Saturday, March 11, 2017

Was Hillary Really A Bad Candidate?

I know, it's a stupid question to most people, and yes that's a bit of a clickbaity headline. But it's an interesting question to me, considering that contemporary wisdom of all sorts of journalists and pundits that this is obviously true. I also know it's pointless at this point, minds have been made up, and I now assume people telling me why "Bernie would have won" will continue into my days in the retirement home. But, fine, I'll bite.

The whole idea that Hillary Clinton was the worst presidential candidate ever (well maybe since John Davis, views seem to differ) I hear from all sorts of quarters. I disagree, and I'll try to make the case as best as I can, and yes I'll say it: Hillary Clinton wasn't a bad presidential candidate.

I've written about this before, but I restate the case briefly. While we political junkies, and especially political journalists, love to obsess about presidential elections being these epic battles of political skills between the two major party candidates, the eventual outcomes in terms of two party vote shares are fairly predictable. Thing like the state of the economy during an election year, which party holds the White House and for how long, and casualty levels from unpopular foreign wars are actually pretty good at predicting election outcomes. As I said a few months ago:
Political scientist Seth Masket did a great job explaining this by making, “…a simple scatterplot showing the relationship between economic growth (using per capita real disposable personal income) and the incumbent party’s share of the vote. Clinton’s vote share was right on the line.”
Don't believe me? Well fine, but Nate Silver (who's models correctly pointed out this was a lot closer election that I or other predicting models thought) put it this way
Instead, 2016 was generally treated as Clinton’s race to lose when that conclusion didn’t necessarily follow from the empirical research on presidential campaigns. A better perspective was that Clinton was leading in the polls despite somewhat challenging conditions for Democrats, no doubt in part because of Trump’s flaws as a candidate. However, that made her vulnerable if the candidate-quality gap closed — whether because of her own problems as a candidate or because Trump’s performance improved — in which case partisanship would kick in and she’d be headed for a barnburner of a finish.

Incidentally, Clinton slightly outperformed the “fundamentals” according to most of the political science models, which usually forecast the popular vote rather than the Electoral College. For instance, the economic index included in FiveThirtyEight’s “polls-plus” model implied that Trump would win the popular vote by about 1 percentage point. Instead, Clinton won it by roughly 2 percentage points. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s something to consider before assuming that Clinton must have been an exceptionally flawed candidate.
Read the whole thing, as the kids say on Twitter. Now I know the response to this, generally to roll out the laundry list of all the missteps Hillary made during the campaign, (and sometimes this list just keeps going back through the Dubbya years, then the 90's, and indeed sometimes into her days in Arkansas). Fair enough, but then again a list of all the thing Trump did "wrong" when it comes to how you're suppose to run for president is a pretty big list too.

Here's another way to think about this. Instead of making a list of everything Hillary did wrong, what are some (non-backhanded compliment type) things she did right that future Democratic nominees could emulate. Here's a few ideas I came up with:
  • Raise a lot more money than your opponent, a two to one financial advantage is a good goal.
  • Whip your opponents ass in all three debates.
  • Create much better adds than your opponent does.
  • Run a well organized convention with lots of great speakers that create media moments that just pop and then go viral (see here).
  • Get the endorsements of members of your opponent's party, also get important members of your opponent's party to publicly declare they will never support their party's nominee.
A list like this could go on for quite a while.

So what to make of it? Well one way to think about this is that the "bad/stupid" things Hillary did outweighed the "good/smart" things she did I listed above. I'm not a fan of this sort of thinking for a variety of reasons, for one thing it just assumes that things like "giving paid speeches" is more important than raising more money than your opponent. Why is that necessarily true? Or in other words, why is boasting about sexually assaulting women not as "bad" as giving paid speeches? You can believe whatever you want to in the world of subjective judgements about how politics ought to work, but in terms of "ranking candidates' good vs bad" there's no real way to determine which is and is not important.

Another way, a way I've come to believe in more and more is this: the things we and the media think matter in terms of presidential candidates don't actually matter a whole lot.

That is to say all of the things Hillary did well (and poorly), and all of the things Trump did poorly (and well) didn't really matter a lot at all. Because "fundamental" things like those factors I outlined above mattered so much more. In other words, if wages had grown more in 2016 or James Comey hadn't decided to pick a side Hillary might have done better, while lawn sign deployment and annoyed volunteers probably weren't that important after all. 


I've read a lot of pieces on what happened since that horrible Wednesday morning last year. I remember it well: I woke up hung over, and for a brief moment forgot what had happened, and then remembered, I saw the numbers of my old digital clock sideways and stared, and then realized I had to go to work. (If you read this blog you probably have a similar story).

Of all these pieces one that really has stuck with me is something that political scientist Julia Azari wrote in November about what she called "the politics of shock". She refers to a short story she loves that is about a number of things but, "It's also a story about reordering not just priorities but fundamental assumptions about what you can expect from the world."

What can we expect from this world? Great question, I am still grappling with this, but if I'm going to cast away some stuff, it's the idea that Kirsten Gillibrand (she used to be more pro-gun!) or Cory Booker (he's a vegan!) can't win in 2020 because of this or that  "important" thing the political media starts screaming about in 2019.

Did Hillary lose? Well yes, in the sense she lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote by 2.9 million. And if you want to take your anger out on her, well okay. But I think there are more productive ways to deal with that, as she is now a very tired older woman who spent her life trying to make this country better. I respect that, I think you should too.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Post On Cory Booker

The first month of The Era Of Trump have been something else right? Seriously, to even compile of list of The Leader's greatest hits would require something of a mammoth blog post in it's own right.

And we're just one month in! Anyway here's a post about politics that doesn't focus on the 45th President.

Despite the fact that political journalists love to complain about campaigns starting to soon, rest assured the "invisible primary" part of the 2020 presidential election is already well underway for the Democrats, and indeed the way Gallup's numbers keeps slipping maybe soon on the GOP side as well.

What does this mean? Well despite the fact that I got the 2016 contest very wrong on the GOP side, I still think a sort of party focused look at Democratic presidential nomination contest that cycle held up pretty well (yes I'm borrowing from the ideas outlined in that-book-political-journalists-love-to-mock). To be sure the central thesis of the book, that political parties control their presidential nominations in the modern era, is obviously not totally correct. However, in the grand academic tradition of "just because our theory failed doesn't make it totally useless" I think the frame work here is very helpful for thinking about the race on the Democratic side.

American political parties generally want to do two big things when it comes to nominating a presidential candidate (in theory). That is find someone who could conceivably win, and find someone who can be trusted to stick to the party's beliefs and agenda if they get to the White House. (Insert snide comments about Hillary and Trump in the comment section now.)

But how do they do this? Well they do this by coordinating around nominees they want and against those they don't. That is to say that the "expanded party network" composed of formal party bodies, elected officials, campaign and governing professionals, allied interest groups, and dedicated activists decided fairly early on in the 2016 cycle (say 2014-2015) to back Hillary Clinton. Sure Bernie Sanders ran an impressive campaign raising over $200 million dollars and winning a lot of states in his home base of New England and western caucus states (like Minnesota) where white liberals dominate the caucus process, that is true. But then again he was never able to overcome Hillary advantage in with things like, going in order, state party chair endorsements, congressional and gubernatorial endorsements, the overwhelming majority of people who work in Democratic politics for a living, labor unions, and black political big wigs in South Carolina (or insert of southern state of your choice).

Yes people vote and caucus and these outcomes matters, but the idea that it was all up in the air until May (or whenever) is pretty wrong, the stuff that happened behind the scenes on the Democratic side in 2015 (or 2014 through December of 2012 for that matter) was the more important factor.

In other words maybe you think this means the party doesn't "decide" (or maybe never did!) but you'd have to agree that the conventional political journalism standard of "we all just have to wait until the returns from New Hampshire come in" isn't very helpful. At least on the Donkey Party side of things.

Which brings me to Cory Booker. I think it's pretty clear that Booker has ambitions above and beyond being the junior senator from New Jersey. So where does that put him in terms of the 2020 race?

Well trying to figure out what the "expanded party network" of the Democratic Party is thinking at any given time is pretty difficult for outsiders, in fact it's pretty difficult inside the party too! Honestly I hope to try and learn a little more by participating in caucuses here in Minneapolis for the 2017 municipal elections as well as the ones for the 2018 governor's race a year from now to try. Indeed, since I write a very important blog and whine on Twitter to political scientists with even more important blogs I'm almost a party actor? Right!? Right!?

Seriously though I think Booker has a lot of the conventional strong points you'd want in a presidential candidate. He is very charismatic, and he can give a pretty good speech. Plus journalists by and large really like him, which in the aftermath of 2016 seems to matter a lot more than I thought. I'd also say he has a strong base in a big state population-wise that he's very popular in, and can raise a huge amount of money.

His weaknesses? Well that gets right back to my expanded party list from above. State party chairs and other such big wigs? Booker bucked party politics early in his career but I don't see what would stop him from kissing the ring when it came to the Democratic lords of Poweshiek County. I don't see why Democratic representatives or state legislators would say no (unlike the no's to Bernie Sanders who wasn't a Democrat). Campaign and governing professionals would have no problem with a president Booker in my view. And as a charismatic and driven guy I could see him winning his chunk of activists.

So where the problem? Party aligned interests groups, in other words with organized labor. Booker has always had a difficult relationship with unions, lots of lefty types might chalk this up to being a "neoliberal" or whatever, but I think it has more to do with his political career. Watch Street Fight, the great documentary about his improbable first run to be mayor of Newark in 2002 to see what I'm talking about. Here is a man who grew up fairly well off in the suburbs (his parents were some of the first black executives at IBM) and then went off to be a football star at Stanford. Then this guy decides to go into Newark politics for some reason.

One thing that becomes very clear during the documentary is that basically all the powers that be in Newark are lined up against Booker and with the then 16 year incumbent named Sharpe James (who'd latter go to prison for corruption). This includes police brass telling him he can't canvass in public housing buildings, police detectives threatening his staff, and all sorts of old school machine style political dirty tricks on election day. Another big thing that comes up is that the Newark unions lined up behind James as well, which of course is what unions often will do when it comes to long term incumbents in east coast municipal politics. The devil you know, as they say.

This isn't to say labor is wrong and Booker is right, indeed while I'm more skeptical of teacher's unions than many liberals I get why the NEA and AFT wouldn't like a guy who supported charter schools as a mayor very much. And yes it makes sense for even progressive unions to back long term incumbents like James that they have a working relationship with. That's just how politics works. The point is Booker has had a dysfunctional relationship with labor from the beginning and that's the baseline.

Anyway, if I'm on Booker's kitchen cabinet and he's seriously considering a run (maybe he's not and I'm wrong about something yet again) I'd say one of his bigger political challenges over the next few years is mending fences with labor.

That's a big thing to watch if you want to see if he's serious about running and has a good chance of winning the nomination.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Theory of Obamacare's Future

Having gotten the 2016 election so very wrong I am a bit hesitant to try and start making predictions especially since we are now in a political era where picking fights with Australia Bart Simpson style and "all lives mattering" the Holocaust are actually happening.

However I've been following the discussion about the end fate of Obamacare and would like to venture a theory as to what it might be.

To begin with we've seen a pretty major change already since that rather grim morning back in November when it was obvious to all serious observers that the health care system set up by the Affordable Care Act-with things like Medicare expansion, guaranteed issue, and state or federally run marketplaces with subsidies-was obviously going to be repealed completely. In fact, it was conventional enough wisdom that we were treated to very serious book reviews about how it's eminent destruction showed why liberalism itself was doomed in places like the new rebooted version of The New Republic.

But only a few weeks later even that stale voice of consensus wisdom called The New York Times was running major stories about how the push to repeal Obamacare has "stalled."

So what happened?

Well obviously of this is has to do with Trump's profoundly disastrous transition which is a big reason why he's the most unpopular new president in the history of political polling. There's also the very real factor what us anti-Trump people have taken to calling "The Resistance", that is the marches, and the protests, and the never ending calls and letters to Congress about any number of issues.

But even in a world where we had a smaller Women's March (or whatever) I still think the GOP Congress and Trump White House would be constrained by the reality that 20 million or so new people have access to health coverage and taking that away is going to be a hard sell for any politician, of any ideological stripe, who cares about reelection.

In other words I see four possible outcomes for Obamacare during the 115th Congress. I will list them in no particular order.

Repeal and Replace: This is the talking point that Republican politicians have been rolling out since (at least) 2010. Sure there's nothing in the Laws of Physics to say this won't happen, but by every other metric it just won't happen. The GOP has had seven odd years to write an alternative plan to the ACA and hasn't even bothered to hold hearings on it, let alone have a mark up session. Wonks and pundits have lots of "ideas" but there's a big difference between ideas and trying to deal with an industry that's one seventh of the economy and touches every American in some way. In other words if there was a "replace" bill coming Congress would have started on it, it was a grueling death march in 2009-10 after all, but they haven't. So none is coming.

Repeal and Nothing: This is probably the nightmare scenario. The ACA which governs our current system would be repealed and either through mistake or design no alternative would be passed. The individual insurance market would probably collapse, Medicaid expansion would shrink a great deal, and something like 120 million plus people (a number Senator Al Franken quoted on the radio the other day) might be "under the gun" for having "pre-existing conditions." In short it would be an epic disaster for the country, God knows how many people, and ultimately the GOP come 2018. But I can imagine a petulant Trump and confused Paul Ryan rolling out talking points about "This is all Obama's fault!" for months on end.

Repeal and Delay: This was the political stratagem devised by Paul Ryan et al to get around the very real policy problems of repealing the ACA and replacing it with nothing, while not upsetting their base by not ending all those death panels and such. It made sense politically, set up a ticking time bomb for the healthcare system that will blow up but after the 2018 elections and deal with the whole replace problem later. As the crisis of the healthcare system imploding looms demand Democrats pass a bipartisan bill that would spend less on the poor, cut Medicaid, and reign the trial lawyers (or whatever) and use that bipartisan cover to dodge the wrath of the voters come fall 2018. Or let it be a new "cliff" in American politics like the what the Republicans did with the debt ceiling where it could be a can to kick down the road under Republican Presidents and a way to take hostages and issue demands under Democratic ones

The problem of course is Repeal and Delay seems to be fading fast as an alternative so there's one left which Jonathan Bernstein (whose writing on this subject I'm heavily borrowing from for this blog post) has called....

Rename and...: Bernstein predicted this end game way back in the fall of 2011 (oh weren't those the days!) That is since taking away benefits from people is really unpopular and the GOP has never been that interested in healthcare policy when it comes to actually legislating on a national level (at least since the COBRA thing back during the 80's) the logical end game is a sort of punt where you throw rhetorical red meat to the base but don't do anything. As he put it back then:
...suppose that President Mitt Romney (or even Rick Perry) puts together a Heritage-endorsed package that entirely repeals Obamacare, and replaces (the president would say) the government takeover of health care, the death panels, and the rest of it with state-based Free Enterprise Marketplaces where private health insurance companies would use good 'ole American competition; Ronald Reagan Means Tested Vouchers to allow everyone to get insurance, and tax credits for everyone who signed up for any sort of health insurance.
In the era of President Game Show Host this would, if anything, be even easier. Hillary's death panels are gone, no more mandatory abortions either, instead all Americans are now allowed to go onto the convenient online Ronald Reagan State Based Freedom Marketplaces one can shop for a variety of Trump Approved Plans(TM) including the Gold Plan, The Titanium Plan, and The Trump Double Diamond Ultimate Plan. And the President ensures that no evil bureaucrats will ever deny you the ability to buy these plans as well. And if you're a freeloader who won't pony up, well then the new department in ICE will make sure you pay a fine.

This is of course completely different from the monstrous evil of Obamacare.

So what will happen? Well going back to the introduction of this post I am loathe to make a prediction, after all I got 2016 pretty wrong. But it's the internet so who cares.

My official odds are as follows: I suspected that the odds of "Repeal and Replace" are super duper long. The odds for "Repeal and Nothing" and very long but probably growing, largely a function of the growing chaos and dysfunction in Washington. The odds for "Repeal and Delay" are pretty long and getting more remote by the day (I haven't seen much chatter about it since at least the middle of Trump Week One). And the odds of "Rename and..." are everything else, which is guess is pretty good.

I guess there's also a chance Chuck Schumer will strike some sort of deal with Trump where Obamacare will be scaled back but not killed outright or something. But the White House's Office Of Legislative Affairs is going to have fun trying to sell that deal, what with yada-yading the Holocaust and all.

Anyway that's my theory of Obamacare's future.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christopher Moltisanti And Our Political Media

A few weeks ago I tried to grapple with the election of President Game Show Host with cultural artifacts from the Clinton years and I think it sort of worked. So inspired by Trump's political theory of just-doing-the-same-crazy-shit-over-and-over-again-and-hoping-it-works (it did!) I'll give it another go. But this time I'm going to talk about The Sopranos.

I think it's pretty obvious that much of our political media's behavior during the 2016 election cycle was pretty terrible. Sure there were many brave voices against the madness of EMAILS! (as we called it on Twitter) but much of the political media, especially "mainstream" outlets like The New York Times, cable news, the networks, and The Washington Post, chose to focus almost obsessively about things like email servers. All the while largely eliding bigger questions like, "what are the major differences between these two candidates' plans for the country?"

Matt Yglesias summed it up recently in an article aptly entitled "Fake news is a convenient scapegoat, but the big 2016 problem was the real news" where he points out that:
This coverage [of emails], though extremely extensive, did an extraordinarily poor job of explaining the actual legal issue at stake in the server matter. Network television newscasts from ABC, NBC, and CBS chose to devote three times as much airtime to Clinton’s email server as they gave to all policy issues combined. The Associated Press ran a major investigative story into Clinton Foundation influence peddling that treated a meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as evidence of an insidious pay-to-play scheme. The New York Times did a Clinton Foundation investigation that treated Bill Clinton successfully rescuing American hostages from North Korea as scandalous. The fact that public health experts believe the Clinton Foundation saved millions of lives, by contrast, played extremely little role in 2016 campaign coverage. 
Which means that:
The sum total of this media coverage — real stories based on editorial decisions about how to weight and present real facts — was to give the public the impression that two similarly ethically flawed candidates were running against each other in an election with low policy stakes. The reporters and editors responsible for that coverage can reasonably (if a bit absurdly) consider themselves proud of the work that led the public to that conclusion, or they can consider themselves ashamed of it. But the idea that voters were moved by fake stories about the pope rather than all-too-real ones about email servers is a preposterous evasion. 
When many journalists are confronted with this complaint, they tend to just abruptly change the subject. Generally to why Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, or something about Bill. As in most things linking pathological Clinton hatred, destructive "leftier than thou" politics, and bad journalism Glenn Greenwald is the Platonic Archetype here, but other people like Andrew Sullivan have fired off some similar takes.

You can also see this going on 24/7 on Twitter as well.

The reality is that this sort of topic switching just simply won't do. Scott Lemieux put it this way when riffing off a similar column by Paul Krugman:
The effect of yadda-yaddaying the media’s malpractice, Wikileaks, and a rogue FBI is both to normalize Trump and to make Trumps more likely in the future. That Clinton’s campaign, like all campaigns, made mistakes is worthy of discussion but is also entirely immaterial to this question. 
For some reason Scott's point really reminded me a classic scene from The Sopranos. I'm not a huge fan of the show for a variety of reasons, but I will acknowledge that it certainly belongs in any list of "Great TV Shows" and I think it's really helpful here.

The scene in question is the one depicting Christopher "Chris" Moltisanti's intervention. Chris is an up and coming younger mobster with some profound substance abuse problems and (I assume) narcissistic personality disorder, who is also the protege (to the degree that they have those in the Mafia) of Tony Soprano played by the late great James Gandolfini.

It's a great scene that really shows The Sopranos at it's best. From mixing humor with very serious subjects to highlighting the themes of some of the shows best characters. From the fundamental tragedy of Adriana's life, to Carmela's willful blindness to the truth that's all around her, to Tony's almost desperate need for control, to the fact that Paulie Walnuts really is crazy and really believes in the whole "Cosa Nostra Code" bullshit, this scene has it all.

Chris responds to being confronted about his raging addictions by changing the subject and pointing out everyone else's problems. Silvio is a misogynistic womanizer! Tony is fat! Fuck you too mom! Then the Mafia guys beat him up. Good stuff.

So why does this scene remind me of so much of the aftermath of the political media's coverage of the 2016 election? Well it's not just because of the tactic of responding to your own crisis with rampant topic switching and going on the offensive against people who are pointing out inconvenient truths about you, although those parallels are pretty obvious. But also because of the great insight the scene provides into Chris' own psychology.

Chris is a vicious, murdering little shit, but he's pretty smart. Probably the smartest of all of Tony's henchmen, which is a big reason why Tony tries so hard to groom him for leadership despite his massive other failings. As I see it Chris is smart enough to have figured out how bad he really did screw up by going into the Mafia lifestyle and in no small part uses booze and drugs as away to try and escape this hard reality. Just consider his position. Sure he's in a crime family and has the boss's ear, but that really just means that he's chosen a career where there isn't any way to get out, other than cooperating with the government, going to prison, or dying (probably in a really horrible way). Meanwhile his "family" is filled with stone killers almost as narcissistic as him who he can never really trust. Meanwhile the organization he's chosen to dedicate his life to serving is getting weaker and more dysfunctional day by day. Meaning that even if he is able to succeed Tony, which is a big if, he'll end up being the boss of a dying organization with no way out.

Thus why Chris gets so angry, and begins attacking anyone who points out the obvious. He screwed up big time, he's stuck with it, and the top person to blame is himself.

Which strikes me as being similar to the thought process of a lot of people contemplating what "covering" the era of Trump is going to be like in DC. Like Chris the political media "won", in this case by finally driving the Clintons from the stage after an epic 25 year death struggle. But that's been rewarded with something much worse than Hillary's dissembling or legalizing which so many journalists found so annoying for so many years. Instead they've gotten Trump whose already claimed his first scalp of members of their profession.

Meanwhile nothing his administration says can be trusted because they lie all the time. No source is worth developing because they might turn on you at any time. And there's no way to write about him without pissing off huge sections of the country.

The political media screwed up big time, and they're stuck with it, and one of the biggest actors to blame is themselves.

When us angry liberals shout like Tony that, "We're here to talk about you screwing up the country by how you chose to cover this election, not Hillary Clinton's fucking personality!" it seems to me that far to many political journalists act like Chris and come back with really witty answers. She's terrible! Not enough events in Michigan! Neera Tanden should never email! And fuck you too liberal subscribers!

The problem of course is we're all about to suffer the beat down for the next four (or maybe more) years. I wish that more people could come to grips with this, or at least acknowledge the validity of our complaints. But some people aren't very good at self improvement, instead they decide to just kill their friends for no good reason.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

What the Downfall of World Championship Wrestling Says About Trump.

The attempts to explain what Donald Trump being elected president of the United States of America remains one of the big themes of what I've been reading about lately. Theories of course abound, so much so that it's hard to keep track of them. If you want a refresher check out David Robert's great piece at Vox for a great rundown of the most popular ones, as well as some valuable insights of his own as well.

Which one's are right and which ones are wrong? I honestly really just don't know, although I have a few pet favorites. But while we're trying to sort things out please let me outline an idea that's been kicking around my head about Trump's shocking success. And to do it I'm going to have to talk about the rise and fall of World Championship Wrestling.

First a brief history. The thing we now know as professional wrestling was invented largely as a carnival attraction back in the 19th and early 20th century. After World War Two it gradually rose in prominence as a wealthier society with more free time and increasing access to television looked for new hobbies. By the 70's it was something of a cottage industry controlled by regional promoters who agreed informally not to directly compete with or poach each others talent.

This all changed in the 80's when a guy named Vince McMahon owner of the New York area World Wrestling Federation (or WWF, later to become World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) through a combination of media savvy, ruthless business tactics, and luck was able to eliminate most of his competition.

Except for a few hold outs, including one southern promotion named Jim Crockett Promotions which having over extended itself trying to compete with the WWF was bought out by yet another egotistical rich dude with things to prove named Ted Turner. He renamed the company World Championship Wrestling (or WCW) and decided to take on the WWF head to head.

(I know this all sounds very boring but I am going somewhere with it I promise.)

The upshot of all this was that the world of professional wrestling in the 90's was dominated by two rival companies, backed by two egotistical gazillionaires, with powerful TV networks in tow, wanting nothing more than to trample their enemy into the dust. There was a phrase for it, The Monday Night Wars, named after the two companies' flagship Monday night cable shows.

The story of the Monday Night Wars is a long an epic saga, Wikipedia summed it up pretty well:
In the mid-1990s, WCW dramatically improved its economic performance, largely due to the promotion of Eric Bischoff to Executive Producer (to guide the overall direction of the on-screen product); the strategy of hiring former WWF main eventers; the introduction of the Monday Nitro series on cable TV, and the resultant Monday Night Wars with the WWF's Monday Night Raw; the successful creative and marketing execution of the New World Order (nWo) brand/stable of wrestlers; and other innovative concepts...
...WCW eclipsed the WWF in popularity throughout the United States for much of the latter-1990s. However, numerous financial and creative missteps led to the company losing its lead over the WWF.
At the core of these "creative missteps" was a man named Vince Russo who by the late 90's had been put in charge of "booking" (deciding who wins and loses matches and how) and writing creative story lines for the whole company. Russo was obsessed with a theory of television he called "Crash TV." That is the key to keeping wrestling fans, or anyone watching really, was to just do more of everything, because more is more is more is more is more. (Russo's many critics inside the weird world of wrestling fandom have long said he based most of his "theories" of television entertainment on The Jerry Springer Show.)

Wikipedia sums the results up well:
"...only at an accelerated pace, including edgier storylines, more lengthy non-wrestling segments, constant heel [bad guy]/face[good guy] turns [changes in character], an increased amount of sexuality on the show, fake retirements, more backstage vignettes, expanded storyline depth..."
This strategy of hyper stimulating the audience can work for a time, not unlike how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire came to dominate television in 1999 and 2000. But pretty quickly the audience will start demanding ever more and if you can't provide it you're finished.

That's basically what happened to WCW which began losing tens of millions of dollars, lost it's TV deals, and was bought up by WWF for a pittance in 2001 after Ted Turner himself got tired of bankrolling the whole thing.

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, Trump's no stranger to professional wrestling, in fact he was featured in a major story line in 2007 where his chosen wrestler beat Vince McMahon's champion in "The Battle of the Billionaires", allowing Donald to both win owners of the WWE's RAW show and get to shave Vince's head.

This might seem totally idiotic and irrelevant to you (and it sort of is) but I still think there's something to be learned here. In many ways Trump has been running a political version of "Crash TV" which has allowed him to beat 18 other rivals for the GOP nomination and win a close election in which the Republican nominee was slight favorite. In no small way it's turned him into the WCW of the political world: whatever anyone actually thinks about it, it can only be expressed by talking about him. "What Trump Doesn't Tell Us About American Politics" is a story nobody is writing. Indeed his inauguration will probably be a bit like a nWo promo from WCW's heyday: even if you think it's stupid you agree its a bit fascinating to watch, at least once.

WCW of course didn't last forever. Russo's constant attempts to escalate his
"Crash TV" style of programming led very weird things like B movie actor David Arquette being crowned World Champion among other poorly thought out stunts. It didn't take long until the company was bankrupt.

Trump has been following a WCW "Crash TV" style of politics for a long time now. He's dominated the conversation stem to stern whether you are talking about grabbing women by the their genitals, or chants of "lock her up", or threatening to "spill the beans" about Ted Cruz's wife. Indeed this weekend's news has been heavily dominated by Trump flying to Indiana to save 2,000 (actually 850) jobs from being sent to Mexico and radically altering American foreign policy by arranging for a call with the president of Taiwan.

Does trying to bully every single factory in America one by one make sense? Does changing a decades long American policy towards China  via a phone call you didn't bother to run past the State Department make sense either? Who cares! It's  political "Crash TV", the point is to grab the spotlight. And since most political journalists don't really cover policy issues at all anymore you're unlikely to get push back.

Trump's strategy obviously paid of for him electorally. Political scientist Matt Dickinson did a great job of explaining how Trump used the "Crash TV" style of politics to his advantage during the GOP primaries. Read his whole piece but it could be summed as pointing out the media covered Trump overwhelmingly from the beginning and in a very positive light that focused on that he was "winning". Since most voters (even in primaries) don't follow what's going on very much, really good press about how your wining can carry you to 40% of the vote which makes you win under the GOP's byzantine delegate allocation system.

Dickinson (and I) thought at the time that this strategy wouldn't work in the general election. But then again the cycle favored the GOP nominee, add in a political press that in many ways doesn't care about issues other than email servers and if you're Trump you're on your way...

One of the reasons I got this election so wrong is that I assumed there was some sort of inflection point that would make Trump's media strategy run out of gas. I kept thinking that losing some states, or narrowing the field, or GOP rival deciding to go after him could be that inflection point during the primaries. But even after he won the primaries "fun is fun, but now this is serious" was the line that seemed to sum up my thinking through out the summer and fall. Surely his corruption and double-talk would sink him. Surely boasting about sexually assaulting women on tape would sink him. Surely Hillary whipping his ass in no less three debates would count for something.

But no. Like "Crash TV" each outrage and failure seemed to make him stronger. Like terrible booking and creative decision that are rewarded with more viewership.

I still think that inflection point is out there. I still think most white people will stop thinking he's funny and cool once the economy goes into recession or President Game Show Host blunders us into a shooting war with China for no good reason. But I could be wrong.

World Championship Wrestling's business model worked for a while, but not forever. My fear is that we the American people will have to pick up the tab once all the fun and games are over. Ted Turner seems to have washed his hands of this whole business a long time ago.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thoughts On Trump


Well that just happened.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth on social media and also on some email threads I’ve been cced on about what to make of a racist know-nothing game show host being elected President of the United States. And though there really is a lot to unpack here I think most post-election think pieces are missing a really big point that really need to be reiterated (probably again and again) when it comes to explaining Trump’s victory.

The big point is this: whatever Trump “means” the fact that he won isn’t that inexplicable. He won because he was the Republican nominee and in an era of intense partisanship that was enough to get him over the finish line. Basic “fundamentals” of the election, things like the state of the economy in the election year and the fact the Democrats held the White House for two terms going into the 2016 election, give us all the explantion we need in terms of why Trump was able to win a majority in the Electoral College. Political scientist Seth Masket did a great job explaining this by making, “…a simple scatterplot showing the relationship between economic growth (using per capita real disposable personal income) and the incumbent party’s share of the vote. Clinton’s vote share was right on the line.” 


The simple reality is that the aggregate behavior of the American electorate doesn’t lend itself to telling interesting narratives no matter how much journalists, pundits, and bloggers like me want it to. It’s really hard to hold the White House after your party has held it for two terms, it’s only happened once since World War 2, and so while we should be shocked at who the GOP nominated and is now our president elect, it’s not surprising the GOP candidate won. In fact, from a certain stand point the fact that Hillary won the popular vote by what will probably end up being over 2 million votes shows that she actually ran a pretty good campaign all things considered (or Trump ran a really poor one) even if the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College stopped her from becoming the 45th president.

Still all sorts of people have come up with big explanations for what happened, does this make them wrong? Well not exactly, it’s just there’s no real way to prove Jamelle Bouie was right or wrong when he chalks the outcome up to white racism plain and simple. He could be right! But it’s a really hard thing to ever be able to prove. Kevin Drum summed it up this way right after the election:
When an election is close, you can blame pretty much anything for your loss. There are dozens of people, events, and movements that can make a difference of 1 percent or so. In this election, you can blame Hillary Clinton, Berniebros, Facebook, Jill Stein, neoliberalism, the DNC, white racism, CNN, Obamacare, or anything else you want. They all deserve a share of the blame, so pick your favorite and go to town.
Personally if I’m going to blame anyone I’d go with a broken and hysterical national press corps and their coverage of Clinton, James Comey, and the fact that lots and lots of American men of different races just couldn’t stand the idea of a woman president. But there’s no way for me objectively “prove” this right now and since it will take a while for the CPS data to come out we probably won’t have good answers for years, if ever.

In other words, most explanations for Trump (white people are racist, the Democrats should have nominated Bernie etc) come down to people restating their strong Bayesian priors, which is very understandable, humans as a species love to find ways to justify their preexisting beliefs in the light of new and chaotic events. In fact, Ross Douthat went so far as to blame people not having as many kids as him for Trump. But this doesn't mean these explanations are correct, no matter how much we wish they were.

But while the electoral outcome of the 2016 presidential election wasn’t very surprising at all in terms of vote totals, the substantive consequences of making Trump president are very large. We’ve never had someone like this president and so it’s just really hard to determine how he’ll behave. I could see Trump taking the path of least resistance and going along with Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the social safety net and deregulate the economy as much as possible, in short Trump might behave like a generic Republican. Or I could see Trump being a lot like Jesse Ventura and get bored with governing pretty quickly and not do much of anything other than promote his brands, pick petty fights with other politicals actors, do some popular “free lunch” stuff like cut license plate tab fees, and host some WWE pay per views. Or we he might turn into an American version of Berlusconi and as Brad DeLong sees it govern as:
…somebody who will try to loot as much as he can for him and his friends, and under whom policy will be a combination of random and rent-seeking. Italy seems to have lost a decade of economic growth as a result of Berlusconi.
Other more darker possibilities are out there as well but I don’t really want to write about them right now.

As a liberal though the consequences of his election will most likely be disastrous for what I care about. The Supreme Court will probably be controlled by conservatives now for decades making change in future presidencies even harder. Trump's environmental record is likely to be the worst in American history. He’ll end numerous protections for workers and consumers from things from overtime wages to food safety. The government will be packed full of charlatans, con men (they will mainly be men), and idiots that could do a lot of damage over the long term. His negative impact on issues related to racial, economic, and gender inequality will probably be massive in its own right. A list like this could go on for pages.

But the explanation for why this is happening is actually pretty simple: the GOP nominated him and if you’re the nominee of a major political party you have a good chance of becoming president.

Political scientist Julia Azari recently compared this year’s election results to a short story about parents in a children’s cancer ward. I haven’t read the story so I can’t really comment on it per se, but her description of a story, “about reordering not just priorities but fundamental assumptions about what you can expect from the world” seems to be part of why people like those I cited in this article and myself felt so much anguish over this election. In terms of short stories it reminds me a bit of Shirley Jackson's classic "The Lottery", where an ordinary small town engages in an annual rite of human sacrifice for the most banal or reasons: they've always done it. In fact they've done it for so long they don't even remember why the whole thing started (because this isn't a metaphor for why the press obsessed over Clinton "scandals" for the last 25 years at all). In other words while the reasons for the annual "lottery" might be "normal", that is people tend to follow social traditions in small rural societies, the consequences for Tessie are very real, even as she points out the unfairness and arbitrary nature of what is happening.

The idea of horrific consequences coming from simple and in many way meaningless causes like party incumbency and wage growth in the summer of an election year is a really hard thing for most people to stomach.  But as Azari points out the world still works that way, no matter how hard we wish it didn't.

Friday, November 4, 2016

We're Not Doomed Yet!



Someone I know posted on his Facebook he quite literally couldn't sleep because of the prospects of a Trump presidency. I also had conversation with someone else who asked what my panic level was and I responded with “more like existential dread”, they thought this made sense. I’d argue the possibilities of a Trump Presidency make these behaviors pretty rational, but I don't think we are doomed quite yet. Anyway while the media is freaking out about emails and how Trump could win I want to make four big points that hopefully will let you sleep better.

1. Most of the models have Clinton as a heavy favorite: Nate Silver has been bearish all cycle about Hillary winning and has her odds at around 67 percent, but other fancy models are much more bullish. The NYTime's Upshot model gives her a 85% chance of winning, Huffpo's is in the high 80's, Drew Lizner (formerly of Emory) has her in the low 90's and others have here even higher. Maybe Nate’s right, but then again the whole boy genius thing might be a bit overrated.

2. GOTV: Jeff Blodgett (of Paul Wellstone fame) made a great point on Twitter yesterday that HRC et al have huge get out the voter organizations in crucial swing states. This includes her campaign, state parties, labor, allied organizations, everyone and your mom etc. Trump appears to have, well nothing. This is a crucial point largely ignored by reporters who want juicy stories or something with a universal scope like debate performances; getting your more marginal voters to the polls really, really, yes really matters. If one side is gangbusters and the other is nope this adds up, maybe up to 1-2 percentage points in the final outcome, maybe more.

3. Trump’s Latino Wall of Doom: Trump rode a wave of white anger about Latino immigration to political glory during the primaries, but this tactic isn’t as helpful in a general election. Who knows what Tuesday will bring, but Trump racism and nativism seems to be hurting him in the Silver State where crack reporter and long time student of Harry Reid’s Big Mean Nevada Machine has pointed out early voting statistics show Trump is doomed in the state. The Democrats just banked too many early votes to put it in play for Trump. He put it this way at 10 pm Friday night: “They just extended voting hours at a Mexican supermarket to 10 PM. Close to 1,000 voters in line. If you have a panic button GOP, find it.” That’s just one state, maybe an outlier, and Latinos aren’t as prevalent in more eastern swing states. But then again since most polls are still focusing on land lines, and few publicly released polls use bilingual staff it’s not crazy to think there’s huge turnout in the Latino community that’s not showing up in the polling and most of those voters are going for Clinton. 

4. Stop reading this dumb blog post! And go vote and knock doors! No seriously! It you want to influence the outcome on Tuesday you don’t have much time left!