Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Post On Single Payer

I'll confess I am something of a politics junkie (in case you hadn't puzzled that one out already!) but keeping up with this week's insane Trumpapalooza has been a bit much for me. I honestly started to tune it out and had to read Matt Ygleisas's "Voxsplainer" on the Niger-Ambush-Gold Star-Phone Call-Kelly-Tape Affair (or whatever we are going to call it) matter Friday afternoon.

So let's talk about something other than Trump or the likely upcoming LA vs NYC World Series that will probably suck.

Recently Ed Kilgore wrote a nice piece about the politics of converting our healthcare system to some sort of single payer model. Here's how he sums up the political reality of what single payer advocates are asking for:
Yes, Medicare for All would almost certainly improve insurance for all but a small minority of Americans, and, yes, the tax increases might be more than offset by the abolition of premium payments and big out-of-pocket expenses. But these are arguments, not instantly appreciated facts, and any serious push for single payer will face the largest and most expensive campaign of conservative and insurance industry pushback in the history of public policy. A political calamity not just for health-care policy but for Democrats is a distinct possibility.
If anything I think that's a bit of an understatement. Remember 150 million Americans get their health care coverage through their own or a family member's employment. Market surveys of these people generally show their approval of their plans in the mid to high 60's, which is lower than Medicare enrollees'  satisfaction. But those numbers tend to be in the low to mid 70s so while Medicare-for-All (or whatever) might be more popular than "Obamacare", I really doubt "you lose your nice healthcare plan and existing medical networks for an vaguely government program" would poll that high.

To put it another way, the Obama Administration caught holy hell for presiding over the cancellation of a few million shitty health care plans that didn't cover much of anything for years. Canceling 150 million employer provided plans that most people like would be YUGE political problem. Even if you promise on scouts honor the new government program is going to be wonderful.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to a single payer in the least. I think having such a program could have a lot of advantages over our strange jerry-rigged health care system we have now. But I think it's a lot more helpful to think about political efforts in tangible and practical ways, rather than vague platitudes about making something a "right".

Long time health care researcher and writer Harold Pollock put it this way in an excellent article entitled "Single Payer Is Not A Principle":
Single payer is not, in itself, a principle. It is one way to organize health-care financing. A regulated patchwork of private insurers undergirded by public subsidies and the individual mandate is another. In other words, these arrangements are means to an end, not ends themselves. After all, most American progressives would be thrilled to see the Dutch or German health-care systems enacted here, though neither of these is actually single payer in the sense that Medicare is.
Now normally when someone like me whines about the vagueness of slogans like "single payer" or "health care is a right", or reads the laundry list of massive political hurdles that would have to be overcome to enact a Medicare for All system (the fact the Roberts Court would probably rule such a law unconstitutional is my favorite) there is a typical response that goes like this: Most ideas about positive social change begins as a crazy harebrained idea! Be that the idea of a "March of Washington" or letting gay people get married! And yes whinny white liberals like you Longwalk often come up with reasons for why "now not the right time!"

These are fair points, but as I see it this back and forth just sort of shows that there are two possible scenarios for the outcome of what will happen when it comes to the politics of single payer health care. The "optimistic" or "Longwalk is a idiot" school of thought would say that the recent rather impressive move among Democratic elected officials towards embracing Bernie Sanders recent Medicare for All bill is, well, a great first step! Like gay marriage or women being allowed to vote it once seemed crazy, but is now becoming more normal, and liberals like me should embrace this new path or get out of the way.

But as much as I'd actually like this to be true (yes I want to be seen as an idiot on this occasion) I am also growing concerned that single payer is becoming a sort "identity politics" for lots of liberals and more "left" people, even as it remains as devoid of substance as it's ever been. In other words I worry about a "pessimistic" or "Longwalk is a cynical genius" possibility where people keep going on about about "single payer" as an abstract ideal that they demand politicians adhere to, and become cynical and jaded when the "sausage making" of crafting actual legislation fails to live up to these ideals.

In this is "pessimistic" account single payer dreams are becoming something a bit like Trump's famous wall. That is a sort of absurd promise that supporters none the less believe in and become quite jaded when they learn it was a "metaphor" or something.

And we're seeing this all over Republican politics these days. Its' not just that there won't be a wall and Hillary also won't be going to jail. It's also that coal jobs aren't coming back. Culture will keep becoming more liberal. And Trump's "winning" seems have been reduced to shouting at various professional athletes on Twitter.

Political scientist David Hopkins's summed up the price of this style of politics for the Republican Party pretty well back in the summer. As he put it:
...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.

After just four months, a remarkable despondency has set in within Republican ranks about the prospect of a legislatively productive 115th Congress. Despite holding unified control of government, the party is simply unequipped for serious policy-making—a deficiency for which Trump is both cause and symptom.
Does anyone think things have gotten better for the Republican Party since early June when Hopkins wrote that?

One of the stranger and seemingly easiest tasks a political party that's out of power has in our system of democracy is to, well not get all crazy. The Republican Party clearly failed on that part when it came to the Obama years, and thus when the cyclical nature of elections returned them to power the result was the insane Reality TV show that is the Trump White House and a do-nothing Congress that could very well shutdown the government over Christmas.

In other words I hope that I'm an idiot, but I'm growing increasingly concerned that far to many liberal and "left" people are emulating some of the same political pathologies that have made the GOP incapable of functioning nationally.

The last thing we need is outraged liberals screaming about how Sanders betrayed them after he realized on January 22nd 2021 that ending all union negotiated health care plans overnight would be less than ideal. This may seem crazy, but then again lots of people seemed to really have believed, or said they believed, that there would be a giant wall come 2018 that Mexico would pay for.

One dysfunctional political party has already brought the Republic to it's knees, we don't need another.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Clay Davis Was Right

Recently political scientist Scott Lemiuex had a nice rejoinder to a piece written by Libby Nelson at The Splinter about the fact that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee received political contributions from already former Hollywood kingpin and allegedly monstrously evil person Harvey Weinstein.

I will leave it to others to discuss the life and acts of Harvey Weinstein, but I was struck by Lemiuex's title that "Unilateral Disarmament Is Not A Great Plan" when it comes to how Democrats ought to approach raising money.

Lemiuex quoted the meat of Nelson's argument as follows:
But finding the thousands of dollars Weinstein donated over the many years he has spent as a major Democratic donor, and dutifully Doing Something with it, does not solve The Harvey Problem. The problem does not go away along with his money. Instead, the Weinstein story—and the collateral damage it has caused Democrats—should provoke a moment of reflection: As long as they keep taking money from the super-rich—as long as sustaining the party depends on huge sums of money from people like Harvey Weinstein—things like this will happen. It’s not that every super-rich guy is a predator, though wow, a ton of them are; it’s that when you run your campaigns largely on the donations of rich people, you tie yourselves to them, whether you like it or not, whether you mean to or not.
I'll give credit to Nelson, she points out the ridiculousness nature of some Republicans trying to turn this into some sort of Hillary Clinton "scandal." In addition, she points out some of the very real problems that having a politics dependent on raising large amounts of campaign cash cause in a more sophisticated way than complaining for the umpteenth time we need to "get big money out of politics" because it's "corrupt." And she has the honestly to admit she has no idea (okay she implies she has no idea) about how a "better" way of winning elections could be created. As she puts it at the end of the piece, "If Democrats want to avoid the stink of abusers and untouchable criminals following them to Washington, they’ve got to find a way to get there without their rancid cash."

So there were some fair points, but I have to agree with Lemiuex's response to the implied argument that what the Democratic Party needs to do to win elections is "unilaterally disarm" when it comes to raising money from rich people As he puts it:
I’ve mentioned before how a lot of online lefty discourse — and this tendency, ironically, is particularly strong among people who define themselves as non- or anti- liberal — takes a liberal individualist approach to what are primarily structural problems. The idea that the Democratic Party is just making an unfettered choice to be reliant on rich donors to be competitive is problematic, to say the least. Because of Buckley v. Valeo and its progeny, there will be tons of money in American politics whatever the Democratic Party does. Bernie (and to a lesser extent Obama) may have shown that you can run a presidential campaign relying mostly or exclusively on small donors — but it just doesn’t scale down. There just aren’t enough small donors to competitively fund every marginal congressional and state or local race. And it’s not just venal Democrats who are vulnerable to this money — Russ Feingold can be drowned by PAC money just like Evan Bayh. 
While I think Lemiuex is dead on about this weird tendency in some lefty discourse, if anything I think that he doesn't go far enough. The "collateral damage" Nelson refers to is probably zero when it comes to any upcoming election. And how do I know that? Well because the fact that Donald Trump boasted about doing similar things to what Weinstein is accused of doing on a tape that was then broadcasted on national television over and over again didn't stop him from becoming president!

And Lemiuex is certainly correct that the number of people who can run Bernie style campaigns based on a gazillion small donors is incredibly small, especially considering we live in a polity with literally thousands of elected positions of some importance.

Oh sure there's a moral question about who it's okay to take money from when it comes to legal campaign contributions and who should be refused. A panel of ethicists and philosophers could conduct a very interesting seminar on what constitutes a "deal breaker" when it comes to political donations.

But on a practical level Senator Clay Davis' vulgar maxim about who it's okay to take money from is how campaigns tend to operate.

In a earlier, more simple political time (ie 2012) Lemiuex once wrote a nice post on Garry Wills' review of Robert Caro's classic second book on LBJ Means of Ascent. Lemiuex is a fan of Caro and the book series as a whole, but, well really didn't like that one. There are several reasons for this, but a big one seems to be that Caro spends lots of time talking about Johnson's vulgarity and...uh...questionable campaign tactics, while ignoring what the Good Ol'e Boy LBJ was running against named Coke Stevenson was all about.

In other words LBJ's vulgarity becomes less important when you think of him as a New Dealer who'd be instrumental in helping to bring about the downfall of legal segregation. While Stevenson's "honesty" and anecdotes about his ole timey battered coffee pot and cowboys saluting him as he rode past seem different when one thinks of him as the staunch segregationist and man ideologically opposed to any sort of federal spending on the welfare state that he was as Governor of Texas.

Wills' sums up the problem with this approach to political biography beautifully:
Caro has touched on a serious matter, the problem of maintaining human values in the scramble for power. Seneca faced this challenge in its most acute form, as the court adviser to a corrupt emperor. Addressing it in his dialogue on the tranquil mind, he admitted that honorable men cannot serve in some foul regimes. But even then, he argues, the virtuous man should “disengage with a dragging foot, retiring the standards with a military discipline retained.” It is too easy to conclude, prematurely, that the only “way to save oneself is to bury oneself.” 
In other words while it's true morality has a place in politics, it's not enough for that to be the be all and end all. In fact:
Seneca would judge that a politician who refuses to answer questions has barely been engaged in the first place. Those who decide they are too good for politics may be right, but they are often the least qualified judges, either of their own virtue or the system’s viciousness.
For better or worse money is very important in our political system. You could work to try and change than, but that just means you'll have to find a way to win elections in the "corrupt system" if only to create a new and better system. A system in which say relationships and information would be the driving force, because obviously there's no way for an elite few to monopolize those scarce resources.

Oh wait, that's kind of how Hollywood works?

Nelson may be correct that our current campaign finance system is gross and taints the Democrats in ways that can't be redeemed. But she's probably not that qualified to judge. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who made her choice on the compromises associated with choosing to live a political public life long ago.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Joe Biden Explained

There's a Hurricane headed towards the Gulf Coast, the President is making not-so-veiled threats towards North Korea, and it looks like the next season of American Horror Story could be based on real life and set in Hollywood.

Also the Twins made the playoffs! And were then promptly bulldozed by the Yankees.

So let's talked about something that's not about Trump or baseball.

Recently political scientist Scott Lemieux said on Twitter: "I kind of want Biden to run in '20, just to end the ridiculous fantasy that he wasn't the nominee because Hillary CLEARED THE FIELD" And  my immediate response was along the lines of "But I like Biden, he's a good guy in a lot of ways, and I don't want to see him humiliated...But yeah Lemieux is right about 'Biden Would Have Won' takes."

Let me just say up front that I love Joe Biden in many ways. I love his his ridiculous "Joe Diamond Six-Pack" caricature in popular media. I love his "ladies and gentlemen" line when he wants to emphasize his point. I love the ridiculous anecdotes about him that are apparently all true from Richard Ben Cramer's masterwork "What It Takes" about the men (yeah they were all men) who ran for president in the 1988 cycle.

For example, there was a night called "The Night of The Bronco." This was the night when Biden drove some of his most important staff around all night, in his Bronco in the mid-80s to look at possible houses to buy (Biden is a guy with strong opinions about houses being over or undervalue in the Delaware market in the 80's), and yeah...oh tell them he was going to run for president.

Buy this book. It's just so good.

I also love Biden's successes, most Millennials don't know this but he was instrumental in keep Robert Bork off of the Supreme Court (full argument on why Bork was bad here!) 

And I stand in awe of the most terrible moments of darkness in Joe Biden's life. Such as the horrible car crash that killed his first wife Neilia (nee Hunter) and his one year old daughter Naomi Christina and severely injured his sons Hunter and Beau. Neilia went out to do Christmas shopping with the family when a semi T-boned their station wagon.

According to Cramer, and as far I can tell Biden has never disagreed with this, after the accident (note the use of periods are Cramer's own) this was where he was:
The hospital was in a tough neighborhood, bad streets, and dark. If the boys could sleep, Joe and Jimmy [his brother] would walk those streets, half the night. They'd tell the nurse they were going out for pizza . . . but they wouldn't eat.

They didn't even talk. The sound was their shoes on grit, on broken glass,  . . . Joe was hoping someone would jump out from an alley, come at him. He would've killed the guy. He was looking for a fight. There was no place for his rage.

Sometimes he though it would be easier . . . if he were the only one left . . . then he could kill himself. It was the boys, kept him alive.
Note this happened a month or so after he shocked much of the political world in 1972 by winning a Senate election as a obscure, but charismatic, county commissioner with a hansom young family in tow against an incumbent named J. Caleb Boggs who'd been in Delaware politics since time immemorial.

So yeah I like Biden the guy, and thought he was a pretty good Vice President.

But he's almost certainly not going to be the 2020 Democratic nominee. Nor would he have "won" in 2016 either. Lemieux, who describes himself as a Biden fan, wrote it this way when it came to Biden's previous very real runs for the nomination:
In 1988, Biden was forced to drop out of the race amid a plagiarism scandal. This race was ultimately won by noted superstar political talent Michael Dukakis, who really did run the inept and underachieving campaign Clinton is accused of running. In 2008, when Clinton barely lost to arguably the foremost political talent the Democratic Party has produced in a half-century, Biden ran a bungling, ineffectual campaign that ended in Iowa with zero delegates.
Lemieux is...well...not being that unfair.

And that's not to mention the reality, summed up well by Jamelle Bouie, that lots of black people and younger liberal type people might have found real reasons to object to a President Biden in 2016 due to his work in the Senate. But because Biden really didn't run (at least formally) in the 2016 cycle, because his son was well dying of brain cancer among other reasons, the argument remains theoretical.

The point here is that the "Unsinkable Biden" dream I've heard from people about how he was sure to win in 2016 (or somehow will crush Trump in 2020) only makes sense in the abstract dreamland of a political reality where Biden never actually do the things that "running for president" actually entails.

Lemieux makes the point in his piece that "Joe Biden The Invincible Candidate Of Destiny" arguments are a way of eliding around a major issue about "Hillary Clinton Most Terrible Candidate In History" arguments we are all so used to:
If I may state the obvious, there is zero chance that a woman with that track record would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. If the answer is that she would if she were vice president, the odds that a woman with Biden’s track record would be nominated as vice president are also roughly 0%.

It’s also not a coincidence that Clinton is treated with far more vituperation on the left than Biden is. Biden is very similar to Clinton — if anything historically a few clicks to the right. But can you imagine, say, Doug Henwood publishing His Turn: Biden Targets the Presidency if Clinton had announced she wasn’t running? And can you imagine a book title implying that it’s somehow unusual and unseemly for a male politician to seek power.
To paraphrase another political scientist I deeply respect but won't name, "'If only Hillary had been a likeable white dude with a lunch bucket in one hand and a Miller Lite in the other she would have won...is a stupid fucking argument!"

Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election for a number of reason. The Electoral College is one. The political media's decision to cover emails servers more than all other policy issues combined is another. The phenomenon of what I like to call "White Rural Rage" in my Great Lakes States neck of the woods was too.

But Biden wasn't the panacea to this. And he was never a magician who could pull the presidential rabbit out of the hat, as his past campaigns for that job illustrate. As a candidate for the presidency in 2016 he would have probably run into many of the same problems Hillary did, and some more as well.

People who want to be serious about what happened in 2016, or what Democrats should think about when it comes to 2020, should acknowledge this reality.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tom Price's Real Sin

If it's Friday in the Trump Era then it's apparently time for someone to get voted off the island. And just like clockwork this week it was Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who got the hook. The headline reason for his departure was that he had racked up more than $400,000 in expenses taking private jets all over the place including having lunch with his son.

Liberals reacted to the news with a good measure of glee and I'm no exception. And the fact that Price's downfall was a metaphor for how so many of our contemporary elites can seems so detached from the lives of normal Americans and think they can behave anyway they damn well please made it even juicier.

But I think "PlaneGate", or whatever we are going to call it, analysis is a little bit shallow when it comes to Price's downfall, and shows the tendency of liberals to sometimes miss the big picture when it comes to politics.

Certainly racking up those bills was the catalyst for why Price was forced out. But it's pretty clear to me that this story is really about the failure of the GOP to be able to "repeal and replace" the ACA despite promising to do so for seven years and now finally controlling the federal government. This is going on for a number of reason, some of which are all about the nature of the GOP these days and have nothing to do with Price the man. But Donald Trump doesn't want to hear these sorts of excuses and nothing about his life before the White House, or tenure in it, points to him being willing to accept his own responsibility for failures either.

Hence Price gets the blame.

But while I think liberals are right to make fun of Price when it comes to his downfall, or the fact that the Trump White House really does seem to be like a reality TV show at times, I think that loses sight of a more important issue.

Price's real sin wasn't footing Uncle Sam with a bunch of bills for chartered jets to have a good time. Don't get me wrong, this is clearly a fairly gross and entitlted way to behave, and I suppose could be considered an abuse of his office to some degree. But this is honestly just small potatoes stuff.

Price's real sin is being a point man for the Trump Administration's long going campaign to wreck the ACA's system of state based insurance marketplaces for individuals without coverage to buy legally required insurance plans. It's been going on for a long time, and includes everything from Price using HHS money to buy ads telling people the ACA is terrible, to deciding to shut down the federally run marketplaces' websites for 12 hours a week, every week, for "maintenance."

On a local level here in Minnesota the Trump Administration has been engaging in a mixture of pointless foot dragging and hostage taking about if the state will be granted a waiver to help stabilize our state's marketplace with an ambitious "reinsurance" program approved by the legislature earlier this year. Governor Mark Dayton referred to the whole process of dealing with the Trump Administration about this in general and HHS in particular as "nightmarish."

And since Trump has said he's going to issue an executive order about health care sometime in the future these sorts of problems might honestly get worse. As Jonathan Bernstein put it recently:
...deliberate actions by the administration to dissuade people from getting the health insurance available by law, or to make it more difficult, are monstrous, and essentially without precedent. Barack Obama, upon inheriting a war he didn't support, did not choose to deliberately lose it. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush inherited plenty of liberal programs they didn't support, but they didn't try to undermine them at the expense of the American people.
Here's my big point. Price's jet setting is the sort of thing reporters love to cover. After all it's an easy to understand scandal that fits into all sorts of generic "politics" news stories. ("Area politician wastes your hard earned tax dollars blah blah blah" etc.) But the real harm here isn't that Price wasted some money, the military wastes money on poorly thought out boondoggles all the time after all. The real harm is making people pay more for health insurance and destabilize insurance markets out of a mixtures of spite and desire for short term political gain.

In other words the heavy focus on "corruption" is probably the wrong tactic for Democrats between now and election day 2018. Don't get me wrong, "PlaneGate" is a fun way to think of the downfall of a pompous and in my opinion bad man, and the grifting nature of Trump and his Royal Court is no small thing. But it's not clear to me that this is going to move any swing voters over the next 13 months. In fact Trump could easily blow this story off the front page by just getting into another Twitter fight with some professional athlete quite literally tomorrow.

I personally I am not a fan of the politics of "good government reform" (or googoo as we critics like to say) for these sorts of reasons. Trump's egregious violations of any possible ethical standard (Running a scam university! Refusing to pay small businesses in Atlantic City! The Access Hollywood tape thing!) were all great reasons for political elites to turn on him, but in this age of partisanship it didn't really move the needle when it came to the electorate. Accordingly Democrats are right to highlight things like Price's gluttony when it comes to travel budgets, but voters ultimately care about outcomes, not process. And as Hillary Clinton learned changes of "Corruption!" can be lobbed at pretty much anyone, even the heads of a charity that quite possibly saved millions of lives.

So have fun on Twitter mocking Price, I know I have, but focus on policy and outcomes if you want to win elections in the long run.
   

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.