ‘divisive’ –CNN

GOP says Obama playing politics with bin Laden anniversary –CNN

Is the president politicizing the bin Laden mission? –Fox News

You can find virtually endless debates about whether or not it’s ok for Obama to have politicized his decision.

That, in a word, tells you all you need to know. Politicians of all stripes and the media apparently believe that political discourse necessarily trivializes issues. It’s a game to them. If it wasn’t why would national security be off-limits for politics, as is often argued?  Foreign policy and the decisions stemming from executive power are exactly the type of issues we should be divisively clarifying for the electorate.

It’s quite reasonable to believe that Mitt Romney was correct that it’s “wrong for a person running for president of the United States to get on TV and say we’re going to go into your country unilaterally” as he argued in 2007. Or you could criticize the raid and the selective leaking of details from the Left as Glenn Greenwald has on numerous occasions. And it’s perfectly acceptable that Obama tout his decisions as successes and to criticize his opponent.

As I said at the time, I think the world is better off because of the decision Obama made. People can disagree with that conclusion, people can disagree with the specifics of the operation and aftermath. These are issues that should be politicized because politics is the arena where we publicly discuss public policy and government action. Anytime anyone decries politicization you know they don’t take politics seriously. Of course, since politicians seem to think it’s just a cynical team sport, I often wonder how seriously anyone should take politics.

Categories: Politics

#IntendedToBeManipulative

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Campaign ads, by law, must feature the candidate saying “I approve this message.” If Congress decides to pass any future campaign reform, one of Mitt Romney’s political advisors provides a new disclaimer:

First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.

It needs some trimming… something pithy like #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement.  At least Romney’s operatives are being honest that they’re in “the propaganda business” after dishonestly placing President Obama’s words out of context.

“Manipulative pieces of persuasive art” embodies Romney’s entire campaign… then again, I’m not sure persuasive is the appropriate word.

Read more…

Categories: Politics Tags:

Was 2010 an Anti-Incumbent Year?

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

No.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once again conventional wisdom is wrong.

Some Thoughts on the Election, 1 Week Out

November 9, 2010 3 comments

Who won?

The question shouldn’t have an obvious answer. If Andreas Kluth taught me anything it’s that success can be found in failure and failure in success – triumph and disaster are two impostors.

The Republicans definitely won big in the electoral battle. But why did they win so big? Many Democrats and people like myself have argued that it can all be boiled down to “the economy is bad, the Democrats were in power, therefore the Democrats lost a lot of seats.” There are also historical and structural reasons to expect big Democratic loses (e.g. They had a big majority so even a 50/50 partisan vote split would result in many lost seats). Here’s a chart showing midterm changes of House seats for the President’s party.

Although the economy and structural factors played the biggest role it appears the Democrats lost a significant number of seats because they supported policies lots of people in the country don’t like (here and here) – especially healthcare. The political scientists at The Monkey Cage find (with all the appropriate caveats that we bloggers often fail to trade in [that’s why I always suggest reading the source]) the big controversial votes (Healthcare/Cap&Trade) may have cost the Democrats around 24 seats and possibly even tipped the scales on who controls the House.

Keep in mind it is always possible that these votes are rationalized after the fact: (h/t The Daily Dish)

Pundits and politicians who are interpreting the midterms as a referendum on Obama’s agenda, however, would be wise to read the forthcoming book of MIT political scientist, Gabriel Lenz.  Lenz convincingly demonstrates that policies subjected to intense public debate rarely become more important determinants of citizens’ vote choices.  Instead, voters will more often first pick a candidate based upon partisan and performance factors and then adopt that politician’s views about high-profile policies. So, for example, voters who decided to vote for Republican candidates in the midterms because of the poor economy would also be more likely to embrace that party’s position on health care reform.

I’m not going to pretend I can settle what is essentially a scientific question, but let’s pretend that we know that the Democrats lost the House because of their votes on unpopular policies. It’s not that far-fetched to think voting to cut $500 Billion in medicare would cost somebody an election. What would the lesson be for the Democrats? Should we answer our first question that the Democrats lost?

If the Democrats had known ahead of time that not passing any of their policies would have allowed them to maintain control of the House and they had therefore not passed any of their signature legislation that’s possibly the definition of success as an impostor. If I may borrow some more from Andreas, the Democrats could go from success to success, winning election after election as Hannibal won battle after battle in Italy. Yet, the purpose of winning battles is to win the war; Italy never completely fell and Hannibal’s Carthage was “razed it to the ground so thoroughly that modern archeologists had quite a time just locating the site.” The purpose of winning elections is to pass legislation.

David Frum tried to warn Republicans.

Republicans may gain political benefit, but Democrats get the policy. In this exchange, it is the Democrats who gain the better end of the deal. Congressional majorities come and go. Entitlement programs last forever.

History is on his side; today we have the GOP scaring seniors because the Democrats are cutting entitlements. There should be no doubt that given enough passage of time this new healthcare entitlement will be seen as just as fundamentally unchallengeable as social security and medicare.

There is plenty to criticize about the Democrats’ policies, but you might not want to argue that they caused the Republicans to “win.” The Republicans won the battle, but the Democrats’ legislative architecture remains. Historians may be just as mystified about major Republican policies as they are about Carthaginian columns.

Utopian Leftists and Veruca Salt Centrists

November 2, 2010 4 comments

Election Day is here. Bring out the pundits ready to explain why things are going to go so badly for the Democrats (I’m not immune). In the Financial Times today Clive Crook, who’s great on policy but suffers from a version of the pundit’s fallacy whenever political strategy comes up, brings us another column faulting Obama for his lack of centrism (another example here). He gets some big things right – he notices that the economy is mainly to blame – but then Crook makes an odd argument (emphasis mine).

My own preferred theories emphasise the economy – which the administration has handled tolerably well in appallingly difficult circumstances – combined with serial political miscalculation. Mr Obama often settled for untidy centrist compromises (on the stimulus, on healthcare), thus disappointing the left; but without ever championing those compromises, causing moderates to wonder where he would stop, given the chance to go further. Offending both segments was an avoidable mistake.

Partly, then, this election is about disaffection in the centre – and the effort to tell Mr Obama, “Enough.” But if this is correct, and the polls turn out to be true, one should pay special tribute to the role the left has played in its own downfall. It did not have to be this way.

[…]

In any event, suppose that the Democratic base had not been sulking. Suppose it saw, for example, that persisting with a historic healthcare reform was politically challenging in the middle of an economic crash. Suppose it granted that radically overhauling a health system – some 20 per cent of the US economy – that many Americans rather like was a lot to take on. Suppose it was impressed that Mr Obama did it anyway, and was ready to go further.

Supposing those hopelessly implausible things, Mr Obama’s midterm strategy could have been different. Sure of the loyalty of the base, he could have addressed himself to the anxious middle, defended his policies as centrist compromises (which they were), and told the country (as he did in 2008) that its concerns were his concerns. In this alternative universe, he would have had his base and at least a shot at bringing the centre back.

Veruca Salt Imdb

Here we have Crook arguing that President Obama enacted “centrist compromises” not the policies the “whining utopian left” wanted. He then imagines that if only the Democratic base had not complained at all and just automatically remained loyal, Obama would have been free to direct his message to the center. I actually agree that the base, whatever their real grievances, should vote to reelect Democrats, but why does Crook imagine that leftists should be unquestioningly loyal while centrists get to act like Veruca Salt – they get all centrist policies but still feel entitled to complain and stomp off? Why doesn’t he “suppose” a scenario where the center “had not been sulking?” Crook is arguing that the left must shut up and support the President despite not getting what they wanted while centrists are free to complain and vote the Democrats out because Obama didn’t coddle them enough even though he delivered them “centrist compromises.”

I come at this as someone who generally favors centrist policies. Yes, I’ve criticized Obama for being “too timid”, as Crook claims liberals say (btw, is this a “whining utopian” leftist?). But the left shouldn’t be expected to always just fall into lock step out of loyalty but the center not. Isn’t the idea to champion as loudly and strongly the policies you want – if you’re always “loyal” what is the incentive for politicians to ever deliver? Remember politics should be about policy goals not political ones.

Also, he just fails to provide any data to back up his argument. I’m positive lots of centrist sounding Democrats are going to lose their seats. In fact, they’re probably the most vulnerable in this election (that’s for structural reasons not tonal ones). The data seems to show that most races are decided for structural reasons – notice how the US House and Lower House in States seat changes track each other.

House_seat_loss

So to recap: Veruca Salt centrist Clive Crook believes centrists got centrist policies, but not enough centrist messaging (although I think that’s even disputable) while whining utopian leftists settled for compromised policies, but got all the messaging. Who’s place would you rather be in? He sees nothing wrong with the centrists and blames the left for Democrats’ predicament. Got it.

Categories: Clive Crook, Politics

The Most Important Lesson For Elected Officials

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In Ezra Klein’s recent post juxtaposing David Brooks from 2005 with David Brooks now is worth a read, but Klein writes 2 sentences that every politician should have tattooed to the inside of their eye lids (one on each?).

You don’t win elections in order to win more elections. You win elections in order to solve problems and make the country better.

Most people probably think that is self-evident, but it seems most politicians easily lose sight of that. Here’s Mitch McConnell forgetting,

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

Don’t think Democrats don’t forget as well. Yglesias reminds Democrats that if they focused on governing better they wouldn’t be losing elections. Even if you’re self-interested enough and want your main goal to be reelection that shouldn’t prevent you from governing better – you just can’t be so myopic.

Speaking to The New York Times‘ Peter Baker for a profile published last week, Obama said his administration “probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right” and drew the lesson that “you can’t be neglectful of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

Marketing and public relations are nice, but opinion is fundamentally driven by results. And on this, Obama has it backward.

[…]

The issue is not so much that the administration needed to be more or less moderate, rather that it needed to be more effective in boosting the economy and more mindful of the central role it plays in politics. This matters because, to point out the obvious, the economic outlook is still bleak. Enhanced post-election focus on marketing and PR won’t turn that around. In other words, all the marketing and PR in the world won’t succeed in moving public opinion, meaning Democrats could easily have another round of election losses to look forward to.

Martin Wolf feels similarly,

The president’s willingness to ask for too little was, it turns out, a huge strategic error. It allows his opponents to argue that the Democrats had what they wanted, which then failed. If the president had failed to get what he demanded, he could argue that the outcome was not his fault. With a political stalemate expected, further action will now be blocked. A lost decade seems quite likely. That would be a calamity for the US – and the world.

Every time an elected official compromises what he thinks will be best for the economy for political purposes he’s sowing the seeds of his own defeat. Certainly certain compromises might be necessary to pass a particular bill, but as Wolf points out, when you make it seem like you got what you wanted you’ve trapped yourself. Not only that, but Democrats willingness to give up the rhetorical fight for stronger stimulus (or for any stimulus) weakens them for the future. If they aren’t willing to defend the idea of stimulus (assuming they still actually think it can be productive) how do they think they can gain support for using fiscal policy in the future?

I really don’t understand the long-term strategy of not making the case for the policies you want. Obviously if you want them you think they are the best policies; by undercutting the case for those things you’re just making it harder to get what you want. President Obama continues to make policy compromises that weaken policy only to get no Republican votes, no acknowledgment of compromise, no positive electoral gains, and…. compromised and weakened policy. Here’s my advice.

Stop looking at the next election, close your eyes and recognize why you’re in office.

Crook-ed Logic

I’m a big fan of Clive Crook, his policy instincts and analysis are usually spot on, but his political barometer may be malfunctioning. In his latest Financial Times column he makes the classic pundit mistake of mapping his feelings onto the electorate. Crook wasn’t happy with the way Obama sold his policies. He argues President Obama “should have chosen centrism unreservedly – as many voters believed he had promised during his election campaign. Then he could have championed, as opposed to meekly accepting, centrist bills.” Although Crook acknowledges that the economy is largely to blame for falling approval ratings (political scientists have repeatedly found this to be the case), he thinks Obama’s political loss with independents and centrists is due to his insufficient zeal in talking like a centrist. After all, Crook believes the policies themselves are centrist.


First of all it is not at all clear that independents are moving that fast away from the President. Here is my previous post on the recent steadiness in their support. 

And when you look at more polling from pollster.com any drop in approval coincides with the dismal economic growth, not his legislative battles or perceived non-centrist speeches.

The healthcare bill, which Crook uses as an example, passed in March. Yet, from around the time debate started on the bill to its passage to now, Obama’s approval ratings among independents have moved rather modestly. And who is to say that any of that movement is even attributable to the healthcare bill at all? Polling on the healthcare bill specifically has actually gone up slightly.Trend: Reaction to Congress' Passage of Healthcare Reform Bill
It is also interesting to note that it is actually centrist Democrats who are more likely to lose their seats than more progressive Dems. I’m not sure how that fits into Crook’s picture. What is clear is that the electorate blames whoever is in power for the state of the economy which – except at the margins – is the only thing that really matters. 


Curiously, Crook also believes in further stimulus yet believes listening to the progressive wing (who wanted more and bigger stimulus) would have been a mistake.

The fiscal stimulus, too, was a centrist initiative. It was smaller than the left wanted, and included temporary tax cuts as well as increases in spending. 

[…] 

If Mr Obama had followed the advice of the party’s progressive wing, he would have killed his administration’s electoral prospects – and his own hopes of a second term – stone dead.

It should be obvious by now that if a bigger stimulus had resulted in a better economy, Obama’s and the Democrat’s electoral fortunes would be better right now. If anything capitulation to the centrists has been self-defeating. 


Most people don’t pay enough attention to how politicians sell their plans for it really to affect their votes and when they do most just rationalize it to their bias anyway. Crook should remember voters are irrational and the economy matters more than political salesmanship. He should have stopped writing his column here:

The economy is much to blame, of course. The political effects are direct and indirect. Voters are unhappy, which hurts the party in power. The electorate understands that George W. Bush bequeathed the recession, but if 18 months of remedial action have failed to work as hoped, blame begins to migrate.

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