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.