Thursday, April 20, 2017

Against Autopsies

One thing I've seen popping up again and again since the election last fall is calls for Democrats to perform some sort of "autopsy" of that election, and sometimes a separate autopsy just about Hillary Clinton's campaign in particular, to determine what the party should do to improve its lot in the future. Over at The New Republic Jeet Heer recently wrote a pretty typical example of these sorts of pieces:
The Democrats desperately need an authoritative autopsy of 2016: a winnable election with disastrous results. There are all sorts of questions the party needs to ask itself about messaging and strategy: Should Democrats have a more populist message, to appeal to the white working class? Should they double down on identity politics and intersectionality? Should they rely less on data mavens and political consultants? Should they devote fewer resources to national organizing, and more to rebuilding the party from the ground up?
I'll give Jeet some real credit, he does point out that endless Hillary bashing is now pointless as she's almost certain to never be on the ballot again (although I'd argue that his implied criticisms of her as a candidate don't really add up when you start actually examining them). But even if he does avoid the trap of endless Hillary bashing, which is still going strong on certain parts of progressive Twitter, his plea for an "authoritative autopsy" is still a pretty pointless idea in my opinion.

To begin with it's a terrible metaphor. An autopsy is of course a sophisticated medical procedure performed by trained experts to use the tools of science to determine how someone died. But while a skilled medical examiner can tell you if a stab wound was made before or after death, or if someone died from the flu or more exotic disease, or how drunk they were when their car hit the tree, there's no person on Earth who can definitively tell you why an election (decided by less than 100,000 votes in a few states!) went a certain way.

Oh there are theories, lots and lots of theories, but it's just really hard to tell which ones are right and which ones are wrong. Indeed from a certain political science standpoint the "winnable election with disastrous results" was the product of "fundamentals" of the election cycle with things like party incumbency in the White House and economic growth in 2016 dictating a pretty predicable result. In other words Trump only won because of a very lucky distribution of his votes, meaning his win was a bit of a fluke due to the less than ideally democratic nature of the Electoral College.

This theory by the way can't be proven right or wrong definitively, unlike the question of if the slug pulled from the victim's body was fired by that of the same type of handgun found in the defendant's home.

But let's set aside the metaphysical questions about how to prove anything and just look at the practical considerations. Let's say the Democrats did set up some sort of "authority" to try and figure out what to do? What would it look like? Well there's your first problem because the make up and nature of the body is obviously going to determine it's eventual "plan for how to fix everything." That is some sort of board split between Hillary and Bernie die-hard would probably spend a lot of time arguing over issues that divided the party in 2016. Likewise a board representing a broader swath of the party that was chaired by Joe Biden (or pick a party elderstatesman/woman of your choice) would probably have a lot of debate about Biden's brand of politics as well.

And that's just the start of the problems. Even if you are able to come up with some great group of wise and learned women and men that balances all the political considerations of a massive decentralized political party in a polity of over 320 million people, they are going to have to hear evidence from "experts" or whatever before they write their report right? Well let me go out on a limb and say that since "politics" is in many ways about dividing up resources, the competition for scarce party resources, that is things like money, staff, and party messaging, will help drive what "experts" or party leaders or witnesses or whatever argue is the key to victory in 2018 and beyond.

It would probably go something like this:
  • Labor person: "We have to rebuild the Labor Movement to win back the white working class."
  • Intersectional Feminist: "We need need to double down on intersectionality to build power with not over."
  • Black political leader: "Black people are the heart and soul of this party, we need better outreach and more of the party's agenda and resources directed towards their concerns."
  • Good government reformer: "We need to overturn Citizen's United and end the electoral college." 
  • Progressive leader: "We need single payer and a 15 dollar an hour national minimum wage!"
  • Moderate leader: "Stop being so liberal! Most people don't want to give up their healthcare for some government program. We need a middle class tax cut, and you're killing us with business interests who might be willing to support us!
  • Newer Think Tank Guru: "We need new ideas"
  • Established Think Tank Guru: "The old ideas work, we just need a better messenger."
  • Data maven: "My data tools can win 2020 for you."
  • Consultant: "I can win 2020 for you."
  • State Party Chair: "We need to rebuild the party on the state level by giving more money to state parties."
  • Local Party Unit Chair: "We need to rebuild the party on the local level by giving more money to local parties."
  • Bernie Diehard: "This is all Hillary's fault."
  • Hillary Diehard: "Shut the fuck up."
  • Party Hack named John Anderson: "Things aren't so bad, we'll murder the SOBs in 2018!"
  • Kirsten Gillibrand: "Come friends, let me tell you how I bridged these divides in my time in Upstate New York, and have raged against Trump in my time in the Senate. Not that this has anything to do with who the nominee should be in 2020 or anything."
The joke gets old but the point is pretty clear. Any sort of "authoritative autopsy" would turn into a political competition to try and determine the future of the party and how the party's resources ought to be distributed. Which of course is what party politics is all about, but Democrats don't need some formal board or report to do this because they are arguing right now about things like which special elections to spend money on or if Bernie's recent endorsement of a Democrat with a less than stellar pro-choice record in Omaha's mayoral election makes sense.

Don't get me wrong, there is need for some self-assessment after 2016 when it comes to formal party organizations and the like. Information security clearly needs to be a major priority moving forward, there's also questions about how best to use the email list Hillary gave to the DNC recently with information about 10 million donors apparently not in the DNC's system. I think arguments about superdelegates at this point are stupid and a good example of progressives fighting the last war (supers could save Democrats from a Trump style hostile takeover in the future) but I suppose it's something that needs to be addressed, and figuring out how to get more resources to the legions of people interested in running for office for the first time makes a lot of sense too.

But when it comes to the "all sorts of questions the party needs to ask itself about messaging and strategy" that Heer assures us need some definitive answer on? I'm really skeptical. Back in 2013 the Republicans came out with their own "autopsy" about what went wrong and how to fix it after they suffered a drubbing at the polls.

The report called for a more "inclusive" party. That is to say Republicans needed to stop being the party of angry old white people, they needed to reach out to minorities and women, they had to embrace some form of immigration reform, they needed to stop offending important voting groups all the time, and desperately needed to build a well run, data driven, and field heavy organization for 2016. Their nominee of course ignored every piece of advice in the report and won anyway.

So yeah, the whole autopsy thing strikes me as being a waste of time.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Not So Helpful Advice

The recent surprisingly close special election for a House seat in Kansas has led to another round of what I like to call "What The Democrats Are Doing Wrong" takes all over the internet. In some ways this makes sense. The electoral success of my beloved party hasn't exactly been stellar since 2012 (in fact in some ways we've been losing ground since 2008). And it's obvious that some changes need to be made in the party to be able to win elections in the future. Plus there's a reality that the party itself is changing due to things like new activists entering the party (although I do think rumors of our death are being a bit exaggerated) and that fact that the old players are leaving the scene. Figuring out how to accommodate this changing reality as well as how to do better is clearly something we Democrats need to figure out.

So yes the party needs to change. But the question is how should it change? And this is where the"What The Democrats Are Doing Wrong" takes start to get a bit much.

To begin with a lot of these takes often just restate a the author's preferences for what the they want the party to focus on. So some people's pre-election and post-election takes seem quite similar, as they argue about how the key to wining elections is presidential delegate allocation rules. Other people who want the party to become some sort of European style ideological social democratic party write about how that's the only way to win. And people who want anti-racism to be the fundamental principle of the party write about that's the path forward. Other people who want liberals to shut up and stop whining and scolding so much argue doing just that is the key to victory. Meanwhile other people explain that once Chelsea Clinton has been destroyed the road to socialism will be open.

Some of those ideas are better than other (and yes I'm cherry picking some of the worst examples) but the issue remains. When a political party is trying to change, people with opinions about what that change should look like are obviously going to frame there arguments in terms of "This is the thing to do to win elections." Fair enough, but that doesn't mean those arguments are right.

More over, and yes this is sophomoric but it's still true, the political future is really hard to predict! Remember when Trump could never win? Remember when Obamacare website problems showed the program was doomed? Remember when the shutdown meant that the GOP was screwed in 2014? Remember when Obama's terrible debate performance meant he lost the election? Remember when a special election in Massachusetts meant Obama had to change his presidency's whole agenda?  Remember when the Tea Party was obviously a joke? Remember when the future of liberal politics was Occupy? Remember when the key to winning presidential elections was the "rising electorate"? Or "Nascar dad's?" Or that strange new place called the exurbs? Or "soccer moms?"

In other words you can write a great piece marshaling well thought out arguments, interesting anecdotes, and good data about "how the future of the left is female", and indeed maybe it is! But then again maybe in March of 2021 some annoying person will write a dumb blog post poking fun at Rebecca's excellent piece pointing out that the Booker/Brown ticket's utter annihilation of the weird Trump/Rubio reboot shows the real key to winning elections on the D side is nominating a younger hip black dude and an older white dude.

Recently Matt Yglesias wrote a piece on the House special election in Kansas that made sense, but reminded me of all the reasons why I find these "What The Democrats Are Doing Wrong" takes so frustrating. Basically he argued that the leadership of of the DCCC should be more willing to fund more outside the box House campaigns because it's not clear that there system of "targeting" works very well. More over this targeting system channels resources through a select few and in the Trump Era it seems that really weird things can happen and maybe that guy could have won with some more help from the DCCC. Add in the fact that overconfidence is a major problem and you got a recipe for dysfunction.

These are sensible and intelligent point. I too have worked on Democratic congressional campaigns, I too found the DCCC's targeting methods to be very frustrating, and I too think that a more broad based strategy makes sense. But it's not like this is happening because those dumb Democrats don't know how to do politics. In fact Matt points out the major flaws in his own arguments in his own piece. That is the idiots in charge of the DCCC may be skeptical of the "give money to everyone who runs for the House" strategy because:
The risks of a new approach are large. In particular, party leaders worry about burnout. They worry that the same grassroots who this morning are frustrated that the party didn't invest in a 5-point loss in Kansas would be even more frustrated today if a massive effort had resulted in a 2-point loss. That asking the same grassroots brigade to trudge toward what's still a long-shot race in Georgia would be counterproductive.
The national outpouring of grassroots enthusiasm for Wendy Davis’s support of abortion rights is a cautionary tale here. There are some very real trends making Texas more Democratic, but nobody (including Davis’s campaign) really thought abortion was the best issue — as opposed to Medicaid expansion, say, or school funding — for Texas Democrats to highlight.
Which leads us too:
The specter of a bunch of amateur-hour pundits and online organizers ginning up enthusiasm for a handful of lovable long shots and firebrands with weak teams and poor district fit, only to walk away when the whole thing crashes and burns, makes party insiders nervous with good reason.
In other words the Democrats are skeptical of your advice because it has problems too? Okay then.

Look, I don't want to beat up on Matt here, he makes some pretty good points. But I'm sorry, political money is going to be political and so of course it's going to have those political problems Matt identifies. John Barry points this out in his excellent book "The Ambition and the Power" about the rise and fall of Speaker Jim Wright (page 394 in the hardcover):
Another element of power was money. Lyndon Johnson first rose to power through the DCCC, funneling campaign money to colleagues, [Speaker Tip] O'Neill had once chaired it, and had called money "the mother's milk of politics." [Representative Tony] Coelho used it as a stepping-stone. Wright viewed DCCC fund-raising as crucial to his job. By late September he had taken almost twenty trips for the DCCC to raise money for colleagues...Wright was exhausted, worn out, and physically ill. He needed rest. But he had scheduled a trip with the DCCC chairman Beryl Anthony and he kept his commitment.
Barry is describing Wright flying all over the country like a madman in the fall of 1987 raising money for the DCCC. He did this for a number of reasons. Reasons like to be able to increase his power, help his party, try to enact his mad dream of bringing the South "back home" to the Democrats in 88' and beyond, and insulate himself from his enemies inside and outside his caucus that would soon tear him down. So yes, the DCCC probably should take more chances and overconfidence is a major problem but the idea that political money isn't political is a bit much. Hence why people fight hard over money streams in American politics. The same way Matt and Ezra work hard to control who writes what about what at the media company the work at.

And don't get me started on the idea that frustrated progressive activists don't have other ways of raising money and giving it to people they like outside of one formal party organization.

I get the need to give advice. I also get the frustration at the state of American politics. And I get all the negative emotions about the Democratic Party by people who would like things to be quite different. Heck, I get that some people reading this blog post are annoyed at me for writing it and being the neoliberal Hillary shill that I was.

But giving advice that isn't well thought out isn't exactly making things easier. We are in bad place yes, but that doesn't mean your advice isn't about your own interests, or that you have some way of telling the future, or that politics can stop being political for this one special idea you have that will fix everything.

Are the Democrats doing everything wrong? Maybe, but then again I think things have been going much better since January 21st 2017, special elections in Kansas aside.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Case Against Bombing Syria

Recently I was involved in a back and forth on Facebook between someone who agreed with President's Trump decision to launch cruises missiles into Syria in response to the Assad's Regime's  dropping what appears to be nerve gas on civilians.

I respect my friend's position, and I think she a very intelligent woman who can make up her own mind about these sorts of thing. And have to agree with the idea that Assad and his henchmen are truly vile and evil people, and the monstrous crimes they do day in and day out are truly beyond the pale. And while my friend didn't say this, I'll go so far as to say that it is shameful how little my country has done to help the millions of people displaced by this war, there is so much more we could have done or do now, and the President's kooky attempts at banning Muslims from coming into the country are a national embarrassment and fundamentally idiotic.

So I get where my friend was coming from when it came to Trump's decision. I don't question her opinions when it comes to needing to get more engaged, I'm just very skeptical of the whole idea that this latest round of bombing, or another few rounds of bombings will actually fix anything.

Robert Farley, who's at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, and an avid blogger with the Lawyers Guns And Money set, basically summed up my thoughts when it came to what happened and why Trump's "strategy", such that it is, won't add up to much. (Sorry for breaking blog etiquette with such a YUGE quote, but Bob really hammers the arguments home here):
  • The direct military impact of the attack is trivial. The next big question is how Syrian actors will respond; will the Assad government moderate its tactics, at least insofar as chemical weapons are concerned?  Will rebel groups take heart, and increase their tempo of operations?
  • If Russian personnel were present at the airbase that launched the chemical attacks, then there are some really big questions about how much they knew about Syrian government plans, and when they knew it.  I doubt Assad would have informed the Russians in advance of the attack, but handling procedures for chemical munitions differ considerably from those for dumb bombs; it’s hard to believe that the Russians wouldn’t have noticed something.
  • The Israelis are claiming that they have evidence that Assad ordered the attacks personally.  Take or leave that as you will; for my part, this does not seem to be something that the Israelis would go out of their way to lie about.  Bibi has made every effort to cultivate Putin over the last few years, and it’s not as if the Israelis were ever that enthusiastic about the replacement of Assad.
  • If I’m ISIS I’m very happy today.  The net effect of all of this is less cooperation and more conflict between all of the partners fighting against ISIS.  Whether it will be enough to stave off the offensive on Raqqa is a different question.
  • Good discussions at Lawfare on legality; see here, here, and here.
  • The idea that the Chinese will be intimidated by this does not seem… sound.  The US just conducted a strike that eliminated virtually zero extant Syrian military capability, and that endangered no Americans.  This is not the stuff that strong reputations for toughness, resolve, and credibility are made of.
  • It’s not at all obvious what message the Syrian government is supposed to be taking from this.  Bombing civilians is okay, but chemical agents are a step too far?  Assad is probably fine with that, on balance.  Regime change is back on the table?  Hopefully there’s some backchannel communication designed to clarify US expectations for Moscow and Damascus.
I'll put my thought's another way; is there some hypothetical way for America to use it's awesome military might to try and find a better outcome in Syria? I suppose it's possible. But it's ridiculous to think that President Game Show Host, or the old guy with J. Peterman's haircut and no staff, or the handsome young man who pretends he knows what he's doing and goes on interesting field trips are the ones who can engineer this possible outcome.

Meanwhile the horrible war goes on, but it's not clear to we how this problem of Assad's Regime could be solved with a bombing campaign. Or rather even if it is "solved", it's not clear that the post Assad situation in Syria would be better. There are other options to shooting cruise missiles of course, but as Matt Yglesias pointed out is the logical end of these options is a massive military invasion and a open ended presence to "create stability", which then turns into a reason why a president Cory Booker in 2021 can't have the military withdraw, because that creates chaos.

I suspect my friends' response to this line of argument is to point out the horrible things that have happened, and are happening, and will continue to happen in Syria. These are fair points! I just think the costs and risks outweigh what good more intervention might accomplish.

Then again this could all be moot, President Game Show Host might do something to totally change everything tomorrow.

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.