Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mitt Romney's Path To Victory That No One Wants To Mention

In addition to the Jeep ad that's a complete lie, Mitt Romney has revived his number one summer time jam, the welfare attack ad, in a last ditch bid to put Pennsylvania, Ohio, and possibly Virginia into play. This is coming as today's polling show that the defeat train is bearing down on Romney and running full speed, leading Romney Pollster Neil Newhouse to do his best Baghdad Bob impersonation, or perhaps his best Mark Penn in the 2008 primaries impersonation.

What Newhouse seems unwilling to say is that Romney's has very few paths to victory left at this point. As we've observed previously, either he has to hope that the state-level polls are incorrect, or that there will be a sudden shift in the electorate in a short period of time. And their best hope that the polls are wrong is that a tiny fraction of the center-and center-right leaning portions of the electorate are still subject to the Bradley Effect—the curious disappation of support for African-American candidates. The Bradley Effect seemed to no longer be a factor in 2008, but that may have been influenced by the fact that Obama's class markers are not distinctly African-American, the historic nature of his candidacy, and the fact that George W. Bush totally sucked. To a large number of (white) voters, he was, for the lack of a better word, a "different kind of black politician". This helped Obama dislodge a large number of voters in rural non-Appalachian/Ozark areas that had soured on Democrats during the Clinton years. It's not outside of the realm of possibility that the Bradley Effect might return in a down economic year, now that Republicans have done a better job of defining Obama as a "typical black politician".

This is not to say that all, most, or even very many Republicans, harbor that much racial resentment. But at the margins, it may be the way their Presidential candidate has decided to try to win this election.

Update: it turns out Jonathan Bernstein mentioned this over at WaPo's Plum Line. Great minds think alike?

In Support Of Sexy Costumes

I like Amanda Marcotte's defense of sexy Halloween costumes. Especially the conclusion: "maybe we can also do a little more encouraging of men to take it off for Halloween. After all, don’t they also want our attention?" Basically anything that gets women to give me(n) advice about how to look attractive, either on Halloween or on the other 364 days of the year, is something I'm for. It causes me(n) to look better to them, which in turn causes events that raise the overall happiness of humankind.

Consider the costumes at right. Bacon Man is not sexy, as far as I can tell, while Bacon Woman is doing reasonably well on the sexiness scale. The big complaint we should hear more about this situation is not "Bacon Woman is objectifying herself" and definitely not "Bacon Woman is a skank" but "Bacon Man could look like a much hotter piece of meat." I'm not sure how men look sexy, and I do worry that if I tried I'd totally fail at looking sexy and just look ridiculous. This is the sort of issue on which more guidelines from women (and pictures of what women do in fact like) would be very helpful. Men -- or at least, nerdy straight men like me -- are basically in the dark about how to look nice for women. And that leads to suboptimal outcomes for everyone.

In addition, I should note that people exasperated by current-day Sexy Banal Object costumes are missing the point -- this is an ironic statement about the way Halloween sexifies everything. At the same time, the costume allows the wearer to look sexy. All goals are achieved!

Why Is Nate Silver So Pessimistic?

I've been trying to figure out how it is that Five Thirty Eight's nowcast and forecast can put Mitt Romney's odds in the 25-30% range, while Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium forecast or the Horse's Ass poll analysis put his odds in the 5-10% (you can ignore the blue Tennessee in the HA map; they simply got the poll results backwards, but it doesn't change Romney's odds much). My insticts are to think that Silver is overestimating Romney's chances here. As he himself has noted, Obama's 2-point lead in Ohio with a week to go probably forecloses Romney's best path to victory.

Brad Delong argues that Silver has things mostly right, and that Wang et al are underestimating the chances of an upset:
Silver's individual state-level effects appear to be much more correlated than Wong's--Silver believes that if something is leading pollsters to overstate Obama's true strength in Florida his true strength in Ohio is probably overstated as well, while Wong appears to believe that state-level variation is much closer to being independent.
Similarly, if there were to be a sudden 1.5% shift in public opinion, that shift would be visible in all swing states roughly equally. So the Silver model as built in a 20-25% chance that the situation will change, or that the polling is a little off, or something else will shift the electorate (I, for one, greatly fear the return of the Bradley Effect now that white people have already voted for a black President once).

I haven't looked closely enough at Silver & Wang's computations to figure out how they're producing such different results. But there may be another possibility -- Silver's model may think Barack Obama's worst enemy may simply be time. If we find that between now and Tuesday morning, Silver's model rapidly converges on Wang's, then that suggests that 538 model gives much higher probability to the chance that public opinion will shift. It's possible that this convergence is already happening. In Silver's model, Obama has climbed from a 68% win a week ago probability to 77% today. However, the President's poll numbers have improved modestly in that time span as well, and it's basically impossible to separate those two factors without having direct access to his simulations. Still, keep an eye on this to see how close the odds are on Election Day.

Why Michael Brown Is Talking

It was astonishing to see Michael Brown of Bush-era FEMA infamy criticize the president for his response to Hurricane Sandy. It was doubly astonishing that his criticism was that Obama had responded too quickly.

I was wondering how this could even happen. Doesn't he realize that he has anti-credibility on disaster issues? That he reminds people of the worst domestic events of the most recent Republican Administration? That he's destroying his party by opening his mouth and making a ridiculous criticism at a time like this? Why is he even talking? Has he secretly turned against the Republican Party? The explanation, as it turns out, is a lot simpler than that.

Michael Brown is incompetent. Before he responded incompetently to Hurricane Katrina, he responded incompetently to Hurricane Frances in Florida. And before he was an incompetent FEMA director, as Goldy told us long ago, he was an incompetent Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Incompetent people do incompetent things. Like criticizing Obama a week before the election in ways that put Democrats in the best possible light, and Republicans in the worst.

I'm hoping that Obama responds directly to Michael Brown's comments. You couldn't ask for a better foil. Obama is in great shape if he's running against Bush, and Brown gives him a way to do that. With luck, Brown will fire back in a further incompetent way, giving Obama another chance to respond, as Mitt Romney tries to regain control of the situation. And then there will be an election.

Good post by Ezra Klein on Nate Silver's less impressive critics. I think there are a variety of criticisms one can legitimately make of Silver's methods. Maybe he's overfitting, and maybe he sometimes misapplies things like the convention bounce corrections from September. But a lot of the criticisms that traditional media analysts like the people at Politico make of him really amount to an inability to understand probability and its applications to life.

The craziest Nate Silver opponent out there is Dean Chambers at right-wing site, who is rejiggering all the polls with party ID numbers that fit his estimation of how many Republicans there are in the electorate, and getting results where Romney wins the election with 321 votes in the Electoral College. He criticizes Silver not only as biased, but as "a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice." This leaves me wondering if conservatives have different mathematician stereotypes than I do. Do they expect them to be large burly men with deep voices?

A clever business opportunity for anyone interested in such things would be to grab the domain (it appears to be still available) and use it to sell non-FDA-approved medical products to the sorts of people who read Mr. Chambers' website. I'm sure there's quite a market out there for medical advice that isn't skewed by the biases of government regulators and academic scientists.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lybia Bleg

To take a momentary reprieve from the horserace and hurricane coverage, is there any reasonable conservative* critique to the Administration's handling of the attacks on the Libyan embassy? The whole thing seems to be entirely pulled from the fever swamps of right wing imaginations. But maybe there is some legitimate thing that could be said about what went wrong. Since there seems to be a non-zero chance that a close Obama reelection will lead to the House voting impeachment articles against him over the incident, I feel like I should be well-armed.

*I know, "reasonable conservative" is mostly an oxy-moron at this point. But I try to give the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Comment Changes

The Google captcha checks are getting harder and harder to read, to the point where they're now self defeating. We've disabled captchas, but to keep the spam volume down, we now require login in order to post. You should be able to post as long as you log in with an OpenID provider, such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

If Your Colors Were Like My Dreams

Via Matt Yglesias on twitter, Mark Cuban's basic idea is right. Mitt Romney has, at various points in his long and motley career, adopted exactly the right strategies on the two biggest economic issues of the day. Our health care system needs proper implementation of Romneycare / Obamacare. And our economy as a whole could really benefit from some basic features of the leveraged buyout system where you borrow money cheap (from China or whoever) and then make profitable investments that pay off beyond the interest you're paying. With miniscule interest rates on US government debt, we should be borrowing a whole lot more, paying the 2% interest, and funding megatons of scientific research and high-speed train construction and whatnot.

The trouble is that Mitt Romney has had a huge variety of contradictory positions over his career, and you shouldn't expect him to play your favorite song. My expectation is that he'll more or less keep the promises he's made to Republican interests, including social conservatives and especially big business. He'll compromise with a Democratic Senate when he has to, but not when he doesn't. Everything ends up as Paul Ryanish as Romney can get away with making it, with health care implementation tilted in favor of health industry corporations and against patients. The massive government borrowing favors giveaways to the rich rather than aid to state programs that help the poor. And you'll get Supreme Court justices who want to overturn Roe, and all kinds of measures to enrich the human and corporate persons of Wall Street. 

Will Ron Paul Win Nevada For Democrats?

Elspeth Reeve tells me something I didn't know, in an article about the campaigns' ground operations: "The Nevada Republican Party was taken over by Ron Paul supporters, and the Romney campaign has had to create a shadow party in the state called Team Nevada." There's more background here.  Apparently something similar happened in Iowa. Both are early caucus states, so maybe that's why Ron Paul's people organized themselves so strongly there.

It makes me more confident about Obama's chances in Iowa and Nevada. The conventional wisdom is that Obama's ground game is better basically everywhere, but he may have an extra edge in those states due to poor Republican organization. Will it be enough to put Shelly Berkley over Dean Heller in the Senate race?  I doubt it, but Berkley's deficit in the polls is much less than the difference between Harry Reid's expected and actual performance two years ago.  We'll see what happens.

I was only joking before about how Democrats were sticking with the wrong view about marijuana legalization to keep the Ron Paul bloc intact and a headache for Republicans. But it seems like that's the dynamic.

Friday, October 26, 2012

In 2000 Democrats Were Mad About Florida And Bush v. Gore, Not The Electoral-Popular Split

With some chance of Romney winning the popular vote while Obama wins the electoral college people are speculating about a reverse of the 2000 outcomes. FiveThirtyEight puts the probability of this at 5.3%, with the opposite split at 1.9%, while old Bush political consultant Mark McKinnon says "it’s a 50/50 possibility — or more." (I have greater faith in Nate's numbers -- my guess is that Karen Tumulty's story just contains quotes from the people who think it's the most likely.)  Josh Marshall describes how "Democrats were crushed and outraged."

People rightly remember a lot of Democratic outrage after the 2000 results, but I worry that people are misremembering what exactly it was about. It wasn't really about the popular vote - EC split. Some people wanted to get rid of the electoral college (I still do; state boundaries are arbitrary and I see no good reason to use them in determining who wins a presidential election). But Democrats fully accepted the legitimacy of the electoral college for that election, on the general principle that those were just the rules of the game. Democrats weren't happy that things turned out as they did, but the general view wasn't that Bush was an illegitimate president because he didn't win a plurality of the popular vote.

The real reasons for outrage were in the nakedly partisan behavior of the Supreme Court, in trying to shut down further vote counting that might've given Gore the victory. You can read Scott Lemieux' 10-year retrospective for more on that. There was also a lot of frustration with the pre-election mischief of Katherine Harris and the Florida state government, which provided African-Americans with mistake-prone voting equipment and erroneously purged many of them from the voter rolls. There was also the weird business of the 'butterfly ballot' which confused enough elderly Jewish voters into voting for Pat Buchanan to swing the election. There was also Ralph Nader, though that's it's own issue.

In short, Democratic outrage after 2000 wasn't so much about the electoral college as it was about the sense that a plurality of Florida voters had gone to the polls trying to vote for Al Gore, and because of a variety of shenanigans the state had recorded a plurality of votes for George W. Bush.  The electoral college wasn't the thing.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why Barack Obama Isn't Taking New Hampshire for ... Granite

When I saw the news that, Barack Obama appearance in Barack Obama will make an appearance in New Hampshire this Saturday, it threw me for a loop. Isn't New Hampshire a bit out of the way compared to the other swing states? And how can the state's four electoral votes make much of a difference? So I dug into the data to figure out what was going on.

There's a small but non-zero chance that the map looks like
this on Election Day. Which is why the Obama campaign
is headed to new Hampshire

Right now there are seven states where either candidate stands at least a 30% chance of winning. Given all permutations of those state results, there are two outcomes where New Hampshire matters.

  1. Obama loses Ohio and Virginia, but wins Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa
  2. Obama loses Ohio, Colorado, and one of Iowa/Nevada, but wins Virginia and the other of Iowa/Nevada.

Here's where Obama's odds are in those six states currently:
  • Nevada 73%
  • Ohio 70%
  • Iowa 66%
  • New Hampshire 63%
  • Colorado 53%
  • Virginia 47%
  • Florida 33%

The Obama campaign is clearly not campaigning in New Hampshire because they're worried about scenario 2 coming to pass. It's highly unlikely that Obama could somehow lose Ohio but win Virginia, unless the regional shape of the election changes dramatically in the next few weeks. However, scenario 1, while unlikely, is not entirely out of the question. All four . A couple of high-profile factory closing in Ohio, a successful attack on some social issue (Ohio is the most socially conservative of those four states), or something else might reshuffle so that Ohio becomes the most competitive of those four states.

In addition, campaigning in New Hampshire is smarter than advertising there. Usually the candidate's time is the scarcest resource in an election and should be dedicated to states that have a large number of electoral votes, but the New Hampshire media markets (which are shared with Boston, MA, Albany, NY, and Portland, ME) are incredibly expensive given that the campaign is chasing only 4 electoral votes. TV ads will be more cost effective in the NV/CO/IA troika, which has smaller media markets with much less bleeding into neighboring states.

Where Modern Primaries Came From

I didn't know the story! Thanks for telling it, Professor Bernstein. And thanks for playing a heroic part, George McGovern.

People often complain that the two-party system doesn't give you enough options. I would've had much more sympathy with that claim in 1968, when antiwar activists made a serious effort to win primaries, and won a few of them, but the system was rigged with pre-selected delegates so the primaries didn't matter.  Nowadays, if Jill Stein or whoever wants to put new issues and a new perspective on the agenda, there's a way she can do so: by using democracy! If she wins the Democratic primary elections, she and not Barack Obama will be squaring off with Mitt Romney in the debates. Thanks to George McGovern, that's the system we have now, and it's a much better one.

Fraudulent 112-Year-Old Voters? Nope, Just Birth Dates That Default To 1900

Barry Secrest and some other right-wing bloggers think they've found a bunch of fraudulent votes coming from supposed 112-year-olds in North Carolina (where I lived for 10 years). I investigated the matter using a wonderful technology available at this site and discovered that that's probably not what's happening.  Texas, as it turns out, had a similar issue earlier this year during a primary:
Cavazos said the voters in question registered to vote in the 1970s, when a birth date wasn’t required. When they get their voters registration cards in the mail, they should come in and have the birth date corrected, she said.  
Rich Parsons, spokesman with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, confirmed that Jan. 1, 1900, and Jan. 1, 1901, are placeholder dates used when a registration application is filled out without a birth date.
That's why the voters look like they're 112 years old, rather than some other elderly age. The system treats your birth date as 1900 if it doesn't have a proper number in there, and 2012 minus 1900 is 112. The idea that this was systematic voter fraud should've seemed pretty weird -- why would the fraudsters all represent ages of 112 or so?

As Justin Levitt's comprehensive report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School points out, "In the course of millions of recorded votes and voters, it is virtually certain that there will be clerical errors.  Often, what appears to be voter fraud—a person attempting to vote under a false name, for example — can be traced back to a typo." And as the report also says, "It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I'm feeling good about the presidential election, for the same reasons as before. While I don't really understand what Nate Silver is doing with some of his more complicated Senate stuff, I trust his presidential numbers, and they seem to give Obama a floor of support slightly above Romney's ceiling. 

The last debate is about foreign policy, and I don't see Romney doing very well there. Things have gone well enough in foreign affairs that there's not much a Republican can criticize. The Iraq War is over, Osama was killed by American soldiers, the Libya war mostly went well, and we haven't gotten into any mass-casualty foreign conflicts. The only things that can really be criticized, like Afghanistan and Guantanamo, are the sorts of things that Republicans are in no position to go after Obama on. We might even see more weirdness from Romney like the Libya issue at the past debate.  I wonder how often he'll end up expressing weird right-wing memes rather than saying anything that could possibly impress swing voters.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I Just Gave $1000 Each To Heidi Heitkamp And Tammy Baldwin

I'm happy to say that I've just given $1000 to Heidi Heitkamp and to Tammy Baldwin.

Running in North Dakota, Heitkamp is probably in the best bang-for-the-buck race there is. The candidates each raise about $4 million in a year, much less than the double-digit millions you get in big Senate races elsewhere. And it's a cheap media market. There's some concern that the money may go past the point of diminishing returns. But if there's anything at all that can be done with money to win over one North Dakota voter, I'm happy to pay for it, as votes in sparsely populated states are a bigger chunk of the total electorate. The state hasn't been polled heavily, but the last survey (from Mason-Dixon) had North Dakota in a 47-47 tie. She was Jonathan Bernstein's poster child for a candidate whom your money might lead to victory, due to the amount of money involved in her race, and unlike the president.   So if you just want to make a Democratic Senator, this is the place to put your money down. She won't be the most progressive member of the Senate by any means, but she's good enough that getting her to win North Dakota would be a steal.

I'm donating to Tammy Baldwin because if she wins, I think she'll be the best new Senator we have. There's plenty of good stuff to be said about Elizabeth Warren, but between two wonderful candidates my preference is for Baldwin's experience combined with left-wing positions on issues. Not only did she oppose the Iraq War, but she called for impeaching Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzalez. She doesn't just support the public option -- she supports full-fledged single-payer health care. National Journal had Baldwin in a 7-way tie for being the most left-wing person in the House in 2010. I worried that Tommy Thompson's victory on the Republican side would make the race difficult. But polls usually have Baldwin with a slight lead right now. As she just turned 50 this year and seems to be a rock-solid campaigner, she could occupy the potentially at-risk Wisconsin Senate seat with solidly liberal views for decades.

Feel free to use my ActBlue page if you'd like to donate. Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC is, as always, my #1 pick for donations, since it strengthens Democratic candidates while passing the money through one of the party's best progressive tacticians. But I've maxed out, so I'm happy to donate directly to these two candidates.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Solving Pay Inequity Through Mere Presidential Virtue Is Bound To Fail

Having read what Romney said, I think Amanda Marcotte and the Emily's List graphic get the issue right. Mitt Romney's 'binders full of women' comment was "amusingly daft", and not anything terrible. The binder stuff isn't a hard-hitting takedown of Romney, it's just gleeful liberals having fun and creating silly tumblrs after a good night. That is what happy people do on the internet.

The problem, though, is that the most substantial achievement Romney could boast of is that he did a good and conscientious job of giving women cabinet positions as governor of Massachusetts. It's nice that he did that, but unless Romney creates millions of new Cabinet positions and equitably hires women to them, his personal virtue will not solve the widespread social problems here. Pay inequity calls for a public policy solution. Through the Lilly Ledbetter Act and insurance that covers women's medical needs, that's what Obama has been delivering.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Looking Good

I didn't see the debate -- it's a bit tricky to do in Singapore, and I don't have a TV at home anyway.  But I'm happy to see that Democrats are chittering happily on Facebook and gaily setting up tumblrs like they do when things have gone well.  Very different from what I saw after the last debate.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Does anyone know how Nate Silver calculates his "Democratic bang for the buck" index concerning where a $2500 contribution to Senate races will have the most impact?  There isn't an explanation anywhere on the site, as far as I can tell.  Which is unfortunate, because if it's calculated well, it could be very useful.  I suspect it isn't, though, because it's giving some seriously weird results.  At this point, it says the 4th best place to give money is Nebraska, where we're going to lose, and the 6th best place is Texas.  Nevada, Montana, and Wisconsin, all of which strike me as far better donation options, are in places 7-9.

Anyway, top of my list right now is probably Heidi Heitkamp in ND, as a recent Mason-Dixon poll has her in a 47-47 tie with Rick Berg.  But I'll wait a couple days to check out the October 15 FEC filings, as I'd like to see how much cash the campaigns have before I give.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

In Support Of The EU

I guess it is kind of silly to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a body as large as the EU, but in some ways it makes sense.  Europe has just had 66 years of peace, after a gruesome first half of the 20th century, and a history of on-and-off brutal war throughout the centuries that preceded it.  The ties formed by the EU are designed to ensure that wars killing millions and millions of people never happen there again.  Since the end of the Cold War, the EU has helped Europe absorb lots of former Communist nations and keep those countries on a path to liberal democracy.  It's a good thing.

It probably would've been better for the Nobel people to specifically honor some of the people who set up the EU -- I don't know enough of the history to know who was important.  But the general idea is a good one.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

State Of The Races

My sense of the presidential race is that the slowly rising economy and the basic shape of partisan allegiance combine to give Obama a small but genuine advantage. While the day-to-day swings of the news cycle (Bad GOP convention! Great Clinton speech! Romney wins debate! Biden beats Ryan!) make a lot of noise and move the polling around a little bit, they won't be enough for Romney to win. Obama's numbers were a bit inflated from a good convention and the 47% video before the debates. Lately they've been a bit deflated. On election day, I'm guessing Obama will get 2.x% of the popular vote more than Romney and win. Of course, there's always room for some big external event to turn the election around.  But as I see it, the internal dynamics of the campaign lead to Obama winning. I'm really more curious about how the House will shake out, and what last-minute activity will shape Senate races. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Putting The "Hot" In "State Fungal Meningitis Hotline"

It appears that in trying to publicize a state hotline meant to spread information about a meningitis outbreak Florida Governor Rick Scott gave the wrong number and directed people to a sex chat line.  I think it plays to some kind of married woman / cheating fetish, because the recording with the phonesexy voice tells those who need to relate fungal meningitis-related information, "Hello boys, thank you for calling me on my anniversary."

Those who know the history of state hotline slipups involving Republican governors will here recall the Anal Action Hotline disaster of 1995.  As Campaigns and Elections magazine chronicled the event:
"The administration of Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) . . . set up a toll-free number for residents to call with suggestions for cutting government. However, the 1-800-CUT-GOVT number was already being used as the "Anal Action Hotline." For $ 3.99 per minute, callers could get a sultry female on the phone who promises "hot and wild great action with women who love to take it up the a --." The mistake caused considerable embarrassment. 
Needless to say, red-faced pols on Beacon Hill set up a new number."

Friday, October 5, 2012

What Did Romney Have In His Pocket?

Interesting post from Litbrit: Mitt Romney seems to pull something out of his pocket at the beginning of the presidential debate.  This appears if you just watch the first 15 or so seconds of the official debate video -- as he walks to the podium, his right hand goes into his pocket and pulls some white sheet-like object out.  She hypothesizes that it's pre-written notes, which are forbidden by debate rules.  You can see that Obama isn't pulling anything out of his pocket as he walks to the podium.  She thinks there's further evidence in a C-SPAN video of the end of the debate, but I can't get it to load.

Anyway, it'd be worth looking into exactly what Mitt pulled out of his pocket.

Update: This seems to suggest that it's a handkerchief -- Mitt wiped his face with one late in the debate.

MLB Playoff Round 1 Preview

The new Wild Card format actually did its job, more or less; it prevented a quality NL Central team from, and it made the AL West pennant race meaningful, with Oakland pulling out a spectacular division championship on the last day of the season.

NL Game To Go: Neither the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse nor the Braves' Kris Medlen are as good as their ERAs indicate, but Medlen is the superior pitcher by a substantial margin. However, St. Louis has the superior offense. Both teams feature outstanding closers. If Atlanta is favored, it's not by much. Still, I have to go with my hometown. Braves.

AL Game To Go: This is a no-brainer, as the Orioles are the one "mistake" team that doesn't deserve to be in the playoffs. By all rights, the Tampa Bay Rays ought to be in this game. Baltimore may be setting a record for the biggest difference between Pythagorean Win-Loss rate and actual win-loss rate. Despite their epic collapse, take the Rangers.

Elsewhere, I don't get the decision to fire Valentine after one year. Or rather, I don't get the decision to hire Valentine, who presided over some rather underperforming Mets teams a decade ago. The Sawx did underperform their run differential, but even Bobby Cox had seasons where that happens, so I'm not sure it's fair to blame him for the whole team's implosion.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Commodore Barbossa & Wil Wheaton Explain Senate "Rules"

On twitter yesterday, Brad DeLong got into it with a Bush-era Treasury & Senate Budget staffer on whether or not Senate Democrats could have used reconciliation, a procedure by which certain legislation cannot be filibustered in the Senate, to push through additional stimulus. The complication here is that Senate Democrats had enacted pay-as-you-go restrictions that subjected any deficit increasing legislation or amendment to a 60-vote test, even when attached to budget bills that are considered under reconciliation. This is a feature as far as any progressive is concerned, since without it, Senate Republicans could offer tax cuts or business-friendly legislation that many Senate Democrats would feel compelled to vote for out of ideological preference, parochial interest group desires, or political survival. Had Democrats unwound their own PAYGO rule to enact more stimulus, they would have opened the door to an unending series of votes that would be extremely uncomfortable for Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, Kay Hagan, etc. It would not be a good trade for Democrats.

But the focus on rules here ignores the fact that the Senate is not a rules-driven institution. It's a norms-driven institution, similar to, say, NFL officiating or running a major airline. Former Bill Bradley staffer, New America Foundation fellow, American Prospect editor, and ... well, I'm not sure what he's doing now... Mark Schmitt wrote about this more eloquently here, here, and here, and Oregon Senator and official Donkeylicious mascot Jeff Merkley talked about it in an interview with Ezra Klein here and here. To drive the point home, though, let me try a pop-culture infused explanation.

If all Senators used the Senate Rules to achieve local maximum advantage, nothing would ever get done, in roughly the same way that if American Airline pilots wrote up every repair that the FAA considered a potential flight risk, no plane would leave on time. So it's unusual for rules to be enforced to the letter at all times.
The Senate rules are such that any Senator (or group of Senators) with sufficient commitment, can act as a check on action in such a way as to grind Senate business to a halt. Various procedural tools: the filibuster, anonymous holds, offering large numbers of amendments, etc., can be used at almost any point in time. We've seen this several times in just the past four years. Jim Bunning placed a hold on an unemployment extension that was otherwise agreed to; Lindsay Graham threatening to block all nominations to the NLRB until it dropped its complaint against Boeing; Tom Coburn forcing Bernie Sanders' single-payer bill to be read out loud on the Senate floor; repeated filibusters, public hold, or anonymous holds on various subcabinet appointments, and so forth.

In practice, then, the Senate has only one rule, which is that you can't actually use all the rules all the time. The only thing that keeps the Senate going at all is whatever version of Wheaton's Law is most palatable to the geriatric old men (and not enough women) that populate the Senate. Enough Senators have to realize that to get anything done, they can't actually assert all the power to which they're entitled under the Senate's standing rules. The fact that most Senators will spend time both in and out of power means that the majority will have some empathy for the minority's situation, and vice versa. The end of this basic understanding is a big piece of the reason why Congress has broken down over the past two decades. Prior to Bill Clinton's election, social norms among Senators severely limited the application of the filibuster. But that norm has eroded as Senators from both parties -- but mostly Republicans -- have become more interested in using Senate procedure to extract maximum short-term partisan advantage.

There is no way out of this box through rule changes. If the filibuster were to go away, Mitch McConnell would have plenty of other tools at his disposal to delay or deny the President's agenda. The only way out is to replace current Senators with new Senators whose personal preference is for a less calcified legislative body, or for existing Senators to decide that gridlock is one of the root causes of electoral defeats.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate Recap

Do I look like a divorced mother of two children who's had some college education but not a 4-year degree, living in suburban Denver, DC, or Columbus? No? Then why do you care what I thought of the debates?

I confess, I didn't watch. I've experienced the debate solely through Twitter and reading the transcript. This makes me a bad political junkie, I know. My twitter feed seems to be disappointed that Barack Obama failed to capitalize on every single opportunity to attack for flip flopping (and then flipping again tonight), for the 47% comment, for making the tax cut and health care arguments bloodless rather than visceral, etc.
I note these are the same people who have cautioned the Romney campaign against going the full wingnut, lest he alienate the handful of remaining undecided votes.

That said, one can see even from the transcripts from that "professorial Obama" definitely showed up, which didn't help matters much. Every response from the President features a one sentence attack buried in four paragraphs of context.

I suspect that we'll most likely see a modest tightening of the polls, as we did in 2004, or even 1996, since for many voters this is their first look at Mitt Romney outside of the caricature they see in TV ads. I'm skeptical it will be enough, though.

Debate Anti-hype

It may be the case that my change in news consumption habits is the real culprit here, But the run-up to this year's debates seems especially content-free. We've been treated to hype from the Romney campaign about zingers and their desires to reset the state of the race, and ... that's about it. In large part this is because the Romney campaign's strategy so far has been to run the campaign as a content-free political science experiment, intent on proving that a challenging candidate doesn't need to offer anything and can instead rely on a weak economy to unseat the cinumbent. Of course, today the economy is slightly on the mend and doing fairly well in swing states.

Nate Silver points out that the first debate typically improves the standing of the challenging party in the polls. This makes sense, since the electorate has generally seen & heard more about what the incumbent has done and will do, and Presidential candidates are generally convincing people. So we will probably see some tightening in the polls, both nationally and in swing states. At the moment, Obama is in a strong position, but Silver's odds give the Romney campaign a roughly one-in-five or one-in-six chance of changing the dynamics of the election enough to win. That probably means pushing bringing Ohio (and possibly Wisconsin, but let's not get too greedy) back into competitive territory, while also pushing Nevada, Iowa, and Colorado into 50-50 territory. Considering that all three of those states have given a Obama a persistent edge, Mitt Romney has his work cut out for him.

Monday, October 1, 2012

When People Try To Push You Into Dumb Wars, It Looks Like This

Isabel Kershner and Rick Gladstone report that Israelis are confused about what Netanyahu's bomb diagram meant at the UN. And of course they are -- it wasn't actually a diagram meant to communicate useful information about anything. It was just an crude attempt to stoke fear of Iran, and nudge the US into a disastrous military conflict. I'm glad to see that people in the US mostly just made fun of him.

For context, it's good to take a look at Justin Logan's old post on estimates of when Iran would have the bomb.  Did you know that Iran was only a few months away from having two or three nuclear weapons in 1991?  And 8 to 10 years away in 1993?  They were still 8 years away in 1995, but made up enough ground to be 4 years away in 1996.  Then they were 5 years away in 1998, and maybe they already had one in 2000.  If you go by those estimates, it's not a problem for Iran to have the bomb, because they've had it forever now.