Friday, September 8, 2017

Hillary Wrote A Book

So in case you missed it, Hillary Clinton, yes the one and only, wrote a book about "What Happened" in 2016 and it's coming out next week. Personally I don't plan on reading it. Hillary likes to write doorstoppers as memoirs and this one apparently tips the scales at 463 pages.

But we are already getting reviews, takes on reviews, and arguments on Twitter about it. So I might as well jump in and give my two cents.

Again, I'm not going to read it, and really don't want to get into the weird parlor game of trying to psychoanalyze Hillary Rodham Clinton. But I will say that the preview/review CNN wrote a few days ago gives the picture of a lengthy book that basically gets it right.

To begin with it looks like we can now point out that people who keep claiming that Hillary won't "apologize" or "take ownership" of her loss are just being ahistorical. According to CNN the book has this paragraph:
I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want -- but I was the candidate...It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.
Honestly she's taken responsibility before, but hopefully we can finally end that dumb whinny talking point about "ownership" once and for all.

Likewise, apparently she spends a lot of time criticizing the choices of one time FBI director James Comey. We of course will never know what could have happened if Comey hadn't decided to throw his weight around about Anthony Weiner's laptop a few days before Halloween, or if the media hadn't decided that EMAILS! was a more important issue than all policy issues combined, what might have happened. But the evidence that Comey and media norms, not Dumb Robby Mook Being Dumb, was what tipped the scales is pretty strong.

Early today Matt Yglesias, who I am a big fan of, Tweeted out that "Even some very close Clinton allies I’ve spoken to have questioned the wisdom of picking at the primary sore like this right now." He's talking about the parts (of a 463 page book!) where Hillary Clinton has the temerity to criticize Bernie Sanders for among other things not being a Democrat.

I agree with Matt that re-fighting that old war is pretty stupid now that we are in the Age of Trump (if you really must know why I never "felt the Bern" Elie Mystal summed by my views pretty well, except I wouldn't be so harsh on Hillary). But Matt's criticism strikes me as being profoundly unfair when you get right down to it. In fact as far as I can as I can see it there's no possible way for her to behave that would make her critics give it a rest, so she might as well get her side of things on the record for everyone, including future historians, to be able to view.

Indeed trying to find the "correct" time for Hillary to release her book seems like a bit of a fool's errand to me. Here's basically how media reactions would go to any sort of hypothetical Hillary book about 2016 based on when it was released:
  • Fall of 2017: I can't believe she is opening these old wounds!
  • Spring of 2018: It's simply disgusting and outrageous that she puts her self and her damn book sales above the midterm elections!
  • Winter of 2018-19: LOL, she's running, how pathetic. Sorry sweetie you had your chance and blew it.
  • Spring of 2019: Typical Hillary, typical Clinton. She thinks she's more important than beating Trump!
  • Fall of 2019: Can this old crone please shut up? We are talking about Booker vs Kamala!
  • Spring of 2021: [In The New York Times columnist voice] "Even as her one time protegee Kirsten Gillibrand is being sworn in, Hillary's desperate need to hog the spotlight showed yet again as word surfaced she's finally publishing a book about what went wrong in 2016..."
It's kind of funny how nobody cares how John Kerry acted after he lost the "easily winnable election" in 2004 and instead of going to live as a monk on an island in the Black Sea and contemplate his sins did this. Just like it's also funny nobody cares that John Edwards went back to practicing law. And funny that Richard M. Nixon, one of the most destructive American politicians of the 20th Century, wrote books too.

A lot of smarter people than myself have written about what Hillary Clinton's rise and fall says about how American society responds to the idea of women in power, and indeed gender itself in our society. I won't try to add to that work. But I would add that the contempt towards a woman involved in American politics since the Watergate Hearings having the temerity to publish a book probably has something to do with the how so much of culture treats political losers.

Probably the greatest book ever written about American Presidential Politics is Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" about the road to the 1988 presidential election. After spending over a thousand pages getting to meet one time presidential hopefuls named Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, and some guy named Joe Biden we arrive at Election Day. Cramer puts witnessing the day and it's events in this way:
Blood-roar. . . the nation seemed to demand it, or at least to expect it, in the closing days. How else to explain those gatherings of thousands where the candidate screamed and people screamed back, no one said anything, and the papers wrote it up as the campaign "picking up steam". . .blood-roar homage to our political lineage, to vengeful northern conquerors and their forest-gods (Normans, surely-French cuisine for state dinners, with five forks gleaming beside each plate, but give us the heads of our enemies on pikes)...A hundred time, his [Bush's] White Men, or his family, old school friends, or someone else who mistook breeding for behavior, tried to steer Bush off the Pledge of Allegiance, or Willie Horton, Crime 'n' Commies, Furloughs, Flags and Read My Lips! It was ugly, brainless, Bush had worn it out. . . but Bush kept at it. He understood what the forest-gods demanded, what the people wanted in a chief, his enemies felled and bleeding, drawn limb from limb and thrown to earth for the people to dance, in blood-roar. America defiles its losers. [emphasis added]
Trump of course is no Loser. Trump is the ultimate Winner. Trump is the man who gets to skate through life armed with daddy's money, the celebrity worship of the New York press, TV shows, book deals, casino swindles, four draft deferments from the Army, and a retinue of courtiers paid to never tell him no. All the while leaving a trail of wreckage in his Winner wake that he'll never be called to account for.

Our new president would never be the sort of loser who'd dedicate her life to public service and a belief that the world can be made better one step at a time. Let alone take responsibility for something.

No no no. That's Loser talk. Only Winners can fix the evils and ills of the world, through great deals, biggly.

That seems to be in part why the contempt seems to never end. Hillary was a woman who came so incredibly close to true power, it was almost in the palm of her hand! But, alas, she perhaps overreached, and fell. And now it seems as part of our media culture for us to be told why we need to to embrace the blood-roar and show why we defile our losers so much.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hurricanes and Pardons Oh My

As I write this a category four hurricane is smashing into the gulf coast of Texas and barring some divine miracle a lot of people are probably going to die.

I don't have a whole lot to say about that other than Jonathan Bernstein (who lives in San Antonio) wrote a very nice post this morning on what political science tells us about "natural disasters" and some of the ideas that under-grid the whole idea of democracy itself. Very good stuff.

But that's not while I'm writing this post, I'd rather make a few quick points* about the President's decision pardon to Joe Arpaio the former Sheriff of Maricopa County Arizona, which he decided to roll out tonight of all nights because...I'll get into that. Let's do this bullet point style:
  • Is this some brilliant strategy Trump or Jr. or Kelly has cooked up to bury the coverage? Maybe, I guess, in which case it probably won't work at all. But it could just as easily be Trump being a coward, or his strange whims. Maybe Jr. was like "Hey dad, let's just do it and be legends." With this president policy is a mixture of random and rent seeking, so who knows why a choice gets made.
  • Arpaio is a bad person in my book and there's a lot of good pieces out there about why this is. If you need a good rundown of his greatest hits Mother Jones had a nice retrospective after Arizona voters finally gave him the boot back in November. 
  • There's a lot of talk on Twitter about this pardon being "unconstitutional" because Arpaio was facing possible jail time of his own after he was found in criminal contempt of court for continuing to enforce his racist policies after the federal courts told him to stop and then lying about. The very deep concern over this issues is well founded, but from a hard nosed reading of the Constitution I think this is wrong. Trump is well within his constitutional rights to do what he did.
  • But by the same token Congress is well within it's rights to do things like censure or even impeach the president, for among other things, abusing his office by pardoning his buddies.
  • So the question isn't so much about the Constitution or "the rule of law" as much as it really is about the institutions and norms of American democracy. As political scientist Greg Kroger put it on the Mischiefs of Faction Podcast, and he's talking about why Trump is like but not like Andrew Jackson, ""Andrew Jackson had udder disregard for the institutions and norms of American democracy...yeah." (Greg starts about 29 minutes in, also note Greg's point about how "Andrew Jackson ruined the economy with his stupid populist ideas." Seems relevant with the debt ceiling coming up in September.) 
  • In other words Trump's pardon represents not some some major breach of laws, but rather yet another example of him smashing down the norms of our democracy. Presidents can pardon, yes but historically they do in extreme circumstances, after the pros and cons were weighted, and institutions like the Department of Justice were allowed to have input into one of the most expansive forms of presidential power in domestic affairs out there. Yes presidents have bent these rules in the past, but Trump's decision seems to be based on the principle that Arpaio is a swell guy or something and thus the President seems to have basically decided to pardon "Sheriff Joe" in the dead of night in the midst of a massive natural disaster because...reasons? So yeah this is different that the Marc Rich fiasco of 2001.
  • How does it end? I dunno, the big question is when the Congress will finally decide that enough is enough and it's time to stand up to Trump. Maybe we'll have to wait for the 116th Congress to do this, or maybe Republicans in the 115th will try to take a stand. We shall see.
*Oh, and obviously this whole pardon thing is yet another example of why the whole argument that there was "no difference" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump we got to hear a lot last year was ridiculous. And no I'm not making this point over and over again just because I am still bitter about some of the more ridiculous things said by well paid columnists and people on "the left" 12 months ago. No you're the one who's bitter, and no I'm not still mad about this. You're the one who's really mad.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Theory Of Google Memo Guy

In case you missed it there was a bit of a controversy over a Google programmer (or "googler" to use the company's terminology) named James Damore who wrote a 10 page memo about his thoughts on gender and Google's various diversity and human resources policies and fired it off to a bunch of folks in his company.

Suffice it to say many people inside Google weren't exactly pleased with this and so it became pretty controversial inside the company. It was then promptly leaked to the tech industry press, I think Wired had it first, which in turn resulted in it turning into a Big Internet Deal with all sorts of people talking/fighting about it on social media and ultimately writing lots and lots of pieces on basically every aspect of Google Memo Guy and his memo.

Feel free to Google (or Yahoo/Bing) it if you'd like to read the original memo, but here's a decent summation of what Google Memo Guy has wrought as of August 10th.

These pieces, or takes as well like to jokingly call them on Twitter, ran the gauntlet from "eh Google Memo Guy made some good points" to "I Have Very Serious Concerns" to  "As a philosopher here's what I think about corporate HR policies in tech" to "thank goodness someone in the tech industry stood up to this creep" and every other position you could think of.

Even David Brooks wrote a column about it, seriously when Brooks is writing about you, you know you've hit the big time.

Did Google do the right thing? I suppose so, but regardless of it Google Memo Guy should have gotten the hook, Google obviously was well within their rights to do so. After all this is a at will employee who decided to write some manifesto about why a bunch of policies corporate leadership and HR obviously spent a lot of time crafting are terrible and then blast it off to a bunch of people. This memo violated a number of company policies and thus probably exposed Google to lawsuits about hiring and discrimination from other employees. And while I'm no employment law professor this memo possibly created a "hostile work environment" as they say thus causing even more problems for Google.

Oh and it made the company look terrible in the industry and then mainstream presses.

So yeah, that'll get you fired.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. Instead I'd like to posit my own theory about what might be going on here, and the troublesome questions it raises for people like me.

Kevin Drum, who worked for years in tech in California before he became a full time blogger back in the early aughts (those were the days!), pointed this out back on August 8th that there was something a bit weird about how the memo is written. That is to say there were ways to make the same arguments making the same general points and not get fired if you thought about it, as he obviously did while writing a 10 page memo. As Drum puts it:
Maybe I’m over-reading things, but it seemed like Damore very calculatedly went further over the line than he needed to. For example, he didn’t need to argue that women are biologically unsuited for engineering jobs, something that he must have known would be both stupid and galactically incendiary. If he had simply said that women pursue software engineering careers in small numbers thanks to cultural and societal norms, it would have been less contentious and it wouldn’t have hurt his point. In fact, he really didn’t need to argue anything at all about the capabilities of women. He could have written a one-paragraph memo pointing out that, for whatever reason, female IT grads make up only x percent of the total, so it’s just not feasible for Google to employ very many women. He could bemoan this state of affairs, but point out that it has to be addressed starting in primary school, and by the time Google is involved there’s nothing they can do about the pool of applicants. So can we please knock off the sackcloth and ashes routine?
I thought the same thing, especially if you read the memo's beginning (not going to quote the lines because I've just seen it as a PDF) where he talks about "our shaming culture" and "fear of being fired." In other words, "Here's a memo I wrote about how afraid we all are about being shamed and fired for saying the things I will now say which I will be shocked if I get fired for." Or as Drum puts it:
There was something about the amateurishness of his analysis that seemed strained, as if he was playing a role. And that role was simple: not to write about why he thought Google’s diversity programs were misguided, but to write something as offensive as possible in a way that allowed him plausible deniability. In other words, he was trying to get fired so he could portray himself as a lonely martyr to Silicon Valley’s intolerance for conservative views. Maybe he could even go to court, funded by some nice right-wing think tank.
Now of course the big problem with this analysis is that me and Drum could easily be being too cleaver by half. Google Memo Guy might be a huge sexist, or an idiot, or any number of any other things. I have a vision of the social scientists who I pal around with online reading this post right now and responding with something like, "Longwalk! The human brain is hardwired to find patterns where no patterns necessarily exist! You and Drum are ascribing some brilliant plan to some weirdo who probably has none!"

That's a fair point.

But the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to Sarah Palin. She was after all a woman who decided to trade in her hard, boring, (comparatively) low paying job as Governor of Alaska for a lucrative media career. Maybe something similar is going on with Google Memo Guy. That is being a "googler" is probably a hard job that involves banging away on a computer all day. It's probably well paid compared to other computer programming jobs, but compared to a Fox News host?

In other words I think there's a good chance Google Memo Guy was tired of his hard and boring job, and like so many other conservative media figures (Milo! The "Gorilla Mind" guy! A whole lot of people who are on Fox!) decided it was time to cash in on the very lucrative markets that exist by producing "products" for conservatives to latch on to.

Why be a nobody when you can be someone who, while hated by lots of people, is on TV! Why be yet another white male computer programmer in a world filled with those when you can be The Next Big Thing for the "alt-right?" 

Maybe this was the plan all along, or maybe not, but either way our boy Google Memo Guy seems to be doing alright for himself. He's recently joined Twitter and as I write this is at over 52,000 followers. He's also booking himself on media outlets. An appearance on Hannity could be close at hand. A book deal could be not that far off. Whatever his motives or plans he originally had he seems to have found a more lucrative and easier career than writing the code that pulls up those bizarre Youtube videos I don't want to see in my suggested box.

While it's fun to point these things out, what's not very fun for us liberals (well in addition to regular reminders about how awful women are often treated in the American workplace, that's...uh...a not very fun thing too) is the hard questions it asks about how to respond. If someone only gains money and power by us liberal types pointing out on Twitter how wrong/terrible they are what's the right response? Should we point it out knowing it might help them out of principle? Follow Lisa Simpson's theory of the advertising industry and "if you just don't look the monsters will go away"? How should each individual respond? Is it possible even to formulate some organized strategy over the vast liberal/left/progressive online-verse? Or is that as silly as Google Memo Guy's theories about genetics? Is my referring to him by the silly nickname I made up part of the problem? Or a way to limit the times we say his name to keep him from rising in Google's own algorithmic search patterns?

I have no idea what the right answers are to these questions. But I think we should be asking them.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

All Hail The New Chief Of Staff!

Quite the news week right? I think my favorite explanation of news cycles in the Age Of Trump is that their not really news cycles at all, but rather "that episode from Battle Star Galatica where the Cylons attack every 33 minutes."

I'm still trying to digest what the downfall (knock on wood!) of Trumpcare means, and why it happened (although I think my blog post from the winter held up pretty well.) So rather than dwell on that stuff let's talk about White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus getting the hook on Friday afternoon and what comes next.

To begin with it's important to realize that Reince, whatever you think of him, is simply not the sort of person you'd want to be White House chief of staff for the simple reason that he doesn't really have any experience working as a government professional at all. He is, after all, a party and campaign guy, not a person like Jack Lew (or Howard Baker if you'd prefer a Republican) who has spent a lifetime running government agencies, serving in Congress, or dealing with complex policy issues. But rather Reince has spent his life doing what party big wigs do. That is raise money, give rah rah speeches, shake hands with junior staffers in obscure field offices and such.

In short, he was always a terrible choices to be a White House chief of staff for any president, but for a new president with no experience in public office and the...uh...personality traits of Donald Trump, he was an even worse pick.

Which is pretty indicative of the whole staffing problem this administration is facing. Greg Kroger, a political scientist at the University of Miami, and Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who writes for Bloomberg, talked about this on first and so far only Mischeifs of Faction Podcast. To begin with this administration, right down through the agencies is pretty understaffed over all. And while most of the White House staff jobs are filled, you can basically lump most staffers there into a couple of big buckets (they starts on this about 39 minutes in) none of which are very good at running a modern White House.

I'll list these groups out with fun colorful names of my own devising:
  • "The Rels" ie people related to the president (Jared, Ivanka, Junior etc)
  • "The Hacks" ie campaign and RNC people (Reince and folks he brought with him)
  • "The Traders" ie all the Wall Street people (Anthony Scaramucci comes to mind but there are a bunch of others)
  • "The Breitbarts" ie the people who mix pseudo-intellectual claptrap with bigotry and showbiz style flair (Bannon is the classic example, Gorka as well)
To be fair people like this have been in past administrations (Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General etc), but the big thing to remember here is that these groups are basically all that Trump's got. As Greg points out even Vice President Pence, who's suppose to be the adult in the room or something, was much more of a bomb thrower in Congress than a serious legislator who'd craft policy or make deals.

Add into this mix the fact that Trump himself seems to be trying to run his White House in a chaotic The-Wolf-Of-Wall-Street style like he did his various companies. WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, had a nice article about this whole mess featuring an interview with a woman named Gwenda Blair who's written some biographies on The Donald and other Trumps:
"I think [Donald Trump] may be the only person in the White House who is really happy with all the chaos," she noted. "Because that makes him the one fixed point. It makes everybody scared ... and super loyal to him, not to each other."

Creating that kind of chaotic and hyper-competitive dynamic is part of Trump's management style. "He calls is 'creative competition,'" Blair continued. "He has people on his staff, sets them against each other, sometimes giving them overlapping responsibilities ... It's exactly the same M.O. as throughout his career." 
This is important because as as Jonathan Bernstein points out in the podcast during the second half of the 20th Century there was a big debate about how best to organize an White House among students and practitioners of presidential politics. Republicans adopted a model created by Eisenhower which he brought to his administration from his career in the Army. In the "Ike model" you basically have a strong person in charge, a "Chief of Staff" as it were, to run the the place. While Democrats kept trying to recreate FDR's model of decentralized system of different people, competing with each other, a "team of rivals" as it were.

The reality though is that Democrats could never recreate FDR's model, in no small part because FDR hardly had what we would consider a modern White House staff at all in the first place. So whenever a new Democrat came into the White House they'd try to set up a "team of rivals" and it wouldn't work, and by the end of that particular administration they'd have reverted to the "Ike model."

This whole debate was thought ended for good in 2009 when Obama adopted the "Ike model" right off the bat in the form of making Rahm Emanuel a powerful chief of staff.

As Bernstein said in the podcast, and remember this recorded back in the spring, the crazy thing here is Trump seems to be trying to recreate the failed model that clearly doesn't work in the modern age. Add in a staff as I outlined above and of course disaster ensues. As he put it, "So there's nobody who knows anything basically, and guess what? It's disorganized and it doesn't work! Because we know that it doesn't work with quality people. Bill Clinton had quality people, LBJ had quality people, it doesn't work."

In other words Trump doesn't have enough staff, the staff he does have are really bad choices for their jobs, and it's all set up in a haphazard way. So yes of course it's a disaster zone.

But in the here and now we're getting a new CoS in the form of former four star Marine general, and one time Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly. I don't really have a whole lot to say, other than that I think some of the chatter on Twitter that this is some prelude to a military coup as being very silly. Trump can't even get the military to enforce his "trans ban", let alone arrest Congress for him.

Will Kelly be able to turn things around for Trump? Who knows, but there are a few reasons to have hope.

To begin with never underestimate the bureaucratic and organizational skills one can pick up in a successful military career. So maybe he could sideline "The Rels", ease out "The Traders", have Bannon and Gorka thrown out the building, and keep the best of the junior hacks while finding important jobs for the others in the Office of Insular Affairs and other such places.

All while Kelly might be able to bring in new people to take over. Maybe Kelly could set up a organized professional White House with clear rules about who reports to who. While also making the president stop watching hours of cable news and instead read briefing materials and such. Maybe Kelly could then get people to have loyalty to each other as a team, instead of their own selfish career ambitions, and in turn have the President reward that loyalty with trust and forgiveness for minor screw ups. Maybe he could get Donald Trump, to, like Prince Hal, contemplate the tremendous responsibilities of the office he now inhabits and cast off his petty vanity and selfish impulses, and, like Prince Hal did, ride forth to defend the Kingdom in this great hour of national need!

Can Kelly do it?!? Is this dream possible!?!?!?

As Theodoric of York would put it the most likely answer is "Naaaaaahhh!"

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Azari Vs Masket: The Final Battle

There was recently an interesting blog exchange between a number of political scientists I really like, respect, and follow. Despite this blog post's silly title it would be quite a stretch to characterize this as fight. Rather it was more of a blogging disagreement. But about a pretty interesting topic, that you may have hear of: what is to be done when it comes to Trump's Twitter account?

Seth Masket, who is at the University of Denver, wrote a post at his Pacific Standard digs (it's a good magazine, you should check it out!) about why Twitter should follow their own guidelines and suspend Trump's account because how he keeps violating their terms of service. As Seth puts it:
One such rule is, "You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others." This is a Trump specialty. He has repeatedly threatened and insulted people on Twitter. He threatened James Comeyshortly after firing him, and then baselessly accused him of perjury last week. He used Twitter to try to intimidate Sally Yates. He has dismissed members of Congress with belittling nicknames like "Cryin' Chuck Schumer" and "Pocahontas." [ed note Seth has a bunch of links in this quote but I couldn't get them to transfer to Bloger [sub-ed note, this is an okay way to note scholar articles right?]]
In addition:
The Twitter rules do seem biased toward freedom of expression, but they note that an account may be suspended "if a primary purpose of the reported account is to harass or send abusive messages to others." It's a bit unclear how they define "primary purpose" here. But as political scientist Luke Perry notes, roughly half of Trump's tweets as a presidential candidate were attacks and insults. Just over one-third have been insults since he became president. This would seem to qualify. [ed note, got it to work that time!]
Which means while Twitter will certainly take a economic hit, it makes sense for the good of the country, themselves, and the human race (I guess) to shut down Trump's account:
By shutting off the president's account, Twitter would flex a great deal of power over the presidency while making an important statement about online discourse. It would be a dramatic and bold move, and one that could yield substantial benefits for both the company and the country.
Seth was in some ways working from an piece by Paul Musgrave, a professor of government at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the very real damage Trump's tweeting is doing to my country and the world. And I have to agree. Trump's tweets have been bad for America and the world as far as I can see, and Twitter the company has a clear reason to end his account.

So why the dumb title of this blog post? Well because Julia Azari, a political scientist who is at Marquette, wrote a great rejoinder to Seth's (and to a lesser degree Paul's) piece about why he should keep tweeting. The post's subtitle "We deserve to know who our president is" sums it up pretty well. As Azari puts it:
But as vile and painful as the president’s tweets often are, they’re performing an important role in American democracy right now. One of the functions of presidential communication is transparency, and Trump’s tweets serve as a constant reminder of who he is and what his administration values...The best outcome in this very bad situation is for us to be confronted, over and over, with the nature and beliefs of our president. There is very little for democracy to gain by hiding this president under a cloak of conventional phrases. We don’t want his aides to take his phone and mute his tendency to attack, or his habit of making false claims and smearing the media outlets charged with holding the government accountable.
Azari's argument is farily complex, read the whole thing as the kids say, but I think her last paragraph sums it up:
Norms about presidential communication address anxieties around the office, but can vary greatly in how they suit individual presidents. Twitter amplifies what made Trump an effective campaigner, and exposes his unfitness to govern. The ideas expressed in his tweets are reminiscent of the crude, loyalty-oriented, and exclusionary politics of this bygone era. In this regard, Twitter, this most contemporary of media, performs a crucial democratic function.
Seth wrote a nice follow up piece entitled "Should we Child-Proof the Presidency?" That I thought was pretty good, but like me re-watching Mulholland Drive just raised more questions than it answered. Again read the whole thing, as those wacky kids say.

If I had to give a debating score to the the whole exchange I guess Azari got the better of Masket. But I think they are missing an important point.

That is to say both are focusing on Donald Trump the person and who and what he really is, via his terrible Twitter feed, which of course is important. But both are eliding that fact good staff could solve a lot of these problems. Note the whole "child-proof" title in Seth's piece (he might not get to pick his PacStand blog post titles but it's a not that unfair summation of his points about the danger of trying to reform the presidency based on Trump).

Likewise note Julia's point about about, "We don’t want his aides to take his phone and mute his tendency to attack..." 

I agree the President acts like a big baby, his Twitter feed is bad for my country and the world at large, and we should never lose sight of the man he is. But look, lots of presidents behaved poorly at times, did bad things for the world, and have important questions to examine about who they really were in their lives as opposed to the ideas they spoke for (Thomas Jefferson comes to mind).

But while these questions are important lots of other things matter too. In other words don't miss how important staff and others were at bridging the gap between the president the actual human, and the holder of that high office. 

Just imagine LBJ's Twitter feed! Where he screams at MLK or says why he thinks Bobby Kennedy is a horrible person? Or Nixon's, you know, the fun Tweet where he rants about how Jewish grocers are causing inflation, not Nixon's economic policies of course, by jacking up the price of beef (Nixon apparently screamed that at some of staff according to Rick Pearlstein's Nixonland). How about FDR saying "LOL fourth martini and it's just 2 pm!"

Would they have been like that? Well no (ok Nixon might have gone crazy on Twitter towards the end) but staff would have kept them from doing that.

And that's the big point I see both Azari and Masket are missing, that is while Trump's Twitter rants are certainly part of his presidency, they don't necessarily have to be. And just because he's, in my humble opinion, a bad president and not the type of man I would aspire to be, doesn't mean that things couldn't be improved with a modern professional staff. And even if you think he should stop for the good of American democracy, or think he should continue, that misses the point that he doesn't have to be doing this, he could in fact change if he really wanted to.

I don't see it happening, but I agree with Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who's now a full time Bloomberg writer, that bringing in a new professional chief of staff with the mission of cleaning house and setting up a modern professional White House could really turn things around. As Bernstein puts it:
I keep thinking back to Ronald Reagan. The Reagan administration after the Iran-Contra scandal broke was in such disarray, and the president so ineffective, that insiders worried that he might be losing his capacity to govern, and that a 25th Amendment removal from office might actually be necessary.  
And yet it turned out that Reagan suffered mainly not from early-stage dementia, but from a dysfunctional White House and a terrible chief of staff, Donald Regan. Once Regan was deposed and Howard Baker was brought in to run things, it turned out that Reagan was more or less the same he had ever been; it's just that he was always a politician who needed an above-average level of staff support.
Would such a change involve new aides taking away Trump's phone? I suppose so, but it would also probably involve pieces of "why you can't blurt out racist stuff in public" advice Nixon and many other presidents certainly took to heart. Likewise such a staff change would involve the president not being allow to say horrible things about women in public, no matter what so many other presidents have certainly said in private.

In other words, Trump shouldn't tweet like he does (he will), Twitter should probably kill his account if they want to really enforce their standards (they won't and don't seem to want to), but whatever its value a better staff could make this account be better, and improve a lot of other things. And the quest to know who presidents "really are" is in some ways a fools errand. I'll never know who Hillary Clinton really is (despite 25 years of journalists clamoring to find this out) but her Twitter account was largely normal and I think she would have been a fine president.

Then again the lesson here might be simply never tweet.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Don't Let It Spread

One of the things I written about a lot of the years on this blog, and posts I've put on other spaces, is the idea that one of the bigger problems in American politics is that the Republican Party has become dysfunctional in a number of ways. (See classic posts from long ago and in other places.)

I don't think this dysfunction matters when it comes to electoral outcomes. Voters just don't really vote that way. But while the dysfunction of Bush The Younger, Trump, or the 114th Congress might not cause the GOP to automatically lose elections, it does have some pretty big impacts when it comes to that party trying to actually govern.

Dave Hopkins recently wrote a great blog post about this and what he calls "the politics of resentment" and how it leads to governing failure. What strikes people like me as being reasons why you should do whatever it takes to keep a man like Trump from becoming your nominee, might actually have been a big part of his appeal to Republicans all along. As Dave puts it:
The democratic system works best when the same qualities that make someone a strong candidate for office also make him or her an effective leader once elected. But Republicans now face the problem that the individual attributes likely to bolster popularity within the party have become fatally misaligned with those necessary for governing success. Wasn't it a problem that Trump had no experience in public office? Not to Republican voters who scorn "career politicians" and venerate businesspeople who claim a superior background for managing the public sector. Wasn't Trump's temperament far from ideal for a national leader? Not to consumers of conservative media, where contempt and outrage are the default emotional states. Didn't Trump demonstrate little command of actual policy issues and elementary concepts? Not to vocal conservative authorities who dismiss reporters and intellectuals as snobby liberal hacks.
But the bill comes due after the election is over as we are seeing right now:
However, a party that rewards skill at stoking such sentiments rather than policy fluency or governing competence is asking for trouble—and now the trouble is here. Democrats, of course, find nothing to celebrate in Trump's record so far. But Republicans who prioritize the implementation of sound conservative policy are also being primed for disappointment. The GOP is in such a state that it cannot, by its own admission, be counted upon to avoid a government shutdown or a possible default on the national debt this year—much less to develop and enact successful initiatives on health care, taxes, financial regulation, and other topics.
Oh it's not all bad, the GOP got a conservative to fill the Supreme Court seat that they stole from Obama, environmental rules are being rolled back, and so are civil rights protections. And the GOP might still succeed in ending Obamacare and replacing it with a system that takes away health care from 23 million people to finance tax cuts for the very rich. Even still it's remarkable how bad things are going and how much worse they could become for the GOP.

But while it's certainly fun to sit back and ridicule the people in charge who you don't like very much, I'm getting increasingly concerned that some of the same pathologies that are make it hard for the GOP to govern (at least at the national level) might be showing up inside Democratic politics more and more as well.

Recently progressive hero and CNN talking head Van Jones gave a speech at The People's Summit (a sort of new progressive/left political gathering in Chicago) in which he sounded a lot like Sean Hannity screaming about RINO's on his TV show, all be it with Hillary Clinton as the subject of The Two Minute Hate rather than some Republican who failed to live up to conservative standards.

The Hill had a good summery of it, but I'll just go through it bullet style:
  • "[Hillary Clinton spent] A billion dollars for consultants. A billion dollars for pollsters. A billion dollars for a data operation, that was run by data dummies who couldn't figure out that maybe people in Michigan needed to be organized." Jones is just being objectively wrong here, as Dana Houle pointed out on Twitter most of what presidential campaigns spend on is pass-through to places like TV stations or the postal service. Also scroll down the thread for great points about how Bernie Sander's campaign consultant Tad Devine made a killing on the race as Sanders largely spent his $220 odd million dollars on TV adds in the primary. In other words being in a "post-truth" state is a big part of modern GOP dysfunction as a lot of people have pointed out over the years.
  • The Michigan thing is particularly annoying to me as it shows how lots of pundits have difficulty counting to 270. Again if HRC had won Pennsylvania and lost Michigan and Wisconsin she still would have won. And if you want to bash her because another visit to Madison would have changed everything fine, but acknowledge she campaigned hard in PA, she outspent Trump by 3 to 1 in TV ads in PA, she ran a huge GOTV effort in PA, and Trump still won. Trump of course makes up claims about how he "won" all the time as well.
  • "And now they want us to fight about whether black folks or white workers or Latinos or any other group should get the money," Jones said. "First of all, you need to give the money back to the people, period." I don't know how to respond to this claim other than it could have been said by Rush in 1995 about how The Clintons are corrupt and stealing money, devoid of any actual substance let alone proof.
  •  "Let's be honest," Jones continued. "They took a billion dollars, a billion dollars, a billion dollars, and set it on fire, and called it a campaign!" Our back stabbing leader betrayed us, is a staple of dysfunctional Republican politics from Bush The Elder being declared a turncoat after cutting a tax deal with Tom Foley to James Comey going from Greatest Lawman In America to a traitor after he decided to testify about Trump.
Van Jones is just yet another talking head of cable news, his nonsensical speech doesn't really matter a whole lot. But his speech does show that some of the same political pathologies that have inflicted a know nothing game show host on us could emerge in the Democratic Party if we're not careful. Which of course could result in a Democratic Party as completely unable to govern as the GOP under Trump is once they get back into power.

In other words: Seven save us from President Zuckerberg.

Friday, April 28, 2017

It Makes No Diference; New York Times Columnist Addition

Recently the New York Times decided to "diversify" it's editorial page by hiring Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal. This led to a lot of liberal outcry that a person like Stephens was a terrible choice for the Times. The arguments are many but let me try to sum them up:
  • The Times' columnists are already largley older white men, adding another one isn't helpful.
  • There's already two "Never Trump" conservative writers with columns, Douthat and Brooks why do we need another one?
  • If you really want "balance" give the column to a left wing type or a paleoconservative type.
  • The "Greatest Newspaper In The World" has never had a Hispanic columnist.
  • Stephens is a bit of a climate change denier, why give him a platform?
  • Why, as a liberal person, does the paper I subscribe to give yet another column to someone who will write columns about why I'm terrible?
Jeff Stein at Vox had a big Q and A with Stephens about everything from Black Lives Matter to sexual violence on college campuses to global warming. Read the whole thing, as the kids says, but I was struck by Stephens's "climate change may or may not be real" line of argument.

This isn't completely his fault, Jonathan Bernstein pointed this out back in 2013 that being a conservative columnist for the Times is basically impossible. Why? Well because a conservative columnist you can either chose to embrace the nonsense or quickly become a heretic, it wasn't always like this but:
And in normal times, in the era of William Safire, it worked just fine. Safire could defend most of what the GOP did, dissent on particular issues (and even there he’d have some Republican support) and generally help readers of the Times who were otherwise cocooned to know what’s going on with conservatives...
But the Republican Party of the Reagan era are around any more. And that makes the job impossible.
Bernstein goes on to point out the conclusion to talk about climate change as a political issue, but let me say it in my own words. The "conservative" position when seems to be that changes in the Earth's atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution are not real; or rather the whole idea of changes is either not real or is a diabolical plot cooked up by American liberals, environmentalists, the United Nations, 99% of scientists, and the Pope. Why are they doing this? Well it's not clear, but liberalism is somehow to blame.

Anyway Stephen's first column gives us a sort of greatest hits of these sorts of thing. Right out of the gate Stephen's tells us that Hillary Clinton Was Stupid And So Was Robby Mook Her Stupid Campaign Manager, but then moves on to more important things:
There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.
With me so far? Good. 
Let’s turn to climate change.
Seems like a bad lesson to me, but here we go:
Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.  
By now I can almost hear the heads exploding. They shouldn’t, because there’s another lesson here — this one for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy. As Revkin wisely noted, hyperbole about climate “not only didn’t fit the science at the time but could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public.”
For what it's worth my head is not "exploding", it's just annoyed that I have to push back at this sort of nonsense from the editorial page of The New York Times.  (Seriously if the concepts is to confusing for you here's David Robert explaining it in a video).

On a certain level Stephens is correct, environmentalists like me should probably stop yakking so much about "science" and focus on this like how coal power puts mercury in our water, and how our communities benefit from renewable energy, and how we can create lots of jobs in places like Minnesota that don't have coal mines.

As penitence for my sins as an environmentalist I will now go hang my head in shame. But I'd like to point out that most liberals skepticism was warranted. His first column was about why us environmentalists need to shut up about climate change for God's sake.

Pundits are gonna pundit, but honestly why on earth did the New York Times give him a column? The Band summed this up pretty well.

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.
And: 
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.