"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
June 21, 2013
POLITICS: Wedge Issues and the Rape Exception
Winning political parties don't change their core principles or flip-flop on the major issues that animate major elements of their coalition. But they do pick their battles with care to maximize the number of wedge issues that favor them. Understanding this is key to understanding why the House GOP is right to push a late-term abortion bill that contains a rape exception.
A Compass, Not A Straitjacket
The foundation of any political party's success - before we can even start to talk about winning over persuadable "swing" voters - is having a large enough, motivated enough party base to be competitive. That, rather than any failure with the middle, was the particular difference between George W. Bush (who narrowly lost independent voters in 2004) and Mitt Romney (who won independents by 5 in 2012). The voter-turnout analysis in Sean Trende's latest column should offer a sobering look at who and where the GOP in 2012 failed to turn out voters who might have been receptive to its message. (More here and here). Abandoning major elements of the party's platform - becoming the party of legal abortion, higher taxes, comprehensive Washington regulatory schemes, gun control, and a torpid national defense - is the road to sawing off more chunks of the existing base in the mere hope of replacing them with people who are not currently reliable Republican voters. This has never been a recipe for political success - it's not how the party came back from the doldrums in 1968, 1980, 1994, 2000 or 2010, and it's not how the Democrats did it in 1992, 2006, 2008 or 2012.
Bobby Jindal is right: the GOP is in a hole and one that could grow to be a very large hole - but right now, that hole isn't really so deep, not when we hold the House, 30 governorships and total control of 24 state governments. Our goal should be to build from that, not tear it down and start over.
But just because the party's ideological direction is set does not mean that it can't have a flexible strategy. Our principles are a compass, not a straitjacket. So much of what goes on at campaign time is not argument about core issues, on which the parties' brand identity is fairly well-set; it's about "wedge issues" at the margins of those issues. Not abortion, but stem cells and rape exceptions and contraceptive mandates. Not immigration, but driver's licenses and the DREAM Act. Not taxes, but tax "loopholes" and the "Buffett Rule." Not gun ownership, but background checks. And so on.
Wedge issues have always been a mainstay of elections, and at least now that Barack Obama has perfected their use, we are temporarily free of ridiculous columns and books by liberals claiming that they are somehow an illegitimate part of politics. A lot of us on the Right thought that many of the wedge issues raised by Obama in 2012 were silly and juvenile, but the reality is, they were effective - and in many cases, particularly effective with young voters (voters under 30 provided Obama's entire margin of victory) because they were juvenile.
The path back to victory is to follow Newt Gingrich's longstanding advice: be the guys pushing more of the 70/30 and 80/20 issues than the other guy, more wedge issues where the public is on your side. (I cited Newt's response to the birth control question in the debates as a prime example of how you do this rhetorically). It is emulating George Washington, who knew when to retreat to more defensible positions to preserve his army, rather than take the Stalingrad position of "not one step back, no matter the cost." You pick your battles, or your battles pick you. And lately, without strong or trusted party leadership or a broadly agreed-on strategy, Republicans have been letting the other side choose what battles to fight.
This is bad enough when Republicans are trying to avoid losing ground on wedge issues, as with Democratic pushes to raise the top marginal tax rate or pass new gun laws. Sometimes, you have to accept a few of those fights. But it's insane when the party is actually proposing to make policy progress on an issue, and we are told that we can't run for five yards if we won't get ten. Which is precisely where we are on late-term abortions and the rape exception.
Save The 99%
Late-term abortions are generally unpopular for reasons of both emotion and science: as a child develops further in the womb and as ultrasound technology advances, it is simply harder to look at that child and deny his or her humanity. The Kermit Gosnell case drove home that reality. On the other hand, for equally powerful emotional reasons, voters tend to be unwilling to ban women from getting an abortion after they've been raped.
Neither of these is a logical distinction to those of us who see the abortion issue as a straightforward question of who is and is not a human being. But voters' emotional and empathetic reactions are the stuff of democracy, and we ignore them at our political peril.
When asked to discuss the rape exception, pro-life Republicans should remember two simple points:
First, rape and incest account for a very small proportion of all abortions, by most accounts less than 1%. (A celebrated 1987 study by the generally pro-abortion by the Alan Guttmacher Institute is the main source for the 1% figure; there are a number of methodological pitfalls in measuring this, but most of them suggest that the Guttmacher figure is as likely to be overstated as understated). For pro-lifers, that means a rape-and-incest exception is an opportunity to save 99 or more lives for every one lost. That may be a tragic "Sophie's Choice," but it's also a powerful reason to save the 99 first and worry later about going back for the 1, rather than let all 100 die in order to stand on principle. For pro-choicers, it means that every time they focus on rape, they are effectively admitting that they are using a small number of hard cases to hide the fact that they can't really defend the remaining 99% of abortions. Every Republican should be willing to accept a rape-and-incest compromise in order to make real progress on abortion, and be up front with voters about that - even pro-life Republicans who would, given their druthers, ultimately like to see all abortions in such cases outlawed.
Second, back in 1977, the (all-male) Supreme Court ruled that rape just wasn't a bad enough crime to justify the death penalty - that it was "grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape" and "a disproportionate penalty for the crime of raping an adult woman.":
Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life....rape, by definition, does not include the death of or even the serious injury to another person. The murderer kills; the rapist, if no more than that, does not. Life is over for the victim of the murderer; for the rape victim, life may not be nearly so happy as it was, but it is not over, and normally is not beyond repair.
In 2008, the Court extended that rule to say the rape of a child was also not bad enough for the death penalty. It takes a truly cold-hearted set of priorities to say that rape isn't bad enough to kill the rapist, so let's kill the child instead.* Democrats looking to press the rape issue should be forced to defend the inhumanity of this view.
It's not unreasonable for pro-life Republicans to want to save the life of every innocent child, but a savvy political party must learn to meet the electorate half-way. A demonstrated willingness to do that in crafting legislation is the first step towards shaping a battlefield where we once again hold the high ground.
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* - As a matter of policy, I do not support the death penalty for ordinary cases of murder or rape, but only for cases - such as terrorism or murder by organized crime - that demand killing in societal self-defense. But I see no basis whatsoever for a Constitutional rule that says rape isn't bad enough to kill the rapist.
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June 17, 2013
POP CULTURE: Songs of Steel
Since everybody's arguing about the new Superman movie Man of Steel, how about another argument: the best songs about, or referencing, the Man of Steel?
My top five?
1. The Kinks, "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" - the live version on One for the Road is by far the best version of this song, here's a live version from the same era in the same arrangement, but slightly less crisp audio:
"Superman" comes from the Low Budget album, a sort of perfect period piece if you want to go back to capture the zeitgeist of pre-Thatcher England and pre-Reagan America, One for the Road is one of the best live albums ever recorded, and the match of the Ray Davies' lyrics and Dave Davies' blazing guitar solo brings vividly to life the ache of that era for simple, old-fashioned heroism to shake the malaise of the late 70s.
2. 3 Doors Down, "Kryptonite"
"Kryptonite" remains 3 Doors Down's signature song, a catchy, driving rock song that's just plain fun. It uses Superman more as a motif than a storyline.
3. Spin Doctors, "Jimmy Olsen's Blues"
The Spin Doctors didn't have a long run, but their debut album Pocket Full of Kryptonite had some fun, bouncy guitar pop-rock, and the thematic signature track that catches you from the opening guitar and tells the mournful story of Jimmy Olsen trying to compete for Lois Lane's heart with the Man of Steel.
4. Donovan, "Sunshine Superman"
It's Donovan's backwards guitar riff, accompanied by a solo by Jimmy Page on electric guitar, that makes this oddball bit of Sixties pop shine. It would be number one if this was a list of songs about Green Lantern, who is playing over his head being listed in the same breath with Superman.
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5. Jim Croce, "You Don't Mess Around With Jim"
Jim Croce's odd, truncated career veered between goofy, jangling tall tales and heartfelt weepers, both of which were entertaining in their own very different ways. This song is kind of a poor man's version of "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown," but with fewer racial stereotypes. This time, Superman gets paired with the Lone Ranger - and you don't tug on his cape.
Honorable mention: the Taylor Swift "Superman" song is not bad, if you like Taylor Swift songs.
Dishonorable mention: Any slow, drippy ballads, worst of all the Crash Test Dummies "Superman's Song." Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive; you don't mope on his cape, either.
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June 13, 2013
BASEBALL: Matt Harvey: Man Without A Decision
After the Mets' 20-inning, 2-1 loss on Saturday to the mightless Marlins, Matt Harvey has 8 no-decisions in his last 9 starts. Harvey is now 5-0 in 13 starts; if he continued at his current season's pace, he would finish the season 14-0 with 22 no-decisions in 36 starts. That would set a major league record for no-decisions in a single season. How unusual a year is Harvey having?
Harvey opened 2013 as the one shining bright spot in a dismal Mets season, a season that got even more dismal with Monday's demotion to AAA of Ike Davis, who led the team in homers by a double-digit margin last season. The Mets' increasingly punchless offense (even with the stalwart presence of David Wright) is 11th in the NL in scoring and batting an anemic .226/.294/.369 entering Tuesday's action, and it has caught up to Harvey with a vengeance. After scoring 6 runs a game and going 5-0 in Harvey's first five starts, the Mets have scored just 2.75 runs a game in his last 8 starts, going 3-5.
Some of those no-decisions have been especially agonizing. On May 28, Harvey went 8 innings against the Yankees, allowed one run, struck out 10 and walked nobody. He threw 114 pitches and got a goose egg; the team ended up winning 2-1 for Scott Rice. On May 7, he went the full 9 innings against the White Sox, striking out 12, walking nobody and allowing only an infield single to Alex Rios in the seventh inning. The 10th inning win went to Bobby Parnell. Saturday, the Mets scored in the second inning and were blanked for the next 18 innings, Harvey leaving after 7 innings once again having struck out 6 and walked nobody, and complaining of a sore back to boot. (The game was the fifth 20-inning game in Mets history; only 42 other games that long have been played in MLB history without the Mets' involvement). Harvey has yet to allow more than 4 runs in a start this season, and has never gone less than 5 innings in a start in his brief Major League career.
Overall, over the last 9 starts, Harvey has a 2.66 ERA, has thrown 6.78 innings and 105 pitches per start, and has not allowed a single unearned run. In the 8 no-decisions, he has a 2.68 ERA, has cracked 100 pitches six times, and averaged 6.71 innings per start. This ought to be the stat line of a winning streak - good pitching, going deep into game after game - yet Harvey has come up empty. While this string of no-decisions is not totally historically unique, it is very unusual.
Bill James recently looked at the odds of a pitcher winning a game if you measure by "Game Score," his quick formula for measuring how well a pitcher pitched, taking account of things like walks and strikeouts as well as innings and runs. Looking at a sample of all starts between 1952 and 2011, he found that a Game Score of 51 or above is more likely to mean a win than a loss, and a pitcher with a Game Score of 66 or above will generally have a winning percentage of .800 or above in his decisions. James didn't separately break out rates of no-decision, but using his numbers, a pitcher is likely to get a decision 93% of the time with a Game Score over 80, 88% of the time with a Game Score over 68; Game Scores in the 50s yield a decision around two-thirds of the time. But not for Matt Harvey: he already has no-decisions this season with Game Scores of 97, 76, 67, 58, and 55.
According to the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com - which currently only goes back to 1916, but no-decisions were rare before then - the Game Score of 97 on May 7 tied a record previously held by Randy Johnson (twice, in a 15-strikeout outing in 1992 and a 20-strikeout outing in 2001) for the highest ever in a 9-inning no-decision, although I would argue that perhaps the best 9-inning no-decision of all time was Francisco Cordova's 9 no-hit scoreless innings, 2 walks and 10 strikeouts in 1997, for a Game Score of 95). In fact, Baseball-Reference.com lists only 19 starts in baseball history where a pitcher posted a Game Score of 90 or better in 9 innings or less and got a no-decision (there are many no-decisions with Game Scores above 100, from the earlier years when starters would go deep into extra innings, the extreme example being Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore on May 1, 1920 pitching to a 26-inning complete game 1-1 tie for Game Scores of 153 for Oeschger and 140 for Cadore. You think your team is having a rough patch? Following the 26-inning game, the Dodgers lost in 13 innings on May 2, lost in 19 innings on May 3, then went on in the succeeding weeks to lose in 11 innings on May 7, win in 10 on May 9, win in 14 on May 14, lose in 11 on May 27 and win the second game of a double-header - with Cadore going the distance again - in 10 on May 29. Somehow, they survived this to go on to win the NL Pennant).
Since 1916, the single-season record for no-decisions is 20, by Bert Blyleven for the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Blyleven is a particularly odd person to hold this particular record: he got a decision in 80% of his starts over the rest of his career, including a 4-year stretch from 1971-74 when he averaged 34 decisions and 5 no-decisions a year. (In 1973, Blyleven had 37 decisions in 40 starts, going 20-17 with a 2.52 ERA). As late as the 1985-86 seasons, he had 64 decisions and only 9 no-decisions, and in 1985 was the last pitcher to throw more than 20 complete games in a season. But in 1979, pitching for a World Championship team with a deep bullpen (Kent Tekulve, Enrique Romo and Grant Jackson between them averaged 83 appearances and 115 innings apiece and a 2.89 ERA), Blyleven was kept on a short leash by Chuck Tanner. In his 20 no-decisions that season, Blyleven averaged just 5.87 innings per start (going more than 7 innings only twice), posting a 4.76 ERA in those starts, in which the Pirates went 11-9. And he didn't pitch much differently in the ones they won - in the 11 no-decisions the Pirates won, Blyleven averaged 5.76 innings per start with a 4.69 ERA.
Only five other pitchers have managed as many as 17 no-decisions in a season, and only 15 in total have had 16 no-decisions; here's how they stack up to Harvey (I've listed Runs Allowed rather than ERA so you can see the full effect of Harvey not allowing any unearned runs):
As you can see - after we pause briefly while all the Mets fans still reading this stab their eyes out upon seeing Harvey on a chart next to Oliver Perez and Kenny Rogers - Harvey sticks out like a sore thumb on this list, both in terms of how well and how far he pitched into games and the high ratio of no-decisions to decisions. Many of these guys were beneficiaries of winning teams - Guzman went 14-3 for the World Champion 1993 Blue Jays, Krukow was bailed out in games the division champion Giants went on to win on 13 occasions (13 no-decisions in games his team won is the most on record, and he had a 6.51 ERA in those 13 starts). Maybe the most extreme example of a guy who got bailed out constantly by his offense was Dwight Gooden in 1999: Gooden, by then running on fumes, was 3-4 with 15 no-decisions in 22 starts and an 8.25 ERA in his no-decisions. The Indians went 12-3 in those starts anyway, and in the 12 the Indians won, Gooden had a 9.13 ERA and averaged 3.94 innings per start. But that Indians team scored over 1,000 runs; the Mets are on pace to score fewer than 650.
You have to get further down the list to find anybody who had a full season that looks like what Harvey has done so far:
-Cliff Lee in 2012: 3.21 ERA and 7.11 IP/start in 15 no-decisions (half of his 30 starts), going at least 6 innings every time.
-Brad Radke in 2004: 2.52 ERA and 6.66 IP/start in 15 no-decisions out of 34 starts; like Harvey, Radke threw at least 5 innings and allowed no more than 4 earned runs in any of his no-decisions. Amazingly, Radke voluntarily re-signed with the Twins after that season.
-Joey Hamilton in 1995: 2.87 ERA, 6.69 IP/start in 15 no-decisions out of 30 starts, going at least 5 innings every time. However, Hamilton allowed 9 unearned runs, so his Runs Allowed average was a less stellar 3.68.
-Jim Deshaeis in 1990: 2.32 ERA, 6.73 IP/start in 15 no-decisions out of 34 starts, going at least 5 innings each time and never allowing more than 4 runs.
-Pedro Astacio in 1996: 3.16 ERA, 6.64 IP/start in 15 no-decisions out of 32 starts. This 2011 SABR presentation argued that Astacio, followed by Deshaies and Montefusco, had the most effective no-decisions based on where they left their team when they exited the game: Astacio left with a lead 7 times and a tie 7 more, meaning he was bailed out when losing only once in his 15 no-decisions. In Harvey's case, he left two of his no-decisions with a lead (scores of 6-4 and 2-1), three tied (scores of 2-2, 1-1 and 1-1) and three trailing (by scores of 1-0, 3-2 and 3-2).
-Perhaps the best pitching in a significant number of no-decisions in one season (and a hopeful case for Harvey) was Clayton Kershaw in 2009. Kershaw got 14 no-decisions in 30 starts, and partly that was because he hadn't yet learned to imitate Greg Maddux's pitch efficiency: Kershaw averaged 5.9 innings per start in his no-decisions, and lasted a full 7 innings in only 5 of them. But his ERA in those starts was a measly 1.42; Kershaw's 10 no-decisions with a Game Score of 60 or better in a season is the most on record, edging out Tom Candiotti in 1993 and Roger Clemens in 2005.
-Candiotti in 1993 (yet another Dodger on this list, thank you Chavez Ravine): 14 no-decisions in 32 starts, a 1.97 ERA and 6.86 IP per no-decision.
The list of consecutive starts without a decision is even more dominated by pitchers who were not in Harvey's league: three pitchers went 10 straight starts without a decision, and they were all terrible over that stretch: Dick Stigman in 1965 (5.48 ERA, 4.26 IP/start), Randy Lerch in 1977 (6.70 ERA, 4.96 IP/start) and John D'Acquisto in 1977 (8.39 ERA, 2.46 IP/start, which makes you wonder why the Padres even bothered with a starting pitcher when it was D'Acquisto's turn). The longest stretch of pitching well without a decision is Al Downing in 8 spot starts from 1974-76, a 2.17 ERA in 6 innings a start for a Dodger team with tireless workhorses Mike Marshall and Charlie Hough in the bullpen.
Historically, the guys who got the most no-decisions, and most well-pitched no-decisions, in their careers were just the guys who started the most games. Tommy John leads the pack with 188 no-decisions followed by Don Sutton with 182, but John started 700 games, Sutton 756. The most no-decisions with a Game Score of 60 or better is Nolan Ryan with 41, followed by Roger Clemens (34), Greg Maddux (31) and Don Sutton (30), and all four of those guys won more than 320 games.
But in today's game, Harvey has something more like company. Among pitchers with 67 or more career no-decisions, three have career ERAs below 3.10 in their no-decisions: Felix Hernandez (2.76), Matt Cain (2.95) and Jake Peavy (3.01). (Greg Maddux had a 3.14 ERA in his 159 no-decisions, to go with a 1.83 ERA in his 355 career wins. The lesson, as always: Greg Maddux was awesome.).
The most logical conclusion from looking at history is that Harvey either won't keep pitching like this or will sooner or later start getting some wins again. Eventually, as Mets fans will remember, hard luck can turn. In 1987, pitching for the defending World Champion Mets (who would lead the league in runs scored), Ron Darling went an agonizing 14 starts without a win from April 26 to July 3 - 0-6 with 8 no-decisions - at a time when he was the team's only healthy starter. Darling's 4.76 ERA over that stretch attests that he was often ineffective, but he also had 5 starts in there with a Game Score of 60 or better; the Mets scored just 3.7 runs a game in those starts. But things turned around, Darling went 10-2 in his next 14 starts...until he tore his thumb diving for a bunt that broke up his no-hitter in the sixth inning on September 11, ending his season and leading to Terry Pendleton's famous home run to ice the division race later that night.
So yes, Mets fans. It will probably get better. But it can always get worse.
June 5, 2013
POLITICS: Maybe Just Tell Us What's Not Racist
There is nothing, nothing, in politics more infuriating than the Democrats' relentless use of racial division to cement the kind of thinking Courtland Milloy illustrated in his latest Washington Post column. The ever-expanding list of things that are considered racist to criticize so long as Obama is president is perhaps the most absurd manifestation of this line of thinking. Nearly all of these fail "the John Edwards test" for things Republicans would quite reasonably have been expected to say if Edwards rather than Obama had been the next Democratic nominee and president. But even in that context, Martin Bashir of MSNBC has reached a new low.
Via the National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke, we have Bashir claiming that "IRS" is the new "n-word": "the IRS. Three letters that sound so innocent. But we know what you mean":
I wish I was making this up. You really cannot satirize the desire of Obama's defenders to deploy his race as a sword and shield to override even discussion of how the federal government uses its power over ordinary citizens. The entire purpose of this relentless drumbeat is to create an environment in which rational discourse and debate is impossible.
Voters who vote on the basis of race are - as you can see from Milloy's column - not voting on the basis of the actual policy decisions, competence and integrity of the people they vote for, and indeed may end up making every possible excuse to avoid holding those people accountable. It's deeply corrosive to democracy to approach politics this way - it invariably leads to a corrupt, incompetent one-party government, secure in the knowledge that it can play its trump card to keep the voters at bay and avoid political competition. (Indeed, the Democrats' use of race in the Jim Crow South held back for years the movement of many white Southerners to their more natural home in the GOP, and the use of ethnic and racial wedges has been a staple of corrupt urban machine politics for centuries).
Racial politics are the true last refuge of the scoundrel. We should be unsurprised to see ever more of them, the more Obama's Administration struggles under the weight of multiple scandals.