Baseball Crank
"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
October 31, 2012
POLITICS: On Polling Models, Skewed & Unskewed


There's a very large gulf between my conclusion, explained on Friday, that Obama is toast on Election Day and confident projections like Nate Silver's poll-reading model still giving the president (at last check) a 77.4% chance of victory. Let me explain why, and what that says about the difference between my approach and Nate's.

The Limits of Mathematical Models

"A page of history is worth a volume of logic"
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Mathematical models are all the rage these days, but you need to start with the most basic of facts: a model is only as good as the underlying data, and that data comes in two varieties: (1) actual raw data about the current and recent past, and (2) historical evidence from which the future is projected from the raw data, on the assumption that the future will behave like the past. Consider the models under closest scrutiny right now: weather models such as hurricane models. These are the best kind of model, in the sense that the raw data is derived from intensive real-time observation and the historical data is derived from a huge number of observations and thus not dependent on a tiny and potentially unrepresentative sample.

Yet, as you watch any storm develop, you see its projected path change, sometimes dramatically. Why? Because the models are highly sensitive to changes in raw data, and because storms are dynamic systems: their path follows a certain logic, but does not track a wholly predictable trajectory. The constant adjustments made to weather models ought to give us a little more humility in dealing with models that suffer from greater flaws in raw data observations, smaller sample sizes in their bases of historical data, or that purport to explain even more complex or dynamic systems - models like climate modeling, financial market forecasts, economic and budgetary forecasting, or the behavior of voters. Yet somehow, liberals in particular seem so enamored of such models that they decry any skepticism of their projections as a "War on Objectivity," in the words of Paul Krugman. Conservatives get labeled "climate deniers" or "poll deniers" (by the likes of Tom Jensen of PPP, Markos Moulitsas, Jonathan Chait and the American Prospect) or, in the case of disagreeing with budgetary forecasts that aren't really even forecasts, "liars." But if history teaches us anything, it's that the more abuse that's directed towards skeptics, the greater the need for someone to play Socrates.

Consider an argument Michael Lewis makes in his book The Big Short: nearly everybody involved in the mortgage-backed securities market (buy-side, sell-side, ratings agencies, regulators) bought into mathematical models valuing MBS as low-risk based on models whose historical data didn't go back far enough to capture a collapse in housing prices. And it was precisely such a collapse that destroyed all the assumptions on which the models rested. But the people who saw the collapse coming weren't people who built better models; they were people who questioned the assumptions in the existing models and figured out how dependent they were on those unquestioned assumptions. Something similar is what I believe is going on today with poll averages and the polling models on which they are based. The 2008 electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House is the 2005 housing market, the Dow 36,000 of politics. And any model that directly or indirectly assumes its continuation in 2012 is - no matter how diligently applied - combining bad raw data with a flawed reading of the historical evidence.

Different sets of polls are, more or less, describing two alternate universes in terms of what the 2012 electorate will look like, one strongly favorable to Obama, one essentially decisive in favor of Romney. The pro-Obama view requires a number of things to happen that are effectively unprecedented in electoral history, but Nate Silver argues that we should trust them because state poll averages have a better track record in other elections than national polls. The pro-Romney view, by contrast, simply assumes that things have gone wrong in a number of the polls' samples that have gone wrong before. Sean Trende argues that the national pollsters currently in the field are more reliable, and that this (rather than the history of state and national pollsters in the abstract) should be significant:

Among national pollsters, you have a battle-tested group with a long track record performing national polls. Of the 14 pollsters producing national surveys in October, all but three were doing the same in 2004 (although AP used Ipsos as its pollster that year rather than GfK, and I believe a few others may have changed their data-collection companies). Of the 14 pollsters surveying Ohio in October, only four did so in 2004 (five if you count CNN/USAToday/Gallup and CNN/Opinion Research as the same poll).

Pollsters such as ABC/Washington Post, Gallup, Pew, Battleground, and NBC/WSJ are well-funded, well-staffed organizations. It's not immediately obvious why the Gravises, Purple Strategies and Marists of the world should be trusted as much as them, let alone more. And since virtually none of the present state pollsters were around in 1996 or 2000 (except Rasmussen Reports, which had a terrible year in 2000 and has since overhauled its methodology), it's even less clear why we should now defer to state poll performance based upon those years.

In my opinion, which view is correct is not one that can be resolved by mathematical models, but rather by an examination of the competing assumptions underlying the two sets of polls and an assessment of their reasonableness in light of history and current political reality.

Where Polls Come From

Polling is "scientific," in the sense that it attempts to follow well-established mathematical concepts of random sampling, but political polls remain as much art as science, and each polling cycle presents different challenges to pollsters' ability to accurately capture public sentiment. Quick summary: dating back roughly to George Gallup's introduction of modern political polling in the 1936 election, a pollster seeks to extrapolate the voting behavior of many millions of people (130 million people voted in the 2008 presidential election) from a poll of several hundred or a few thousand people. In a poll that seeks only the opinion of the public at large, the pollster will seek to use a variety of sampling techniques to ensure that the population called actually matches the population as a whole in terms of age, gender, race, geography and other demographic factors. In some cases, where the raw data doesn't provide a random sample, the pollster may re-weight the sample to reflect a fair cross-section.

Political polling is a somewhat different animal, however: not all adults are registered voters, and not all registered voters show up to vote every time there's an election. So, a pollster has to use a variety of different methods - in particular, a "likely voter" screen designed to tease out the poll respondent's likelihood of voting - to try to figure out whether the pollster's results have sampled a group of people who correspond to the actual electorate for a given election. This is complicated by the fact that voter turnout isn't uniform: in some years and some states Republican enthusiasm is higher than others, in some Democratic enthusiasm is higher than others. You can conduct the best poll in the world in terms of accurately ascertaining the views of a population that mirrors your sample - but if your sample doesn't mirror that season's electorate, your poll will mislead its readers in the same way that the Literary Digest's unscientific poll did in 1936, or the RCP averages in the Senate elections in Colorado and Nevada in 2010, or the polls that failed to capture the GOP surge in 2002.

Technology, economics and other factors affect polling. The rise of caller ID in particular has dramatically reduced response rates - that is, pollsters have to call 8 or 9 people for every one who will answer their poll. That raises the level of difficulty in ensuring that the people who actually do answer the questions are a representative sample. Liberals argue that pollsters undersample people who have only cell phones (a disproportionately younger and/or poorer group) and non-English speakers; conservatives counter that Tea Partiers may be less likely to talk to pollsters and that polls in some cases can suffer a "Shy Tory Factor" where voters are less likely to admit to voting Republican. Partisans dispute the relative merits of in-person versus automated polling and the structure of polls that ask a lot of leading questions before asking for voter preferences. And the economics of the polling business itself is under stress, as news organizations have less money to spend on polls and pollsters do public political polling for a variety of business reasons, only some of which have anything to do with a desire to be accurate - some pollsters like PPP make most of their money off serving partisan clients, news organizations do it to drive news, universities do it for name recognition.

2012, even moreso than past elections, is apt to produce another round of reflection and recrimination on all of these issues, as a great many of the individual polls we have seen so far have been largely or wholly irreconcilable, especially in terms of their view of the partisan makeup of the 2012 electorate. If you assume that (1) the various players in national and state polling have essentially random tendencies towards inaccuracy in modeling the electorate in all conceivable environments and (2) each state's poll average includes a large enough sample of different polls by different pollsters to bear out this assumption - in that case, state polling averages and the models that rest on them should be good predictors of turnout, as they have been in most (but not all) past elections. But when you consider that 2008 was a very unusual environment and that every turnout indicator we have other than the state poll averages is pointing to a different electorate, these become far more questionable assumptions.

Toplines and Internals

Nate Silver's much-celebrated model is, like other poll averages, based simply on analyzing the toplines of public polls. This, more than any other factor, is where he and I part company.

If you read only the toplines of polls - the single number that says something like "Romney 48, Obama 47" - you would get the impression from a great many polls that this is a very tight race nationally, in which Obama has a steady lead in key swing states. In an ordinary year, the toplines of the polls eventually converge around the final result - but this year, there seems to be some stubborn splits among the poll toplines that reflect the pollsters' struggles to come to agreement on who is going to vote.

Poll toplines are simply the sum of their internals: that is, different subgroups within the sample. The one poll-watchers track most closely is the partisan breakdowns: how each candidate is doing with Republican voters, Democratic voters and independent voters, two of whom (the Rs & Ds) have relatively predictable voting patterns. Bridging the gap from those internals to the topline is the percentage of each group included in the poll, which of course derives from the likely-voter modeling and other sampling issues described above. And therein lies the controversy.

My thesis, and that of a good many conservative skeptics of the 538 model, is that these internals are telling an entirely different story than some of the toplines: that Obama is getting clobbered with independent voters, traditionally the largest variable in any election and especially in a presidential election, where both sides will usually have sophisticated, well-funded turnout operations in the field. He's on track to lose independents by double digits nationally, and the last three candidates to do that were Dukakis, Mondale and Carter in 1980. And he's not balancing that with any particular crossover advantage (i.e., drawing more crossover Republican voters than Romney is drawing crossover Democratic voters). Similar trends are apparent throughout the state-by-state polls, not in every single poll but in enough of them to show a clear trend all over the battleground states.

If you averaged Obama's standing in all the internals, you'd capture a profile of a candidate that looks an awful lot like a whole lot of people who have gone down to defeat in the past, and nearly nobody who has won. Under such circumstances, Obama can only win if the electorate features a historically decisive turnout advantage for Democrats - an advantage that none of the historically predictive turnout metrics are seeing, with the sole exception of the poll samples used by some (but not all) pollsters. Thus, Obama's position in the toplines depends entirely on whether those pollsters are correctly sampling the partisan turnout.

That's where the importance of knowing and understanding electoral history comes in. Because if your model is relying entirely on toplines that don't make any sense when you look at the internals with a knowledge of the past history of what winning campaigns look like, you need to start playing Socrates.

Moneyball and PECOTA's World

Let me use an analogy from baseball statistics, which I think is appropriate here because it's where both I and Nate Silver first learned to read statistics critically and first got an audience on the internet: in terms of their predictive power, poll toplines are like pitcher win-loss records or batter RBI.

At a very general level, the job of a baseball batter is to make runs score, and the job of a baseball pitcher is to win games, so traditionally people looked at W-L records and RBI as evidence of who was good at their jobs. And it's true that any group of pitchers with really good W-L record will, on average, be better than a group with bad ones; any group of batters with a lot of RBI will, on average, be better than a group with very few RBI. If you built a model around those numbers, you'd be right more often than you'd be wrong.

But wins and RBI are not skills; they are the byproducts of other skills (striking people out, hitting home runs, etc.) combined with opportunities: you can't drive in runners who aren't on base, and you can't win games if your team doesn't score runs. If you build your team around acquiring guys who get a lot of RBI and wins, you may end up making an awful lot of mistakes. Similarly, you can't win the votes of people who don't come to the polls.

Baseball analysis has come a long way in recent decades, because baseball is a closed system: nearly everything is recorded and quantified, so statistical analysis is less likely to founder on hidden, uncounted variables. Yet, even highly sophisticated baseball models can still make mistakes if they rest on mistaken assumptions. Baseball's PECOTA player projection system - designed by Nate Silver and his colleagues at BP - is one of the best state-of-the-art systems in the business. But one of PECOTA's more recent, well-known failures presents an object lesson. In 2009, PECOTA projected rookie Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to hit .311/.395/.546 (batting/on base percentage/slugging). As regular consumers of PECOTA know, this is just a probabilistic projection of his most likely performance, and the actual projection provided a range of possible outcomes. But the projection clearly was wrong, and not just unsuccessful. While Wieters has developed into a good player, nothing in his major league performance since has justfied such optimism: Wieters hit .288/.340/.412 as a rookie, and .260/.328/.421 over his first four major league seasons. What went wrong? Wieters had batted .355/.454/.600 between AA and A ball in 2008, and systems like PECOTA are supposed to adjust those numbers downward for the difference in the level of competition between A ball, AA ball and the major leagues. But as Colin Wyers noted at the time, the problem was that the context adjustments used by PECOTA that season used an unusually generous translation, assuming that the two leagues Wieters had played in - the Eastern League and the Carolina League - were much more competitive in 2008 than they had been in previous years. By getting the baseline of the 2008 environment Wieters played in wrong, PECOTA got the projection wrong, a projection that was out of step with what other models were much more realistically projecting at the time. The sophistication of the PECOTA system was no match for two bad inputs in the historical data.

My point is not to beat up on PECOTA, which as I said is a fantastic system and much better than anything I could design. Let's consider for a further example one of PECOTA's most notable successes, one where I questioned Nate Silver at the time and was wrong; I think it also illustrates the differing approaches at work here. In 2008, PECOTA projected the Tampa Bay Rays to win 88-89 games, a projection that Nate Silver touted in a widely-read Sports Illustrated article. It was a daring projection, seeing as the Rays had lost 95 or more games three years running and never won more than 70 games in franchise history. As Silver wrote, "[i]t's in the field...that the Rays will make their biggest gains...the Rays' defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement." I wrote at the time: "this is nuts. Last season, Tampa allowed 944 runs (5.83 per game), the highest in the majors by a margin of more than 50 runs. This season, BP is projecting them to allow 713 runs (4.40 per game), the lowest in the AL, third-lowest in the majors...and a 32% reduction from last's an incredibly ambitious goal."

PECOTA was right, and if anything was too conservative. The Rays won 97 games and went to the World Series, without any improvement by their offense, almost entirely on the strength of an improved defense. I later calculated that their one-year defensive improvement was the largest since 1878. Looking at history and common sense, I was right that PECOTA was projecting an event nearly unprecedented in the history of the game, and I would raise the same objection again. But the model was right in seeing it coming.

If you looked closely, you could see why: the frontiers of statistical analysis had shifted. Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, following the 2002 Oakland A's, captured the era when statistical analysts stressed hitting and de-emphasized fielding on the theory that it was easier to use sophisticated metrics to find better hitters, but harder to quantify the benefits of defense. By 2008, the metrics were creating more opportunities to study defense, and - as captured in Jonah Keri's book The Extra 2% (about the building of that Rays team) - the Rays took advantage.

But for the Rays, the 2008 environment was not so easily repeated in subsequent years. While still a successful club with a solid defense in a pitcher's park (and still far better defensively than in 2007) they have led the league in "Defensive Efficiency Rating" only once in the past four years. It's what Bill James called the Law of Competitive Balance: unsuccessful teams adapt more quickly to imitate the successes of the successful teams, bringing both sides closer to parity. Trende, in his book The Lost Majority, applies the same essential lesson to political coalitions. Assuming that the 2008 turnout models, which depended heavily on unusually low Republican turnout, still apply to Obama's current campaign ignores the extent to which multiple factors favor a balance swinging back to the Republicans. And the polls that make up the averages - averages upon which Nate Silver's model rests - are doing just that. Nate's model might well work in an election where the relationship between the internals and the toplines was unchanged from 2008. But because that assumption is an unreasonable one, yet almost by definition not subject to question in his model, the model is delivering a conclusion at odds with current, observable political reality.

Painted Into A Corner

Poll analysis by campaign professionals often involves a large dollop of conscious partisan hackery: spinning the polls to suggest a result the campaigns know is not realistic, in the hopes of avoiding the bottom-drops-out loss of voter confidence that sets in when a campaign is visibly doomed. For the record, unlike some of my conservative colleagues, I don't think Nate is a conscious partisan hack. I have a lot of respect for his intelligence and his thoroughness as a baseball analyst and we have mutual friends in the world of baseball analysis, and I think he undoubtedly recognizes that it will not be good for his credibility to be committed to the last ditch to defending Obama as a prohibitive favorite in an election he ends up losing. (It's true that the 538 model is just probabilities, but as Prof. Jacobson notes, Nate won his reputation as an electoral forecaster with similar probabilistic projections in 2008; if you project a guy to have a 77% chance to win an election he loses, that will inevitably cause people to put less faith in your odds-laying later on).

I do, however, think that - for whatever reasons - Nate has painted himself into a corner from which there is no easy escape. If I'm right about the electorate and the polls are right about the internals, Romney wins - and if Romney wins, the 538 model will require some serious rethinking. There's a bunch of reasons why he finds himself in this position. One is that his model has been oversold: he made his poll-reading reputation based on a single election cycle, in which he had access to non-public polls to check his work. Nate is, in fact, not the first poll-reader to get 49 states right: RedState's own Gerry Daly did the same thing in 2004, missing only Wisconsin (which Bush lost by half a point) in his Election Day forecast, and Gerry did this through careful common-sense reading of the state-by-state polls checked against the national polls, not through a model that purported to do his thinking for him. (As it happened, the RCP averages at the end of the cycle did the same thing, as they did in 2008.) I'm inclined to listen to guys like Gerry who have been doing this for years and have not only recounted the numbers from past elections but lived through the reading of polls while they were happening. In 2010, the 538 model fared well - but no better than the poll averages at RCP. And that was only after Nate was much slower to pick up on the coming GOP wave than Scott Rasmussen, who called it a lot earlier in the cycle.

There are a raft of methodological quibbles with the 538 model (some larger than others), many of which reek of confirmation bias (ie, the tendency to question bad news more closely than good). For example, while Nate's commentaries have included lengthy broadsides against Rasmussen and Gallup, his model tends to give a lot of weight to partisan pollster PPP. Ted Frank noted one example that perfectly captures the value of knowing your history; the 538 model's assumptions about how late-deciding undecided voters will break are tilted towards Obama by including the 2000 election, when Gore did far better on Election Day than the late-October polls suggested. But Gore wasn't an incumbent, and there was a major event (the Bush DUI story) that had a major impact on turnout and undecided voters. If you make different assumptions based on a different reading of history, you get different conclusions. The spirit of open scientific inquiry should welcome this kind of scrutiny, even in the heat of election season.

None of this is a reason to conclude that the 538 concept is broken beyond repair. If you regard poll analysis as something like an objective calling, you can learn from your failures as well as your successes. If Obama wins, my own assumptions (and indeed, nearly everything we know about winning campaigns) will have to be re-examined. If Romney wins, the model of simply aggregating the topline state-by-state poll averages will have to be sent back to the drawing board. But there will be no hiding, in that case, from the fact of its failure.

Unskewed Polls

One of the more widely-discussed efforts to fix the problem of topline poll data varying by turnout models is Dean Chambers', which takes the internals of each poll and re-weights them for a more Romney-friendly turnout model. In concept, what Chambers is doing is on the right track, because it lets us separate how much of the poll toplines is due to the sentiments of different groups and how much is due to assumptions about turnout. But his execution is a methodological hash.

I haven't pulled apart all the pieces of Chambers' model, but my main objection to UnskewedPolls is that it re-weights the electorate twice:

The QStarNews poll works with the premise that the partisan makeup of the electorate 34.8 percent Republicans, 35.2 percent Democrats and 30.0 percent independent voters. Additionally, our model is based on the electorate including approximately 41.0 percent conservatives, 20.0 percent moderates and 39.0 percent liberals.

Republicans are 89 percent conservative, 9 percent moderate and 2 percent liberal. Among Democrats, 3 percent are conservative, 23 percent are moderate and 74 percent are liberal. Independents include 33 percent conservatives, 49 percent moderates and 18 percent liberals.

Our polls are doubly-weighted, to doubly insure the results are most accurate and not skewed, by both party identification and self-identified ideology. For instance, no matter how many Republicans answer our survey, they are weighted at 34.8 percent. If conservatives are over-represented among Republicans in the raw sample, they are still weighted at 89 percent of Republicans regardless.

The problem with this method is that neither the raw data (the current polls) nor a lot of the historical data (past years' exit polls) has crosstabs showing how the votes of each partisan group break out by ideology. That is, for example, we have nearly no separate polling (certainly none on the polls Chambers is "unskewing") showing how Romney is polling among independents who self-identify as moderates, or how Obama is polling among Democrats who self-identify as conservatives. That's aside from the question of whether ideological self-ID is nearly as predictive a variable as party ID. Re-weighting the samples twice by these two separate variables, without access to those crosstabs, means you don't really have any idea whether you are just adding a mutiplier that double-counts your adjustments to the turnout model. It's more alchemy than science.


We can't know until Election Day who is right. I stand by my view that Obama is losing independent voters decisively, because the national and state polls both support that thesis. I stand by my view that Republican turnout will be up significantly from recent-historic lows in 2008 in the key swing states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado) and nationally, because the post-2008 elections, the party registration data, the early-voting and absentee-ballot numbers, and the Rasmussen and Gallup national party-ID surveys (both of which have solid track records) all point to this conclusion. I stand by my view that no countervailing evidence outside of poll samples shows a similar surge above 2008 levels in Democratic voter turnout, as would be needed to offset Romney's advantage with independents and increased GOP voter turnout. And I stand by the view that a mechanical reading of polling averages is an inadequate basis to project an event unprecedented in American history: the re-election of a sitting president without a clear-cut victory in the national popular vote.

Perhaps, despite the paucity of evidence to the contrary, these assumptions are wrong. But if they are correct, no mathematical model can provide a convincing explanation of how Obama is going to win re-election. He remains toast.

October 28, 2012
POLITICS: The Man Without A Mandate


Barack Obama is trying to do something no president has ever done: get re-elected without winning the national popular vote. If he were to somehow succeed at this, he would be the weakest elected president since Rutherford B. Hayes, and the lamest lame duck in American history.

Since popular vote totals were first recorded in 1824, four presidents have been elected while losing the popular vote (five, if you count John F. Kennedy in 1960). None were incumbents seeking re-election. And three of the four - George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and John Quincy Adams in 1824 (as well as JFK) - could legitimately claim a different sort of mandate upon election: while they may not have won the popular vote, their parties won or kept control of the House of Representatives, the House of Congress that - unlike the Senate and the Electoral College - represents the people in roughly equal proportion:

Bush: 47.87% of the popular vote; 221-212 House majority; Republicans won House popular vote 47.3% to 47.0%.

JFK: 49.72% of the popular vote; 262-175 House majority; Democrats won House popular vote 54.4% to 44.8%.

Harrison: 47.8% of the popular vote; 179-152 House majority.

Adams: 30.92% of the popular vote; 109-104 House majority.

Harrison and JFK also brought to office commanding majorities in the Senate (Republicans gained twelve Senate seats in 1888 for a 51-37 majority; Democrats after the 1960 election had a 64-36 majority in the Senate).

Obama, even if elected, would undoubtedly face a re-elected Republican House majority, one that quite likely will have won a majority or at least a plurality of the popular vote and will have a stronger claim to a popular mandate than the president. The only president to lose the popular vote and have his party lose the House vote in the same year was Hayes in 1876, who lost the popular vote by 3 points and faced a 155-136 Democratic majority, but was able to resolve the disputed election by means of a thoroughly corrupt backroom deal to end the post-Civil War Reconstruction of the South and otherwise trade favors to the Democrats in exchange for counting the 'carpetbagger' electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana for the Republicans and ignoring Democratic votes on grounds of 'voter suppression.' Unsurprisingly, Hayes was a famously ineffective president as a result, best known today for mediating a dispute between Paraguay and Argentina. His domestic agenda of civil service reform and civil rights protections went nowhere, and Congress overrode his veto of a major currency bill and left one of his Supreme Court appointments without a floor vote until after Hayes left office. He did not seek re-election.

Nixon in 1968 would be the closest modern analogue, winning the popular vote by 0.7% (with 43.42% of the vote) in a 3-way race while Democrats held a 243-192 House majority and won the House popular vote 50% to 48.2%. Nixon, of course, followed a resolutely liberal domestic policy the next four years, and his efforts to retain executive powers outside House Democratic control came to ultimate grief.

Turning to presidents seeking re-election, only three have been re-elected by a popular vote margin of less than 6 points: Bush in 2004 (2.46 points), Wilson in 1916 (3.12 points), and Truman in 1948 (4.48 points), and one of those three (Bush) won a majority of the popular vote (besides Truman and Wilson, Bill Clinton in 1996 is the only other president re-elected without a popular vote majority). But Truman saw his party seize majorities in both the House and Senate away from the Republicans. Bush won a popular vote majority, expanded his share of the popular vote, added 12 million votes more than he won in 2000, and saw the GOP expand its House majority to 30 seats. His second term nonetheless ended in political disaster for his party. Only Wilson, of the three, lost partisan control of the House (by one seat), but the Democrats were able to retain their majority by forming a coalition with Socialist and Progressive members. While World War I dominated Wilson's next two years (elected on the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War," Wilson took the country into the war 31 days after the start of his second term), it ended in total political disaster, with Republicans blocking Wilson's treasured League of Nations plan and the uninspiring Warren G. Harding winning the largest popular majority in American history in 1920 just by promising a "Return to Normalcy." Democrats would not regain their House majority until 1930, the White House until 1932. None of this bodes well for Obama's ability to govern or lead his party if he was somehow able to squeeze re-election out of the Electoral College.

Of course, there are reasons - the courts, the administrative agencies - why ideological liberals should want Obama to win, no matter how weakened his condition. But given that Obama would enter a second term as a crippled lame duck with no experience knowing how to cut bipartisan deals, you have to wonder why anyone else - viewing the challenges facing the nation the next four years - would want him to continue in office in such circumstances.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)
October 26, 2012
POLITICS: Why I Think Obama Is Toast

Barack Obama is toast. This is not something I say lightly. I generally try to remain cautious about predictions, because the prediction business is a humbling one. I have never been especially bullish on Mitt Romney, and I spent most of the summer and early fall arguing that this was basically a neck-and-neck race that would go down to the wire. But in the end, two things stand out:

One, Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead. This is especially clear in national polls, but can also be seen in the key swing state polls. It's been a hard enough number for the past few weeks now, even as the last of the debates gets baked into the polls, that there's little chance that Obama can turn it around in the 11 days remaining in this race. In fact, Obama has been underwater with independents almost continuously since the middle of 2009.

Two, to overcome losing independents by more than a few points, Obama needs to have a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout, roughly on the order of - or in some places exceeding - the advantage he enjoyed in 2008, when Democrats nationally had a 7-point advantage (39-32). Yet nearly every indicator we have of turnout suggests that, relative to Republicans, the Democrats are behind where they were in 2008. Surveys by the two largest professional pollsters, Rasmussen and Gallup, actually suggest that Republicans will have a turnout advantage, which has happened only once (in the 2002 midterms) in the history of exit polling and probably hasn't happened in a presidential election year since the 1920s.

Those two facts alone caused me to conclude at the end of last week that Obama will lose - perhaps lose a very close race, but lose just the same. That conclusion is only underscored by the fact that, historically, there is little reason to believe that the remaining undecided voters will break for an incumbent in tough economic times. He will lose the national popular vote, and the fact that he has remained competitive to the end in the two key swing states he needs to win (Ohio and Wisconsin) will not save him.

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October 24, 2012
POLITICS: Barack Obama's Potemkin Bipartisanship


One of the major reasons why Mitt Romney was able to make such rapid inroads against Barack Obama in their first debate, and why poll after poll shows that independent voters have turned decisively against Obama, is that Romney was able to lay bare the hollowness of Obama's claims to bipartisanship. And given the Obama record of the past four years, there is no reason to believe he will ever learn his lesson.

For a reminder what real bipartisan leadership looks like, recall Bill Clinton. Clinton's first two years in office were - aside from championing NAFTA and GATT with Republican support and passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - a series of lurches to the left, some successful (he added to George H.W. Bush's tax hikes), some unsuccessful (Congress blocked his proposals for universal health care and a BTU tax), and just a few ending in compromise (Don't Ask, Don't Tell). Voters responded by running Democrats, in a landslide, out of their 40-year House majority, their Senate majority and a bevy of state governorships to boot.

Clinton, ever the survivor, read the writing on the wall. He and GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich (and Senate leader Bob Dole) fought each other hammer and tongs with every weapon in the book and some new ones to boot, but they also did business with each other, cutting deals that garnered Republican votes and a Clinton signature. (Just one Republican legislative priority, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, passed over Clinton's veto). The voters, seeing that Clinton was steering a course more in line with the Congress they had elected, rewarded Clinton with a second term.


How did he do it? Partly charm and public pressure, of course, but Clinton also did the two most important things in any negotiation: he gave Republicans things they wanted, and didn't demand Republicans vote for things they couldn't support. Let's review several of the accomplishments, large and small, of the the 104th Congress, 1995-96:

-After the bruising 1995 government shutdown, Clinton and the GOP agreed to budgets that restrained spending enough to balance the budget without further tax increases. The spending cuts would leave many conservatives unimpressed, and gushing tax revenues from the boom in technology and free trade would help the budget reach balance (as would a capital gains tax cut signed in Clinton's second term), but the point is that Republicans got at least some of what they wanted (restraining spending as a percent of GDP from over 22% in Fiscal Year 1992 to 19.6% - under 20% for the first time since the Nixon years - in Fiscal Year 1997) and didn't have to violate pledges to resist tax hikes.

-The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 sought to reduce paperwork requirements in federal regulation, a goal that satisfied pro-market conservatives as well as Vice President Gore's efforts at the time to streamline government operations.

-The Helms-Burton Act extended and expanded sanctions on Cuba, a conservative foreign policy priority championed by Jesse Helms.

-The Telecommunications Act of 1996 included broadcast and cable deregulatory provisions; the Act was complex and would remain controversial, but it was a significant piece of legislation that gave something to everyone.

-The Line Item Veto Act, although later struck down by the Supreme Court, was a longstanding conservative priority and part of the Contract with America. Of course, it gave Clinton something too - more presidential power.

-The Contract with America had proposed a Taking Back Our Streets Act anti-crime agenda, reflecting decades of conservative agitation for stronger law enforcement and longer prison terms. Many of its provisions ended up in subsequent enactments including the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which among other things placed new restrictions on abuses of the habeas corpus process, strengthened the federal death penalty, and imposed immigration restrictions on various types of offenders.

-The Congressional Review Act, signed by Clinton in March 1996, gave Congress greater power to reject overbearing regulations passed by administrative agencies, again a conservative priority.

-The 1996 "Taxpayer Bill of Rights 2" would offer a variety of efforts at procedural protections for targets of the IRS, always a conservative bugaboo.

-The Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996, sponsored by Bill Archer, would - among other things - expand 401(k)s for small businesses and use tax credits to promote adoption. It also included something of value to liberals (an increase in the minimum wage) that conservatives traditionally object to but are willing to treat as a bargaining chip rather than a poison pill.

-The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 accomplished a number of the goals of the failed HillaryCare health insurance proposal, but in more incremental fashion that many Republicans could swallow, such as protecting continuing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions who already have health insurance and then change jobs to an employer with a different plan.


-Welfare reform in the form of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a conservative priority ever since Ronald Reagan's reforms to California's welfare system in the early 1970s and a cornerstone of the Contract with America, was passed and signed by Clinton in late August 1996 (during the week between the Republican and Democratic conventions) following a drawn-out battle that had featured two Clinton vetos. It remains the only major example of a federal entitlement program undergoing significant reform.

-The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, a/k/a the Lautenberg Amendment, incorporated a variety of provisions designed to prevent people convicted of crimes of domestic violence from owning guns. Broad-ranging gun control was out of the question for a GOP Congress elected with major NRA support in revolt over the "assault weapons ban," but a bill narrowly targeted at a class of criminals was able to attract enough Republican support to pass.

-The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 limited liability for charitable donors of food. A small bill, but one that combined two Republican passions: tort reform and private charity.

-The Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Clinton on September 21, 1996 with overwhelming bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress, gave states protection against being compelled to accept out-of-state same-sex marriages in other states; "Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors' benefits, and the filing of joint tax returns." DOMA was and is, obviously, a social conservative priority.

-The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed by Clinton on September 30, 1996, imposed a variety of measures to tighten enforcement of the immigration laws, mainly by strengthening deportation provisions and expanding the ability to deport those convicted of crimes and keep out of the country those already deported. IIRIRA may not have satisfied border hawks, but like a number of Clinton-era initiatives it built bridges between moderates in both parties by targeting a narrow class of criminals.

-"The Regulatory Accounting Act, passed in the final weeks of the 104th Congress, requires the executive branch to produce an annual report for Congress estimating the total benefits and costs of all federal regulations." This, too, was a longstanding conservative reform proposal. Also passing at the end was the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, a Kit Bond-backed bill to ease regulatory burdens on small business, a perennial Republican priority.

Another Contract with America promise, the $500 per child tax credit, would be signed into law by Clinton in 1997.

Whether conservatives got a good deal out of all this, whether they chose wisely in striking each of these deals, and whether these bills worked in practice as promised is a whole separate issue. The point is, there's a lot on that list that gave conservatives and Republicans things they wanted and had been agitating for over the prior two decades, and nothing on the list that compelled Republican legislators to go home to their constituents having broken any major promise or violated any core principle.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 4:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
October 23, 2012
POLITICS: The Debate Dogs That Didn't Bark

The debates are over. It's worth taking a look at what they didn't cover, which is sometimes as telling as what was said. In 2000 - as I noted in my first widely-read blog post a decade ago, and as Romney noted last night - the subject of terrorism was not even raised, although it would come to dominate Bush's tenure in office. Some things got less play than you might expect; perhaps the single biggest surprise of last night was that nobody mentioned Benjamin Netanyahu by name, but there was plenty of discussion of Israel (if surprisingly little on the "peace process"). Others got downplayed for obvious reasons; there was discussion of Obamacare at the first debate in particular, but little direct controversy on the individual mandate, perhaps unsurprisingly given Romney's record.

But here's a list of the issues that didn't get discussed at all in any of the debates, in no particular order:

1-The Federal Reserve/monetary policy/QE3/the next Fed chairman

2-The EU and the Eurozone crisis, other than the use of Greece as a cautionary tale. Indeed, Europe in general was largely ignored, in marked contrast to the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004.

3-The descent of Mexico into chaos, other than Romney's brief discussion - cut off by Candy Crowley - of Operation Fast & Furious.

4-Same-sex marriage. The only reference to any gay-rights issue was a brief mention by Obama of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell.

5-Climate change/global warming/cap and trade

6-Racial preferences; Romney discussed affirmative action for women, but the subject didn't otherwise come up.

7-Welfare reform and Obama's waivers on the issue

8-The death penalty

9-Campaign finance reform

10-Guantanamo and detainee policy

11-Interrogation policy

12-Surveillance policy

13-The TSA/airport security

14-The War on Drugs

15-Sanctions on Cuba

16-U.S. relations with India

17-No Child Left Behind, although there was quite a lot of discussion of education.

18-Stem cell research

19-The growth of executive power, including Obama's use of executive orders and "czars"

20-H-1B visas, guest worker programs and the border fence with Mexico.

21-Right-to-work and public employee collective bargaining.

22-The BP oil spill

23-Evolution (yes, I know, this is only asked during GOP debates)

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:00 AM | Politics 2012 | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)
October 22, 2012
POLITICS: Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part I of IV)

Barack Obama is not a socialist. It's not surprising that people call him one: to the typical voter, "socialist" is often just shorthand for the next step leftward on the political spectrum from being an ordinary liberal, and people need a vocabulary to express their sense that they see in Obama a further left turn from Mondale-Dukakis-Kerry liberalism. To this day, the Democrats' caucus in the Senate includes one self-described socialist, but the rest of the party flees the description. The fact that Obama's political supporters react with horror when you call him a socialist is, at least, a concession that everyone - even actual socialists - agrees that the label is political poison with most American voters.

Nor is the label especially unfair: Obama's own biography is full of close associations and alliances with actual socialists and even Communists (his acknowledged teen mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA). In 1996, when he was first elected to public office, he signed an agreement to run on a left-wing third party's ticket and platform to signal to voters that the Democrats weren't far left enough for him. In 2000, the newsletter of an organization of actual socialists - the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America - wrote: "When Obama participated in a 1996 UofC YDS Townhall Meeting on Economic Insecurity, much of what he had to say was well within the mainstream of European social democracy."

A more accurate description of Obama, however - and of the Democratic party under his leadership - is that of collectivist, just as socialists are; but that this collectivism takes the form of corporatism. A review of both rhetoric and policy under Obama illustrates this. To understand why, you must first consider the meaning and history of collectivism and corporatism.

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POLITICS: Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part II of IV)

II. Obama and His Democrats: Their Own Words and Ideas


Before we get to Obama's policies, it's important to lay the groundwork. Let's look at his ideas.

Barack Obama is well-known for his polished oratory, his delivery off a TelePrompter of carefully prepared and vetted speeches. Unsurprisingly, these prepared texts generally seek to cast his ideas and programs as consistent with the American traditions of free enterprise, free markets, free people and free institutions. But there is a long history of mostly unscripted statements from Obama and his wife Michelle - which I supplement here with just a few choice examples from the party he commands - that reveal a consistent strain of his thinking that is hostile to private business and the private sector, favorable to redistribution of wealth, and collectivist in worldview. Together, they illustrate the rationalizations behind Obama's policies.

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POLITICS: Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part III of IV)

III. The Stimulus, The Bailouts, and Obamacare

The Obama Administration's policies, in action, provide copious examples of both a broader inclination towards collectivism and a specific pattern of corporatism. Over and over, Obama has attempted to use federal spending, tax and regulatory powers to coopt institutions and mute competition in pursuit of greater government ability to redistribute wealth. Part III looks at the three main areas in which this has played out in the Administration's policies: the stimulus, the bailouts, and Obamacare.

A. The Stimulus

The 2009 stimulus bill was Obama's first major legislative initiative. An economic "stimulus" bill is a cat that can be skinned in a number of different ways, ranging from the free-market approach of permanent cuts in income tax rates to the old-time big-government solution of just laying out taxpayer money to hire a whole lot of people who are out of work (think of FDR's makework WPA projects).

Obama's stimulus incorporated some tax rebates, albeit mostly in the form of temporary credits, and a good deal of direct government spending (although Obama would later bemoan that there were fewer "shovel-ready" projects than he expected). But significant portions of the bill were corporatist endeavors: having the government invest in private ventures that cultivated government favor, and distributing funds designed to coopt potential political adversaries. Let's consider an example of each.

1. Green Jobs

Typically, in a corporatist system, the businesses that get capital, subsidies and contracts are those that have the favor of the government. Obama's wastes of taxpayer money on "green jobs" companies like Solyndra, Abound Solar, and A123 - many of them, not coincidentally, politically connected - are perfect examples of this. To see how the process works up close, consider, as a specific example, Al Gore:

Fourteen green-tech firms in which Gore invested received or directly benefited from more than $2.5 billion in loans, grants and tax breaks, part of President Obama's historic push to seed a U.S. renewable-energy industry with public money....

Before the election, Gore launched a public campaign known as "Repower America," aimed at encouraging the public and the next administration to support government investments in clean energy. His Alliance for Climate Protection was running numerous ads...

At the same time, Gore's venture partner, Doerr, had been raising money for Democrats to take back the White House, holding big-check receptions with Silicon Valley investors. He and fellow Kleiner partners and spouses donated more than $800,000 to Democrats, much of it for Obama and state efforts to get out the vote.

At GIM, five of Gore's principals, including co-founder David Blood, wrote $130,000 in checks to aid Obama's bid, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As Obama was preparing to take office, it was clear his public agenda supporting clean energy aligned with Gore's personal agenda. Obama held a highly publicized meeting with Gore at transition headquarters in Chicago to talk about energy policy. Later, Obama closely echoed several of Gore's talking points and his plan for public investment in clean energy. Obama even adopted Gore's campaign catchphrase for the effort, "Repower America."...

Gore's orbit extended deeply into the administration, with several former aides winning senior clean-energy posts. Among them were Carol Browner, a former Gore political operative who became the president’s climate change czar, and Ron Klain, Gore's former chief of staff who went to work for Vice President Biden overseeing the stimulus.

Those connections were underscored in October 2009, when Jonathan Silver, under consideration to head the $38 billion ­clean-energy loan program, hosted a party to help Gore raise money for the Alliance for Climate Protection.

Silver invited the Department of Energy's chief financial officer, days before the official was scheduled to meet Silver to discuss the job.

How valuable was all this influence? Well, "[a]n administration official said more than 80 percent of applicants the first year were turned away," but "[o]f the 11 companies [Gore] mentioned in his 2008 slide show, nine received or directly benefited from stimulus or clean energy funding" - an 82% success rate.

On the whole, the green jobs agenda was (predictably) a fiasco as far as efficient use of public funds. The Energy Department estimated that, rather than the projected 5 million jobs, it ended up spending $21 billion on projects that employ 28,854 people - a cost of $728,000 per job. But the real point of the endeavor was a combination of Obama's belief that the government could pick winners in the energy sector of the economy, a misguided hope that investment could be profitably directed to serve a public purpose (environmentalism) and, of course, the familiar desire to reward political allies. A free market system of energy investment would be burdened by no such illusions or designs.

2. Strings Attached

As discussed above, part of the strategy of collectivists in America's federal system is not just to coopt private institutions, but also to place state and local governments under more nationally uniform management. Where Louis Brandeis once wrote that "[i]t is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country," today's liberals almost invariably see dissenting states as obstacles to nationally uniform plans, engaged in a "race to the bottom" to reduce taxes and regulation in order to steal business from other states. This leads to ridiculous endeavors like trying to set a national minimum wage.

Many of the provisions of the stimulus bill involved doling out money to states for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, transportation and education. But those funds came with major strings attached - strings that seemed directly designed not just to force a one-size-fits all solution from Washington on the states, but perhaps specifically to prevent any state governor from operating a competing model that could be presented to the voters later on as an example of how to do things better than Obama. The crop of potential presidential challengers among sitting governors at the time included Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mark Sanford, Haley Barbour, Jon Hunstman and Bobby Jindal; it was clear from the outset that the Administration made it a goal to handcuff Obama's political rivals from campaigning against the strimulus if it failed. (The DNC ran ads against Sanford for turning down stimulus money, and Democrats in other states blasted the other GOP governors on a similar basis). And lest some governors reject those funds, the bill contained unprecedented provisions allowing state legislatures to override their governor and accept the funds.

Perry, for example, complained that the stimulus bill required Texas to change its rules for unemployment eligibility, in ways it wouldn't be able to change back when the temporary federal money ran out:

Provisions in the federal bill allow Texas to receive $556 million if it broadens its eligibility - for instance, lets part-time workers collect benefits even if they search for less than full-time work, and grants extended benefits to people in retraining programs.

The state also would have to consider recent wages in calculating a laid-off worker's income, not the current method that can go back nearly 18 months.

Palin similarly rejected funds containing "strings that will bind the state in the future." Jindal rejected new Medicaid funding on similar grounds, leading Obama to pivot into campaign mode even back in 2009.

In the end, the coercive power of the federal government was hard for even sovereign states to resist, as most of the Republican governors were compelled by state legislatures to scale back their opposition. In the short term, Obama got what he wanted: fewer states that could promote themselves as competing models. Perhaps not coincidentally, he ended up with a general election opponent who'd been out of government since before Obama's term started.

B. The Auto Bailout and TARP

Corporatism is not solely a Democratic phenomenon, although wherever it exists in our government, the Democrats will press for a wider scope for its activities. A perfect example is the TARP and auto bailouts. Both began under George W. Bush as short-term programs; both were supported at the time by Obama and other Democrats; and both were expanded and prolonged under Obama.

Treasury Secretary Paulson's initial meetings with the CEOs of the major banks actually provides a fairly perfect example of the corporatist-collectivist approach. Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich didn't want to accept TARP funds, believing that his bank didn't need them and didn't want the strings that would be attached, the scope of which were not entirely clear at the time. Here's what happened next:

"As my comments were heading in that direction in the meeting, Hank Paulson turned to Fed Chairman Ben Benanke sitting next to him and said, 'Your primary regulator is sitting right here. If you refuse to accept these funds, he will declare you 'capital deficient' Monday morning,'" Kovacevich recalled. "'Is this America?' I asked myself."

"This was truly a 'godfather moment.' They made us an offer we couldn't refuse," Kovacevich said, adding that he might have put up more of a fight if the San Francisco bank had not been trying to acquire troubled Wachovia at the time.

Paulson's logic was that if some banks made it known that they didn't need TARP money, their success would reflect badly on those who did - a dynamic that repeated itself with the auto bailout. Ford ran ads touting the fact that it hadn't needed a bailout - but pulled them swiftly after the White House complained that they reflected poorly on Ford's bailed-out competitors (Ford, needing to stay on the White House's good side, then denied that the ad had been pulled as a result of political pressure). In an industry that depends so heavily on government favor, none of the major players can speak their mind freely, even at the risk of kneecapping their own willingness to compete with what are supposed to be their competitors.

The auto bailout under Obama was headed by Steve Rattner, who - speaking of corporatism - was later sanctioned by the SEC for a pay-to-play scheme to steer New York state pension business his way. And it - like TARP - undeniably involved the government in picking winners and losers among the various players in the industry based upon whether they were politically favored:

In moving to get Chrysler through bankruptcy and into the hands of Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, the president's auto task force bullied Chrysler bondholders and managed successfully to place the unsecured claims of the UAW ahead of secured creditors.

In moving to get GM back to independence, the Treasury Department sold part of its equity stake in the automaker at an initial public offering. But the shares now trade consistently lower than their offer price, meaning taxpayers stand to lose as much as $15 billion on the government's remaining 26.5-percent stake in GM, according to Treasury estimates.

In moving to get GM through bankruptcy, the task force and its bosses at Treasury effectively shafted 22,000 salaried retirees of the former Delphi Corp., the long-time GM parts supplier the automaker spun off in 1999. Despite an 85 percent funding level in its pension fund, Treasury urged the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to seize the Delphi pension plan.

The net effect: Many retirees saw their annual payouts cut by as much as two thirds, even as union members were "topped up" with taxpayer dollars from the Troubled Asset Relief Program; their former colleagues at GM saw comparatively minor cuts to their pensions; and key members of the auto task force still won't tell congressional investigators who made the call to treat Delphi's salaried retirees differently than everyone else.

In moving to get both GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy, the task force essentially ordered the automakers to cut thousands of independent dealers from their distribution networks, irrespective of the dealers' profitability, customer service performance and even location.

The Delphi investigation is continuing, with emails showing political involvement in the relevant decisions. Meanwhile the Administration has been resisting GM's requests that the Treasury sell its multibillion-dollar stake in the company, out of concern for showing a loss on its investment. GM's fate remains at the mercy of politics.

A similar dynamic played out in the TARP program, with powerful House Committee chairs like Barney Frank and Maxine Waters intervening to steer TARP funds to favored banks, part of a broader pattern of influence:

U.S. banks that spent more on lobbying were more likely to get government bailout money according to Ran Duchin and Denis Sosyura at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. Their study reveals a twisted correlation between a bank's bailout and its proximity to an elected politician.

Banks with an executive who sat on the board of a Federal Reserve Bank were 31 percent more likely to get bailouts through TARP, and those with ties to a finance committee member were 26 percent more likely to get capital purchase program funds.

Members of the House of Representatives were also a good way in -- the study showed that more funds went to banks with headquarters in the district of a member who served on a committee or subcommittee related to TARP.

Not content with playing favorites among large banks, Obama then tried to pivot to getting smaller banks on the take, pledging in his 2010 State of the Union to tax the big banks and "take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat." It requires little imagination to picture the precise same process of lobbying and favoritism playing itself out on the community-bank level.

Of course, these and other bailouts reduce the risk in investing in large corporations - and that's one of the reasons why we see soaring stock markets even as corporate earnings plunge. Financial instruments like stocks, after all, are all about taking risks to earn rewards - and the less the risk involved, the less rewards you require to make it worthwhile.

(For professional reasons, I can't get further into financial-industry issues, but suffice it to say that not only have there been many more specific complaints lodged against the corporatist tendencies of TARP in action, but of the labrynthian Dodd-Frank bill as well, see here and here).

C. Obamacare

Obamacare, of course, is the granddaddy of all collectivist, corporatist programs under Obama. Just a few examples will show how.

1. The Insurance Mandate

The core, controversial heart of Obamacare is the idea that - in order to give uninsured people health insurance coverage - all Americans would be mandated to buy coverage (the "individual mandate"), and all insurers would be required to take all comers regardless of their insurance risks ("guaranteed issue") and would be regulated in their ability to price for those risks ("community rating").

Obama could have chosen just to subsidize the uninsured to buy insurance. But instead, the entire pricing mechanism of the insurance market for everyone is altered by the requirements of guaranteed issue and community rating, the first of which massively increases insurers' costs, and the second of which prevents them from passing those costs on to high-risk insureds. This ensures that those insureds receive coverage that is worth more than they paid for it. Instead, those costs are imposed on everyone who has insurance, by means of the individual mandate. The Supreme Court explained how the mandate works as a subsidy:

By requiring that individuals purchase health insurance, the mandate prevents cost-shifting by those who would otherwise go without it. In addition, the mandate forces into the insurance risk pool more healthy individuals, whose premiums on average will be higher than their health care expenses. This allows insurers to subsidize the costs of covering the unhealthy individuals the reforms require them to accept.

Here we have the perfect match of collectivism (i.e, raising the cost of insurance across the board to subsidize high-risk insureds) and corporatism (rather than create a "public option" by which government would service those high-risk insureds directly, it forces individuals to buy policies from private companies). Its defenders used explicitly collectivist arguments to justify its constitutionality. And lest the insurers misbehave, the public option or a straight-up single payer plan (which Obama has previously described as his ultimate goal, but for now uses as the bad-cop threat) looms as a threat down the road.

In the meantime, insurers and employers are under an ever-increasing web of regulatory control that will continue to sap their independence. The most controversial example is the HHS contraceptive mandate, which requires employer-provided coverage to include contraception, and fails to exempt many Catholic and other religious institutions that object to being compelled to provide something that violates their religious principles. The number of employees actually affected by the HHS contraceptive mandate, and the amount of money involved, is minuscule in comparison to the health care system as a whole; one would ordinarily think that the issue is far too small for a president facing re-election to justify an open breach with the Catholic Church over it. The heavy emphasis placed on the fight by the Obama campaign, all the way down to having Sandra Fluke speak at its convention, suggests that perhaps this was all just a deliberate campaign strategy, and that's one possible interpretation. But it also signals something more deeply troubling in this Administration: a determination to impose its will on the Church. The whole fight is nothing if not a test of who has power over one of the terms of employment at Catholic institutions. This effort to bring the Church to heel at the federal government's command is a textbook example of how corporatist systems inevitably demand that all the major free institutions be reminded that the government calls the tune. Obama's own defense of the mandate is, again, revealing of his tendency to draw everyone into the web of owing the government:

[W]e did say that big Catholic hospitals or universities who employ a lot of non-Catholics and who receive a lot of federal money, that for them to be in a position to say to a woman who works there you can't get that from your insurance company even though the institution isn't paying for it, that that crosses the line where that woman, she suddenly is gonna have to bear the burden and the cost of that. And that's not fair.

You took the money, whether you originally wanted it or not. And now Uncle Sam has the leverage to make you violate even your religion.

[UPDATE: I neglected to mention here one of the most egregious examples of the corporatist tendencies of the various mandates - the fact that the Administration has been profligate handing out waivers to unions and other favored constituencies, exempting them from Obamacare's requirements. This is the corruption of the system at its finest: the passing of onerous laws, from which major donors and political allies are exempted]

2. The Backroom Deals

Legislation, especially big, complicated legislation, invariably involves all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing and favor-trading among legislators and industry and labor or other interest group lobbies (this is one good reason to avoid such legislation whenever possible). There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with lobbyists getting a hearing when their industry's ox is potentially about to be gored, but the more a bill hands out rewards and punishments among different economic interest groups, the uglier this process gets. Liberals complained - and not without reason - about the drug companies' involvement in the Medicare Part D bill in 2003, but Obamacare took that to the next level; not only was the bill written with the substantial involvement of lobbyists for the insurance and drug companies, but the negotiations included a quid pro quo connecting the legislation to the behavior of private businesses, while putting on the sham public appearance of Obama being tough with business:

[D]rug lobbyists, White House officials and aides to Sen. Max Baucus hammered out a deal that formed the backbone of Obamacare. The final bill would subsidize prescription drugs, force states to include drug coverage in Medicaid, and expand private insurance coverage of drugs. Also, the White House pledged to oppose policies that Obama had promised on the campaign trail: allowing reimportation of prescription drugs and empowering Medicare to negotiate for lower prices on the drugs Medicare is paying for. In return, drug companies would offer a discount to some senior citizens, and would spend millions of dollars on ads supporting the bill and the lawmakers who backed it.

Even The Nation was appalled by the way the process was handled. Given this modus operandi, it is not surprising that - as Tim Carney has noted - you can scarcely throw a rock around the Obama Administration without hitting a political appointee who has worked as a lobbyist.

3. Medicaid

Obamacare vastly expanded the Medicaid program, and in an echo of the stimulus program, ran so roughshod over independent state sovereignty that the Supreme Court, by a 7-2 margin - including Justice Breyer and Obama's own former Solicitor General, Justice Kagan - found it the unconstitutional equivalent of a "gun to the head" of the states.

Medicaid is jointly funded between the federal government and the states, and already consumes an ever-increasing share of state spending. It used to be a voluntary program, and in its early years, some states opted out of some or all of the program. By now, all 50 states are in the program, but at least in theory they are still free to take or leave additional federal expansions.

Obamacare required participating states to enormously increase their Medicaid spending by relaxing eligibility, in part to fund Medicaid recipients' ability to comply with the individual mandate. The federal government would cover these expenses in the short run, but as with the stimulus, with no promises to continue doing so once states were locked into the new system: "because the new Medicaid enrollees will now be dependent on the government, states won't be politically or legally able to roll back their programs, leaving state taxpayers with the bill. The Wall Street Journal aptly compares this to 'a subprime loan with a teaser rate and balloon payment.'"

Some states projected that under the new rules, Medicaid would consume around a quarter of their budgets (the average state's share is already 20 percent). Many governors, especially Republicans, balked at a huge expansion of their budgets by a program outside their control at a time when state budgets are already deeply stressed, but Congress threatened in the bill that any state refusing to agree to the new eligibility rules would lose every penny of their funding. They complained to the Court that this was a threat to independent state self-government, and the Court agreed. Obama had gone too far.

4. The Regulatory Forest

Even beyond the best-known mandates and the Medicaid expansion, the blizzard of new regulations under Obamacare provides plenty of corporatism's classic incentives towards bigness and a cozy relationship between government and large, captive private institutions. Ben Domenech explains:

The president's health care law contains rafts of new regulations, benchmarks, and taxes for providers to deal with. Since these limit profit margins and create new administrative costs, they make it very appealing for health care providers to merge into gigantic, sprawling systems of care...

...Obama's law ...giv[es] these large entities even more incentive to merge through the creation of accountable care organizations (ACOs). These large health care entities will destroy any hope for competition in a marketplace, driving out or buying out independent doctors and extracting as much money as possible from taxpayer-funded entitlements and the privately insured.

We've already seen this happen under a system similar to Obama's, in Massachusetts, where the state’s largest insurer and hospital system collaborated in a secret handshake agreement: The insurer promised to pay the hospital system more money in exchange for an agreement that the hospital would stick all other insurers with the same rate increases. This is classic cartel behavior, and it will only increase under Obama's law. And thanks to government subsidies and our third-party payer system where patients and providers are insulated from price signals, costs will only continue to increase for the rest of us.

This is the corporatist model: reduce the number of players in the industry to a handful of powerful interest groups that could fit around a table, then have government treat them as its (decidedly junior) partners, leaving individuals and small businesses out in the cold.

See Part I and Part II. In Part IV, the same trends play out in other policy areas.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:02 PM | Politics 2012 | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: Barack Obama: Corporatist Collectivist (Part IV of IV)

IV. Obama and the Democrats: Their Policies

See Part I, Part II & Part III. The stimulus, bailouts and Obamacare are the most egregious and well-known examples of the corporatist tendencies in Obama's policy portfolio. But there numerous others.

A. Entitlement Reform

What is the purpose of Social Security and Medicare? They are neither individualist programs, in which individuals provide for themselves, nor welfare programs, in which the well-off provide for others. Rather, in their design, both programs are undeniably collectivist: they require contributions from all, even those who die before they can collect any benefits, and provide benefits to all pursuant to the same formulas regardless of need and - in the case of Medicare - regardless of contributions.

If the primary purpose of these programs is to provide retirement and medical benefits, then the government should be willing to look at what most private companies have done and what even state-level Democrats are starting to concede (grudgingly, and not uniformly) must be done for more state retirees to keep such programs fiscally sustainable: switch to something more like a defined-contribution plan where your contributions become actual assets you own, rather than a defined-benefits plan. Such a plan can still be supplemented by welfare-style benefits if it leaves the poorest Americans short, but it would free most Americans from being tied into a single, one-size-fits-all plan where their benefits are tied to everyone else's.

Yet, every time Republicans propose something to move these programs in that direction, even on a limited, optional basis - from Bush's private Social Security accounts plan to Paul Ryan's Medicare premium support plan to Health Savings Accounts - Democrats from Obama on down react with shrieking horror at altering the collectivist structure of these programs. Obamacare, for example, targeted HSAs with burdensome new regulations aimed at driving them out of business, and could run most small business employees out of HSA. Obama, in the first debate, defended on explicitly collectivist grounds his main objection to premium support:

Now, in fairness, what Governor Romney has now said is he'll maintain traditional Medicare alongside it. But there's still a problem, because what happens is, those insurance companies are pretty clever at figuring out who are the younger and healthier seniors. They recruit them, leaving the older, sicker seniors in Medicare. And every health care economist that looks at it says, over time, what'll happen is the traditional Medicare system will collapse.

In other words, Obama recognizes that competition could offer some seniors a better deal than they have now - and that's his problem.

B. Education Policy

Barack Obama has posed, at times, as a reform-minded Democrat on education for supporting charter schools. But his persistent opposition to private school choice, like that of his party, is inseparable from a collectivist view of education. Obama spent years opposing even a small school choice program in DC before relenting briefly during the current election, and while he has been cagey in his own public statements, the reasons given by his allies strike a familiar note:

Opponents of the program, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), say that it steers attention and resources away from public schools in need and the city's thriving charter school program.

This is a commonly-made argument, and one that is inherently collectivist: if a student leaving a school helps that student, it should not matter that the school has less funding left, especially if that funding remains the same on a per-student basis. When you strip away the veneer of pragmatic arguments (all of which attack the performance of school choice in the aggregate, rather than arguing that it's not in the interests of individual students whose parents believe otherwise), the arguments marshalled against school choice, and private education in general (all of which are familiar to regular participants in this area), are all collectivist: that choice drains schools of good students (subtext: the good students must suffer for the benefit of weaker ones), and that public education has general benefits to society, ranging from inculcation of common 'values' to forcible racial integration. Not one of these arguments depends upon the idea that the policy prescriptions at issue benefit each and every student individually, or would be chosen by them or their parents voluntarily. This essay arguing for banning private schools, from Gawker's execrable John Cook, is an extreme articulation of that view, but not an uncommon one:

From a purely strategic and practical standpoint, it would be much easier to resolve the schools crisis if the futures of America's wealthiest and most powerful children were at stake. Wealthy people tend to lobby effectively for their interests, and if their interests were to include adequate public funding for the schools their children attend, and libraries, and air-conditioning, those goals could likely be achieved without having to resort to unpleasant things like teachers' strikes.

...[E]ducational benefits are something that we as a nation have long held should be afforded to all children, irrespective of their backgrounds....Our current system of private and public education effectively distributes the best educations to those who were born into the right families, like Rahm Emanuel's. He shouldn't be able to buy his kids a better shot at life than his constituents can afford.

There are other more scholarly versions on the Left than Cook's rant, but it provides a flavor of what regularly comes out of the Democrats when pushed on questions of public education, and what reasoning is required to sustain the Democrats' stubborn opposition to private choice in education.

C. Labor And Student Loan Policy

Obama's NLRB has been a nearly endless parade of efforts to bring private companies to kiss the ring of the Obama Administration and its Big Labor political allies, the most notorious of which was its treatment of Boeing last fall. The big airplane manufacturer announced its intention to build a new plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, and when unionized workers in Washington complained, Obama's NRLB brought a case against Boeing for unfair labor practices for planning to open a factory in the United States of America employing American workers. In classic corporatist fashion, of course, the NRLB's thumb on the scales put Boeing in the position of needing to make a deal with the union, which it did - the company cut a deal to " to raise wages and expand jet production in Washington," and the NRLB dropped the case.

Why is it so important for Boeing to stay on the NRLB's good side? Because it depends on other favors from the federal government, specifically loans from the Export-Import Bank:

Boeing is the behemoth of the export industry and for years has been a top beneficiary of Ex-Im's programs.

...[B]etween 2000 and 2010, the bank provided more than $52 billion in guarantees to help foreign airlines buy Boeing aircraft, providing the financing for 950 jet planes. In the past few years, about 60 percent of all Ex-Im's loans have gone to benefit Boeing, while a third of the company's jets delivered to customers were backed by Ex-Im support.

Other companies also have won business with the help of Ex-Im, including U.S. makers of turbines, solar technology and trains.

That doesn't sit well with other US companies who are less favored by the government:

Air India got U.S. government support and used it to vanquish the competition. With the help of cheap loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank backed by American taxpayers, the airline bought Boeing 777s - manufactured in the United States by American workers - and then launched nonstop service between New York City and India's business capital, Mumbai.

The only problem was that the competition on that route was Delta, which says it was forced to abandon the nonstop daily service it had pioneered two years earlier.

As with many such programs, you can't blame Boeing for taking advantage of what the government will give it, or appeasing the government when it is in the crosshairs. Private business managers must do what they can to benefit their companies. But you can blame the people who perpetuate this system:

Speaking [in February] at a Boeing plant in Everett, Wash., President Obama pledged "to give American companies a fair shot by matching the unfair export financing that their competitors receive from other countries."

Note that Obama's appearance at the Washington Boeing plant was two months after the NLRB case was dropped.

The Obama Administration has also taken a variety of steps to implement Barack and Michelle Obama's preference for government employment over the private sector. For example, Obama has pressed to structure student loan programs to favor or subsidize public employment; in his 2010 State of the Union speech, he proposed, "let's tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years - and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service." In 2010, Obama's Labor Department launched a crackdown on - of all things - unpaid internships, but of course the crackdown extended only to private sector employers, incentivizing interns to seek work with the government instead. Taken together, these policies raise the cost of private employment, reduce avenues for young people to learn about working in the private sector, and subsidize public employment.

As for the lending side, remember the point about how the threat of a public option could be held as a gun to insurers' heads? Well, in 2010, Obama pulled the trigger in an analogous situation of student loans, eliminating the private sector lenders and having the government enter the business directly. Other companies that depend on the government's favor, this could be you next if you don't play ball.

D. Housing Policy and the Suburbs

Housing policy during the Obama Administration has necessarily been shaped by the aftermath of the 2006-08 crash in housing prices. Obama's policies have been redistributionist, in terms of trying to find ways to bail out homeowners who can't repay their mortgages, and the Administration enlisted the involuntary assistance of banks (with little success) in offering refinancings.

But the full scope of Obama's inclinations on housing - a subject long near and dear to him, given his close ties to Chicago housing-development figures like Valerie Jarrett, Tony Rezko and Allison Davis - requires consideration of his record as a State Senator and US Senator.

Obama was long a supporter of corporatist housing policies; indeed, one of the major factors in his rise within Illinois politics was his work, launched by a 1997 speech at First Chicago Bank:

Obama described a practical strategy for building on the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC, contained in the 1986 Tax Reform Act, plus federal, state and local funds and programs, to create new public-private development partnerships.

The LIHTC encouraged the partnerships needed to unite government officials and progressive nonprofit activists behind the cause of building thousands of new affordable-housing units, first on Chicago's poor South Side and then, as the movement spread, to similar neighborhoods across the nation.

...Obama's innovation was to expand the concept beyond simply building affordable apartments and high-rises. It encompassed a cradle-to-grave vision of providing for the material needs of the low-income families residing in the new housing, including their schools, child care, job training, medical coverage, clothing and food.

In turn, the residents would campaign and vote for the officials advocating the partnerships, adding significantly to their political power.

Left unstated was the underlying reality that politically connected developers who built the housing would profit handsomely and could be expected to gratefully give millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians like Obama who made it all possible.

Of course, over his time in Chicago, that's largely what happened: Obama was extensively supported, politically and financially, by the housing developers, ranging from Rezko being his first donor and helping him buy his own house, to Davis giving him his first job, to Obama's and his wife's long personal and professional alliance with Jarrett. In Washington, Obama was a major recipient of donations from the GSEs, and supported housing policies congruent with their interests.

Where do Obama's housing policies go next if he's re-elected? Stanley Kurtz, in a new book, has been promoting the bracing argument that a major part of Obama's second-term agenda will be a full-scale attack on suburbia. Here's the backdrop:

The community organizers who trained [Obama] in the mid-1980s blamed the plight of cities on taxpayer "flight" to suburbia. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Obama’s mentors at the Gamaliel Foundation (a community-organizing network Obama helped found) formally dedicated their efforts to the budding fight against suburban "sprawl." From his positions on the boards of a couple of left-leaning Chicago foundations, Obama channeled substantial financial support to these efforts. On entering politics, he served as a dedicated ally of his mentors' anti-suburban activism.

The alliance endures. One of Obama's original trainers, Mike Kruglik, has hived off a new organization called Building One America, which continues Gamaliel's anti-suburban crusade under another name.

Kurtz' thesis is sensitive enough to cause the White House to scrub its website of photos showing the President meeting with Kruglik at the White House. Kurtz cites a variety of urban-planning maneuvers designed to advance these goals through local legislation, and notes that advocates for them have been funded by grants from Obama's Sustainable Communities Initiative. But what could change is a proposal that appears to be still in the discussion stage: using the lever of federal funding to, yet again, dictate uniform state adoption of collectivist measures:

Obama's former community-organizing mentors and colleagues want the administration to condition future federal aid on state adherence to the recommendations served up by these anti-suburban planning commissions. That would quickly turn an apparently modest set of regional-planning grants into a lever for sweeping social change.

Kurtz hasn't connected the last dot to show that the Administration has yet signed off on such a plan, and it's unsurprising that it would not be advertised at a time when Obama is battling for suburban votes. But given his prior support for Kruglik's causes, such a move fits comfortably within the pattern of Obama's politics.

E. The BP Shakedown

Even outside the green jobs boondoggles and the Obama Administration preferring ethanol over other feuls, old-fashioned oil policy provides another example of Big Government/Big Business symbiosis like the Obamacare pharma deal, in which the Obama Administration used a corporation it had over a barrel to cover for its own mistakes. In 2010, the Obama Administration imposed a (totally unjustified) moratorium on offshore drilling in response to the BP oil spill. That left a lot of oil workers out of work - so the Administration pressured BP into setting up a $100 million fund to compensate the oil workers, even though (1) it was the government that had harmed them and (2) this did nothing for the (in some cases smaller) BP competitors whose rigs got shut down. This was simply a shakedown to cover the Adminsitration's mistakes, and was possible only because BP was a large enough company to absorb the cost and because the Administration had a lot of leverage over BP.

F. The Defense Sequester and the WARN Act

Recent weeks have given us yet another example of coercive corporatism at work, this one from an area - defense contracting - that has been rife with it from both parties dating back to the days when Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex. Lockheed and other major defense contractors face the risk of laying off thousands of employees as a result of budget cuts required by the sequestration process. Under the federal WARN Act, the contractors must give their workers advance notice of such anticipated layoffs or be held liable for damages - but because those notices would go out before the election, the Obama Labor Department has told the contractors not to send the notices, and that the government will cover their legal bills with taxpayer money. One hand washes the other: the contractors keep their primary customer happy, and Obama gets to use the taxpayers' money to buy off a potential electoral problem. The losers? The workers, the taxpayers, and the law.

The "military-industrial complex" provides services too vital to national defense to be rid of it. But that doesn't mean we can't find its operation distasteful and something not to be imitated in domestic policy - and here, we have an example of how having leaders who see nothing wrong with this kind of conduct in domestic policy degrades the military contracting relationship as well.

V. Conclusion

As I noted at the outset, corporatist tendencies are on some level unavoidable in modern government, and certainly the Republican party at both the national and state levels has engaged in corporatist excesses at times. A major part of the Tea Party movement has been about combatting that within the GOP. But the Tea Party has a constituency within the GOP because its mission is consistent with the opposition to collectivism and reduction in government interference in the economy that is necessary to pare back corporatism. Democrats may conduct sporadic fights against the surface corruption, but always come back to expanding the underlying system that produces it.

The pattern of behavior laid out above really only scratches the surface of the Administration's record - I'm not even touching here on complex areas like telecom and tech policy, or the status of other entities trapped either temporarily (like GM) or permanently in semi-public limbo, neither free private companies nor totally public - Amtrak, the Postal Service, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, etc. That pattern may look, at first glance, inconsistent. How can Obama be hostile to private enterprise, yet in bed with big business? Why is he sometimes operating through private companies, and sometimes through direct government action? But the point of a corporatist system is to retain governmental control, through private entities if possible, through government action if necessary. The more private businesses and semi-private "public private partnerships" are kept off-balance and wondering whose honey pot will be taken away next, the more incentive they have to keep donating, keep playing ball, and keep their objections to themselves. It's a highly sophisticated system, honed by years of experience in the operation of political machines, and it inevitably, quietly politicizes everything while stifling public dissent as it does so.

The Obama Administration's embrace of collectivism and corporatism at the expense of individual economic liberty, free markets and free institutions has been on a level unprecedented in the United States since at least the mid-1930s. This is not mere run-of-the-mill liberalism, much less "moderate" Democratic policy; it is a pattern and practice of undermining all the bulwarks we possess against thoroughgoing national politicization of the entire economy. Its defeat is the necessary first step in reclaiming space for free individuals, private enterprise, and the free associations that make up our communities - the American way of life.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)
October 16, 2012
POLITICS: Romney vs Obama, Round II

Realistically, very few presidential debates have the kind of clear-cut winner that the first Romney-Obama debate did. It's more productive to look at what each candidate came looking to accomplish.

Romney: Romney came in tonight with three main goals.

One, he wanted to repeat his strong showing from the first debate. He did that - he was vigorous, authoritative, and came across as the same technocratic moderate that he really is.

Two, he wanted to avoid any major gaffes that would foul up the momentum he has going. He did that, too. He never seemed stymied, never really put his foot in his mouth in a harmful way. Even when he bought into the false left-wing premise of a question on gender pay equity, he came away talking about his own experience hiring women in his cabinet (he might have mentioned his female running mate in Massachusetts as well).

Three, he wanted to go in for the kill. On that, Romney failed. He let Obama get away with some flagrant lies, like claiming that Planned Parenthood performs mammograms. He completely botched an obvious attack on Obama's disastrous and dishonest response on Libya, to the point where even moderator Candy Crowley - who was mostly running interference for Obama on this and on Fast & Furious - had to step in and remind Romney that Obama's Administration had been dishonest on Libya. Romney forced a confrontation on the facts on oil drilling - one the fact-checkers have to give him - but like John McCain in 2008, he seemed hesitant to really take the fight to Obama on more divisive issues.

It's true that Obama is now set up to be completely dismantled on Libya in the third debate, if Romney comes loaded for bear. But I suspect that by the time that debate arrives, nobody will be left undecided.

Obama: Obama also came in with goals, four of them.

First, Obama needed to show that he actually still wants the job. He did that - he was much more vigorous tonight, showing some fight and some indignation and squaring off in some true alpha-dog battles with Romney.

Second, Obama needed to give his partisans something to cheer for. He was late sometimes in doing so (especially waiting for his closing to attack Romney on the 47% tape) but did deliver.

Third, Obama needed to lay out something more like a positive second-term agenda. On this, he failed miserably. He has nothing to offer but a stew of "more of the same." Closing with the 47% attack really underlines the extent to which this is a campaign bereft of positive promise.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, Obama needed to strip the bark off Romney, convince the voters that he was in no way an acceptable alternative. And outside the choir, Obama really didn't seem to do that. He didn't dismantle Romney's agenda, he just disagreed with it. He basically denied the existence of the problems Romney cited on energy policy. Despite pre-debate preening on Romney's record in Massachusetts, Obama never attacked that record. And despite his heavy reliance to date on attacking Romney as a tax-hiker, Obama spent far more of the debate bashing tax cuts, leaving little doubt which candidate was the low-tax candidate.

Romney's strongest moments were two. One, he just buried Obama in response to an African-American man who declared himself a disheartened Obama '08 voter; Romney responded with a blistering indictment of Obama's economic record. And two, he offered a great answer on American competitiveness. He also came away with a good answer on immigration, albeit one that won't please many of his own primary supporters.

One more point: I think Romney did a much better job of remembering, as the debate wore on, that an audience of Long Islanders was not the real audience. Obama's attack on the NRA in particular is unlikely to play well in key swing states.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:54 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)
October 15, 2012
POLITICS: Have Obama and Biden Overinvested In The Middle Class Tax Argument?


Every campaign involves strategic choices about where to attack your opponent. One of the major points of attack leveled by the Obama-Biden campaign against Mitt Romney is the Democrats' claim that the Romney-Ryan tax plan would raise taxes on the middle class. There is evidence that this attack has done a good deal of damage to Romney, but it is beginning to look as if it is now blowing up in the Democrats' face at just the wrong time. There's a lesson there - similar to the lesson of the Democrats' 2004 obsession with George W. Bush's national guard service - about overplaying your hand in national elections.

The Romney Tax Plan: Rollout

As you may recall, Romney's original tax proposal called for keeping income tax rates where they were (basically, just making the Bush tax cuts permanent) while cutting taxes on business and investment (the corporate and capital gains taxes). Under fire from conservatives in the primary for not advancing a bolder pro-growth agenda, Romney rolled out a revised plan calling for a 20% reduction in rates across the board, to be offset by eliminating or reducing deductions. The plan's main emphasis is as much on simplifying the code as it is on cutting taxes - depending how the deductions are restructured, some upper-income taxpayers may see their taxes actually go up - but it is clearly also intended as a tax cut. Consistent with his message of restoring fiscal responsibility and to reassure deficit hawks, Romney simulataneously pledged that the tax plan would be revenue-neutral, that is, it would not reduce the government's overall revenues as compared to just leaving tax rates where they are.

Romney's handling of the tax plan, like so many aspects of his campaign, was less than a model of good political communication. Whereas George W. Bush in 2000 rolled out a detailed tax plan and made it the centerpiece of his campaign message, Romney offered only a framework of principles. Where even a bare-bones campaign like Herman Cain's had made 9-9-9 a household word, Romney spent the bulk of his time talking about the economy, spending, Medicare and regulation. If you followed the Romney campaign, its coverage in the mainstream media and the sympathetic precincts of conservative writers and talkers over the summer, you would not have come away with the conclusion that individual tax rates were a major focus of the campaign.

The Democrats Attack

Liberal pundits and the Obama campaign and saw things differently. The pundits, seeing the world solely through the lens of Joint Committee on Taxation budget scores, saw an opportunity to argue that it was not possible for a tax plan to be revenue-neutral if it cut rates, ever, under any conceivable circumstance. This is an old familiar liberal argument, and it's one on which the battle lines are extremely entrenched: conservatives argue that tax cuts can produce economic growth that offsets the reduction in nominal tax rates, liberals basically argue that it's impossible to estimate the amount of growth - or argue that such growth is illusory - and issue budget scores that don't account for the possibility. (Personally, I've long thought that all sides are way too quick to treat future projections as "facts" when in actuality they are just projections, based on easily-gamed assumptions; there are never any consequences for the CBO, the JCT or the think tanks if their projections don't pan out in the real world). That topic is beyond the scope of one blog post to resolve; the point is that simply arguing that Romney's tax cuts would add to the deficit would have been the usual and expected line of attack.

But the Obama camp had to go one step further: relying almost entirely on a report from a liberal think tank (the Tax Policy Center), Obama's campaign argued that because Romney (1) had pledged to keep his plan revenue-neutral and (2) was proposing broad outlines that TPC did not believe would be revenue-neutral, he would need to come up with additional revenue somewhere, and the result would be (3) a hidden, super-secret Romney plan to raise taxes on the middle class. Never mind that Romney had never discussed anything of the sort, or that no Republican Administration would survive proposing such a thing, or that no Republican Congress would ever vote it into law; armed with the fig leaf of the TPC's study, Obama could claim that Romney really planned to raise taxes by some $2,000 on middle class families.

The attack was rolled out in scores of TV ads across Ohio and other battleground states claiming, as if it were a fact, that Romney planned to raise taxes on the middle class. Here's Joe Biden angrily asking how Romney could justify such a plan:

To give the Obama campaign credit, this was an incredibly audacious assault, like Hannibal crossing the Alps: Republicans, long accustomed to pressing for tax cuts at every level of government and getting pushback from tax-hiking Democrats, never expected or planned for a counterargument that their candidate was actually more pro-tax-hikes than Barack Obama (an attack that was also coordinated with the attacks on Romney's own tax returns). It was obvious that the Romney campaign was caught by surprise and blindsided by this attack, and slow to respond to it, with damaging results:

Over the past couple of months, the Obama campaign has unleashed a barrage of TV ads that contain the same specific and potent attack: Mitt Romney will raise taxes on middle class families by $2,000 in order to cut taxes for the rich. The claim is false, but the Romney campaign hasn't really responded.

And the attacks have been working. As the Wall Street Journal reported on September 17: "At least four polls in recent weeks have found Mr. Obama holding an edge over Mr. Romney on who would best handle the issue of taxes." The Romney campaign's pollster Neil Newhouse told reporters last week that Obama's advantage on the tax issue is simply a function of Obama's convention bounce. But Romney actually lost his edge on taxes before the conventions. "A Gallup poll in late August found Mr. Obama holding a nine-point lead on the issue of taxes, after Mr. Romney led in July," the Journal noted.

This was one of the major reasons why Romney looked like he was on the ropes by early September following the Democratic convention. A Republican candidate who doesn't have the edge on keeping taxes low is no Republican at all; it's the single most unifying issue in the entire party, running across every ideological and demographic faction and every geographic region. People vote Republican so they can keep more of what they earn.

The Attack Backfires

In politics, as in war, audacity in the attack can produce every general's dream: the coup de main or "shock and awe" assault that paralyzes, overruns and demoralizes the opposition. The problem is, it can also involve outrunning your supply lines, leaving you overextended, isolated and surrounded. Hannibal, after all, lost the war. And Obama may now be facing a similar problem.

At the policy-wonk level, the TPC study has been shot full of holes, resulting in the need for numerous backtracking revisions. (See here, here, here, here, and here). And it's also given the Romney campaign the opportunity to point out why Obamacare's tax hikes plus Obama's spending record mean that Obama remains the high-taxes candidate.

That battle is obviously still underway, but here's the thing: voters can listen to the he-said-she-said of dueling economic experts, and are likely to tune them out. But Obama's side of this argument has five basic problems that run deeper than any think tank study can fix.

One, it depended on voters only hearing one side of the story. Romney has finally started running ads fighting back, and an enormous audience of over 70 million people were confronted with Romney in the debate stating flatly that "[m]y view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class...I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families. I will lower taxes on middle-income families. " And far worse for Obama, the President had to explain that he wasn't talking about something Romney had actually proposed, but was relying on studies interpreting Romney's plan and assuming what he would do if it didn't work: "independent studies looking at this said the only way to meet Governor Romney's pledge of not reducing the deficit or -- or -- or not adding to the deficit is by burdening middle-class families. The average middle-class family with children would pay about $2,000 more."

Obama can argue until he's blue in the face that his magic decoder ring lets him tell you what Romney is really planning to do, but historically, voters tend to assume that while politicians may or may not keep their promises, they are still usually a better guide to their own proposals than their opponents. All Romney has to do is show up at the debates and explain that he has no intention of raising taxes on the middle class, and people are apt to suspect that maybe Obama had been selling them a bill of goods on the issue. And after four years of Obama's promises and claims, he doesn't have a ton of remaining credibility with the voters to spend on this.

Two, it's counterintuitive. It's easy for Republicans to be sincere about not wanting to raise taxes, because Republicans exist to keep taxes low, and everybody knows that Romney is surrounded by Republicans who have pledged to oppose tax hikes. Even the now-notorious 47% video shows Romney painting the electorate as a contest between taxpayers and non-taxpayers, and taking the side of the taxpayers, while Joe Biden is out there proudly touting how Obama will raise a trillion dollars in new taxes by letting the Bush tax cuts expire. When people stop to listen to the candidates, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the last thing Romney or Ryan would sign off on is a big middle-class tax hike.

Three, it's the harder argument to make. Romney, having proposed a framework, just has to demonstrate that it's possible to design a tax plan that could end up being revenue-neutral at lower rates. Obama has the burden of proving that it is not possible under any circumstances, and moreover that Romney actually believes it's not possible under any circumstances, and that Romney would respond to that problem with a middle-class tax hike rather than by scaling back the tax cuts or accepting at least a short-term revenue shortfall before he can convince anyone that there's a secret plan to raise taxes on the middle class. If even one part of Obama's argument is less than 100% certain - or even if voters just think there's a good-faith disagreement among economists - the whole contraption collapses.

Four, it's the pessimistic argument, and you never want to be the guy making the pessimistic argument. Obama is stuck making the assertion that Romney's plan won't work because it projects economic growth that's just impossible. But the last place the President wants to be right now is telling the voters to forget about economic growth. Romney is proposing doing something different from what Washington is doing right now, and the more the two sides grapple over the tax plan, the more voters are apt to grasp that fact and wonder if maybe a different approach to the one we have now might help.

Five, it's out of character for Romney. Romney's many changes in his positions over the years make him easy to tag as a flip-flopper, yet Obama has tried instead to paint him as a rigid ideological extremist, a transparently false picture. Romney's proposals are even advertised as, more or less, starting points for negotiation with Congress. He is absolutely the last guy who is going to take on the suicide mission of proposing a massively unpopular middle-class tax hike out of an inflexible refusal to alter his campaign platform. Voters who take the measure of the man will recognize that even if they don't trust his word.


The lesson here is that good tactics don't always make good strategy, and campaigns built on a fiction can only survive if they have money and time advantages working against exposure of that fiction. To the extent that Obama's lead in August and September was built on winning the argument against middle-class tax hikes, it was bound to evaporate if the voters came to realize that Romney was not actually running on a platform of middle-class tax hikes. Obama's challenge now is to decide whether he is going to spend yet another debate Tuesday night trying to put the Humpty Dumpty of the tax hike argument back together again, or move on to something more plausible. If it turns out that the voters on Election Day don't believe Romney is trying to jack up their taxes, Obama may look back and wonder if perhaps he spent a whole lot of time and money trying to get an argument off the ground that turned out to be yet another overweight, flightless bird.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 4:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
October 11, 2012
POLITICS: Now This Was an MSNBC Debate

Chris Matthews, in his epic post-debate meltdown after the Romney-Obama debate, had the most telling line: "this was not an MSNBC debate." Matthews and other liberals were particularly upset that Mitt Romney had managed to actually speak uninterrupted, occasionally running over his time and requesting opportunities to respond to things Obama said (although the final tally showed Obama spoke for 4 more minutes than Romney, owing largely to his "umms.").

Tonight was a different animal. Joe Biden came in with one game plan: don't let voters hear a word Paul Ryan said. The post-debate count circulated by the RNC showed Biden interrupting Ryan 82 times. He was often loud enough that it was hard to hear Ryan speak, and Ryan was frequently cut off before he could finish his answers. On the rare occasions Ryan spoke without being interrupted, Biden laughed, snorted, grinned (even when discussing serious subjects like war and abortion), or at a minimum immediately declared that everything Ryan said was a lie. Biden even shouted at moderator Martha Raddatz and called her a liar too, telling her she wasn't "being straight" with him.

It appears from the immediate post-debate reaction that this performance was what liberal supporters of the Administration wanted: use the heckler's veto, don't let the other guy finish his sentences. It made Al Gore's famous eye-rolling and sighing performance look like an Oxford debate. Raddatz did - with one cringe-inducing exception at the end - put in a good set of questions, but she failed at what I regard as Job One of a moderator, which is to prevent interruptions from letting the candidates talk.

It's hard to evaluate the substance of the debate beyond the constant interruptions (I did think Ryan did a good job of remaining civil, polite and mostly cheerful through the whole spectacle). Ryan got off to a rough start the first question or two, which should have been golden opportunities to fillet the Administration's dishonesty on Libya; he got in some shots, but let Biden distract him by giving rambling answers that packed in everything from Iraq to Afghanistan to bin Laden. After that, Ryan settled in and was the same Ryan we've seen so many times, patiently jousting with hostile questioners on hostile turf.

Biden, of course, told a battery of bald-faced lies, as expected (he pretended not to have voted for the Afghan and Iraq wars and Medicare Part D, and gave an absurdly dishonest rendering of the HHS mandate). That may not hurt him, but he may be more hurt by his complete failure to (1) make any sort of positive case for the Administration's economic record or (2) offer any solutions to anything besides tax hikes, tax hikes and even more tax hikes.

The debate was again short on social issues. Of note, however, was that even Joe Biden couldn't and wouldn't defend the nonsense idea that an unborn child is not a human being.

Biden's main job tonight was to find a way to change the narrative the past week that followed the last debate. With the broader media and independent voters, I doubt he did. With the liberal base, though, at least his adamant refusal to let Ryan finish a sentence gave them something to cheer for. So, for Joe Biden, a modest win, but perhaps a Pyrrhic one.

Ryan's job was to look and sound presidential, which of course is hard to do sitting down and also hard to do when you are in the equivalent of an argument with a loud drunk at a bar. And the heavy focus on foreign affairs meant he was mostly not playing on the turf he favors. But I think the average TV viewer at home saw a guy who had plans and answers, and kept his cool, and on one occasion - when he referred to Biden being "under duress" to make up for Obama's bad debate performance - let the viewers in on what was going on.

The wild card, as always, is undecided voters. On the question of which side has actual solutions and can get things done on a bipartisan basis when needed, though, it should be clear. Romney and Ryan are defending plans and proposals - even those that are not 100% fleshed out - because they have plans and proposals. Ryan scored a particularly big hit with his account of having the CBO tell him they couldn't score Obama's plan because it was just a speech (a chronic issue during last year's debt ceiling negotiations). Bill Clinton got re-elected in large part because he made deals that gave Republicans things of lasting value they actually wanted (welfare reform, DOMA, later a capital gains tax cut). Obama never offers anything of the sort, and that's why Biden had nothing to sell in terms of a competing narrative on that score. I have to have faith that voters who are not with the GOP down the line noticed that difference.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:05 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
October 10, 2012
POLITICS: What To Look For In The VP Debate


Thursday's VP debate in Louisville - Muhammad Ali's old home town - promises to be riveting TV, even if the absence of Sarah Palin means that, unlike in 2008, it's unlikely that the VP debate will outdraw the presidential debates for ratings. On the Republican side, expectations are running high: Paul Ryan is a master of verbal combat, and hopes are high that he can build on Mitt Romney's TKO of President Obama in the first debate. On the Democratic side, the pressure is on Vice President Biden to break the Romney-Ryan ticket's recent momentum. Here's what to watch for.

Who's Ready For Prime Time? Ryan has a long record of winning debates on the cable networks, disarming hostile interviewers and even dressing down the President face to face; he won't be shy about going after the VP. But a stand-up one-on-one debate with canned topics and time limits is a new format for him, and may not play to his strengths the way a more free-for-all format does, plus he needs to look presidential. Biden, on the other hand, is a highly experienced debater, a veteran of two presidential runs who came to the Senate during the Nixon years. But he may be rusty (as noted yesterday, Ryan has done 197 interviews since joining the ticket; Biden has done just a lone print interview in that time and hasn't answered questions on camera since the spring Meet the Press interview where he went off-script and ended up forcing President Obama prematurely to state a position on same-sex marriage). His propensity for gaffes and extravagant fabulism is legendary. And Biden will be 70 next month; he may not be as quick on his feet as he used to be. We'll get a sense early on of which of them is on their game.

Playing Two Different Games: Jonathan Last aptly describes Biden as "an asymmetric opponent" - i.e., he may not even try to engage Ryan on Ryan's turf of arguing on a macro level about the budget, taxes, the operation of entitlement programs and economic growth and competitiveness. Look for Biden to counter in two ways: go small, by emoting and telling individual voters' stories, and change the subject to social issues and foreign affairs (Ryan's no neophyte on the latter - he's been in Congress through the Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya wars and the many debates in between - but it's not his main area of expertise).

Ryan's district, and even his family, have often leaned Democratic, so he knows how to play on the turf of Biden's more-blue-collar-than-thou shtick. But he needs to stay on his message and not let Biden throw him completely off the subject of the unsustainable economic and fiscal picture under President Obama.

Bait and Switch? I referred to this in my preview of the first debate - Biden may well leave Ryan himself largely alone and force him to defend against personal and record attacks on Romney over his wealth, taxes, Bain, Romneycare, flip-flopping, etc. Then again, attacking the more conservative Ryan may be too tempting for Biden to pass up, especially if the Obama campaign sticks with its obvious view that this election is a base-turnout contest.


Tall Tale Time: Biden can also confound Ryan's intense preparedness on the facts by his facility for just plain making stuff up, as streiff has previously detailed. Bill Clinton may be the best liar in politics, but Clinton's lies - however brazen - were and are usually calculating enough that you could see them coming and try to prepare for them. Biden's a different animal completely; he gets rolling, and the next thing you know, the Germans have bombed Pearl Harbor. He makes up pure blarney with a free-flowing creativity that defies preparation, like this notorious piece of alternative history from his debate with Palin:

When we kicked -- along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, "Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know -- if you don't, Hezbollah will control it."

Now what's happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.

If you're wondering when the U.S. and France joined forces to drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon, rest assured that you didn't miss something - nothing like that ever happened. But Biden's been in DC so long and says this sort of thing off the top of his head with such bravado, it could be easy for Ryan to miss the opportunity to debunk it if he's stuck scratching his head trying to figure out what Biden could possibly be talking about.

The Ghost of Biden Past: Biden has his own vulnerabilities, and Ryan may try to exploit them. Just in the past two weeks, we had Biden on the campaign trail saying that the middle class had been "buried" under Obama and that he and Obama were planning a trillion dollars in tax hikes after the election. There's also an under-exploited one, albeit a line that could be a double-edged sword: when Biden brags about getting Osama bin Laden, Ryan could drill him on the fact that Biden himself reportedly opposed the operation (the downside is that this makes the no-brainer decision sound like Obama actually had a hard choice to make). There's a much longer record there to work from, and while most of it seems like ancient history (especially since Biden's not the president), a choice shot or two at things Biden himself has said and done over the years could put him in an unaccustomed defensive posture.

Moderation In Moderation? Democrats were vocal after the first debate about Jim Lehrer's failure to protect Obama from Romney - and himself - by (1) not cutting off the candidates when their answers ran long and (2) not asking tough followups to Romney. There will be intense pressure on moderator Martha Raddatz to go after Ryan, or at least cut him off. My own view is that the main jobs of a debate moderator are to prevent the candidates from interrupting each other, ask questions pointed enough to get them to disagree with each other, but otherwise "let 'em play." We'll see if Raddatz tries to make herself more of a story than the aging Lehrer did.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:00 PM | Politics 2012 | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: Married to the Media

When conservatives and Republicans talk about media bias, this is one of the things we have in mind. It happens on both sides, of course, but far, far more frequently with Democrats.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:38 AM | Politics 2012 | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)
October 9, 2012
POLITICS: Gravity Hits The Obama Campaign

This is a must-read Sean Trende column on why Obama's bandwagon strategy has demanded that he remain in the lead at every point in the campaign. I've been saying for months now that Obama's fundraising in particular - and even moreso, his ability to deter Romney from raising money from business - was hugely dependent on convincing business interests that Obama's regulators would still be calling the shots after the election and they should not feel safe about going all-in to be rid of him. This is also why Obama's team has gone nuclear in its attacks on individual polls that show cracks in his armor, moreso even than usual for political campaigns and much, much moreso than usual for campaigns that are ahead in most of the polls. The same goes for Obama's ability to draw huge turnout from young voters and other traditionally low-turnout groups.

Today's battery of good polling news for Romney (including a boost from Gallup switching from a registered-voter to likely-voter model) is far from proof that Romney will win the election, but it is a blow to the overwhelming narrative leading into the first debate that the race had already been won by Obama, and that any skepticism of polls assuming an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate was conspiracy-level crackpottery. At last check, the liberal-run TPM polling average had Romney up by 2.8 points, a wider lead than the 2.5 point lead was showing. The state-by-state polling may not be entirely caught up yet, but it usually lags; John McCain was clinging to swing-state polling for weeks after he fell behind for good in the big national trackers.

Republicans have been saying for weeks that this was still a close race. Today, the polls caught up to that. Obama may yet win, but he can no longer do so just by projecting inevitability, running out the clock and letting the media bury any story that threatened to help Romney under horse race coverage. Obama and Biden have been ducking tough questions - Obama does interviews on The View and music and sports radio, while dodging the White House press corps; since joining the ticket, Paul Ryan has done 197 interviews, while Biden in the same time has done 1. You can run like that when you're way ahead; you can't if you actually need to get a positive message of your own out.

There are three debates left to go (including the VP debate), which will let a national audience judge the campaigns for themselves, and despite Democratic dissatisfaction with Jim Lehrer's refusal to act as a gatekeeper running interference against Romney, it's unlikely that the moderators of the remaining debates can protect Obama and Biden from having to win those debates on their own.

POLITICS/BASEBALL: D vs R, Yankees vs Mets

Once every four years, I have a little fun crossing the baseball and politics streams by writing a post noting that the Hated Yankees have prospered far better in the World Series under Democratic than Republican presidents - in fact, they haven't won a World Series with a Republican in the White House since 1958. Counting since 1921 (their first pennant), the Yankees are 20-3 in the World Series in 42 postseasons of Democratic Administrations, but just 7-10 in the World Series in 48 years of Republican Administrations. On the whole, the Yankees under Democratic presidents have won the World Series (20 times) more often than they've missed the postseason (14 times), compared to 7 championships and 26 Octobers at home during Republican presidencies. They've gone 0 for the last five GOP Administrations while failing to bring home a championship on the watch of only one Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson.

Here's a chart - I classified the postseasons by who was President in October (Nixon resigned in August, Harding and FDR died in the spring, JFK was killed in November) and left out 1994, when Buck Showalter's Yankees had the best record in the American League when the strike hit, and 2012, since the postseason's just started:

HW BushR40000--04
W BushR802213471

The Mets, sadly, have not even appeared in enough postseasons to be worth doing a similar analysis- their total is a World Championship (1969) and a World Series loss (1973) under Nixon, a World Championship (1986) and an LCS loss (1988) under Reagan, a Division Series loss (1999) and a World Series loss (2000) under Clinton, and an LCS loss (2006) under George W. Bush. But if you compare regular season records:

HW BushR0.505
W BushR0.503

A pretty clear inverse of the Yankees pattern, although much like the GOP, while falling short of the big prize the Mets had a good second half of the Clinton years under Bobby Valentine (the Newt Gingrich of baseball managers), and like the GOP the Mets had terrible months in October 2006 and September 2008.

October 4, 2012
POLITICS: More Than 67 Million People Watched Last Night's Debate


How important was last night's Romney-Obama debate, which nearly everyone agrees was a lopsided win for Romney? Time will tell. But one thing we can know for sure is that it was, by far, the most-watched event of the 2012 campaign.

The importance of debates is itself endlessly debated, and you can't really tell the role of the debates in a race except with hindsight. We can watch the polls, but of course there will also be other factors at work on those - more debates, ads, external events. Certainly the conventional wisdom that Romney won had the immediate impacts of (1) breaking the media narrative that everything was going against Romney and (2) giving Republicans something to cheer for and cause for optimism, and that alone is worth something in a business where perceptions can become realities. (One of the most consequential debates was the Ford-Carter debate in 1976 that featured Ford's Poland gaffe; veterans of the Ford campaign believe to this day that the gaffe broke momentum that might have carried a surging Ford to victory in a close race).

But unlike perceptions, the size of the TV audience is a hard fact. More than 58 million people watched last night's 90-minute debate on the broadcast TV networks and cable news networks, a number that "does not include coverage on PBS, Univision, C-SPAN, the cable business networks or online." (UPDATED: the final number is actually 67.2 million). That compares to the 130 million people who voted in the 2008 election (120 million in 2004) - an audience roughly half the size of the electorate. That's way, way more people for more time than any TV ad can reach. And it's much, much larger than the audience for the conventions: Obama's convention speech drew 35.7 million viewers, compared to 30.3 million for Romney's speech, 26.2 million for Michelle Obama, 25.1 million for Bill Clinton, and 21.9 million for Paul Ryan.

The first 2008 debate between Obama and McCain was watched by 52.4 million people, but that debate was on a Friday night; the second debate drew an audience of 63.2 million. The most-watched debate in 2008 was actually the vice presidential debate, owing to the ratings draw of Sarah Palin, 69.9 million viewers, the largest audience since 70 million people watched one of the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates in 1992. While the Kennedy-Nixon debate remains the most-watched by audience share, the single largest debate audience remains the sole Reagan-Carter debate in 1980, which drew 80.6 million viewers. That debate had an enormous impact, if you believe the polls showing that Reagan was all but tied going into the debate and won the race by 8 points; the debate was the only one that year, it was a week before Election Day, and the 80 million viewers compares to 85 million people who voted in that election, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the voters had seen the debate.

A good showing in the debates is important to Romney because October is typically the month when the race tightens, and depending how you read the polls (a whole separate story), this race is already pretty tight by historical standards. Jay Cost looked at this yesterday, using the Gallup polls going back to 1968. (Gallup's may not be the most accurate polls, but they are rarely way off base and usually good for spotting trends, plus they have the advantage of a much longer historical track record to compare than any other pollster's). Even with growing polarization and early voting, he noted that exit polls showed anywhere from 22-31% of voters in the last 4 elections made up their minds after October 1, more than enough to swing a competitive race.

If you look at the numbers Cost cites comparing the latest Gallup poll at the start of October to the final result, of the 9 races he examines (7 of which featured an incumbent on the ballot, and two a sitting vice president; his chart excludes 1988 and 2008, neither of which involved an incumbent but one of which involved a sitting VP*), Cost found October swings for the incumbent party (which was trailing in the polls in each case) in 1968, 1976 & 1992, an average swing of 11.7 points. He found October swings against the incumbent party (which was leading in the polls in each case except being tied in 1980) in 1972, 1980, 1984, 1996, 2000, and 2004, an average swing of 8.7 points, and of course two of those (Carter in 1980 and Gore in 2000) lost the election. The five incumbents since 1972 who led or tied in the start-of-October Gallup poll went from an average lead of 17.5 points to an average margin of victory of 8.3 points, dropping 9 points in the polls. Obama has led by 4-6 points in the Gallup polls the first few days of October (it's four points as of today). If he suffers something on the order of the 9-point average loss that hit other incumbents who led entering October, he loses. This is why it's whistling past the graveyard for spinning Democrats today to note the bad initial debate showings by Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004 - Bush had an 11-point lead and won the election by 2 points, while Reagan had a 26 point lead and even his final landslide victory was a good deal smaller than that. Obama's margin for error is much, much smaller.

The only incumbents who gained ground in October were George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Ford in 1976 - they made up average of 10 points by Election Day but still lost - and in both cases the voters had already given the somewhat nationally unknown Democratic challenger a big lead (Ford had been more than 30 points back at one point), and were getting a certain amount of buyer's remorse. But absent that, voters traditionally don't get more enthused about an incumbent in the last month of the race.

* - Those two races, unlike the other nine, featured a leader with a modest lead who pulled away down the stretch. Bush led Dukakis by 5, 47-42, but ended up winning by 7, 53-46; Obama led McCain by 3 with registered voters, 48-42, but also ended up winning by 7, 53-46.

There are still two more debates to go, plus the vice presidential debate. We don't know yet how they will play out, but we know that a lot more people watched the first one than anything else that's happened in this race. Given the historical trends, it's foolish in the extreme for the Obama camp to take lightly the possibility that a lot of voters can still turn against him before Election Day.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:30 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)
BASEBALL: Dickey Rises Above

RA Dickey this season finished 20-6 for a 74-88 team: 14 over .500 for a team that was 14 under. How unusual is that accomplishment? I ran through the past century looking for examples, focusing on pitchers who (1) won 15 or more games and (2) finished 5 or more games over .500 (3) for a team that was below .500 when they didn't pitch. I came up with 73 75 examples; I'm sure there are more I missed, but I think I got the major ones. The chart below is ranked by multiplying the pitcher's number of games above .500 by the team's number of games below .500 the rest of the time ("x"); the "TOT" column adds the two:

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October 2, 2012
POLITICS: Debate Advice for Romney & Obama


Allow me to remedy the nation's critical shortage of advice for the participants in the presidential debates that kick off with Wednesday's Obama-Romney debate. Below, a few suggested do's and don'ts for each of the two candidates.

Advice for Romney

I've watched Romney debate a lot (although this will be the first presidential debate where I'll be rooting for him rather than against him - it's kind of like the feeling I had when Tom Glavine joined the Mets, hopefully with a better ending). On the whole, Romney is about average as a debater. On the plus side, he's smart, aggressive and basically shameless - a little like John Kerry without the pomposity (aggressiveness in debate was one of Kerry's few positives as a candidate) - and not easily rattled. On the negative side, he's not very flexible/improvisational (he tends to stick to his game plan, other than the time he offered Rick Perry a $10,000 bet) and he will never be Mr. Empathy. Which leads to...


Get Obama's Goat: The first rule of presidential debates is that how the candidates come across usually ends up mattering a lot more than what they say (absent a colossal gaffe; the only debate gaffe that may arguably have swung a presidential race was Ford's Poland gaffe in 1976). The most famous example is JFK winning the televised debate with Nixon when the people who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. But there are many others: Dukakis' cold-fish affect when answering the death penalty question in 1988, George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992, Al Gore's audible sighs in 2000.

And one of the first corollaries of that rule is that the first guy to get mad loses. Obama has lived in a bubble most of his political career, and never moreso than the past two years, avoiding any venue where he might be challenged with difficult questions or forced to discuss subjects he doesn't want to address. And historically, he gets prickly when he's challenged. Romney should do everything he can to get under Obama's skin, from communicating subtly and unsubtly his lack of personal respect for Obama to challenging his knowledge and truthfulness. It's more important to puncture Obama's cool than for Romney to pull his punches trying to look friendly and agreeable.

Debate Like A Boss: Let's face it: Romney's not a particularly likeable, relatable guy, and he's not going to become one 34 days from Election Day. I've long thought that Romney's closing argument about himself had to be kind of a cross between Hyman Roth's boast that he always made money for his partners and Danny DeVito's speech in Other People's Money ("I'm not your best friend...I'm your only friend...and you might make a few bucks for yourself."). He's the guy who knows how business works, who takes charge and makes the tough decisions, and he should send the message that he came to do just that.

Here's a point from The Transom that Ben Domenech and I had kicked around as a suggestion for a way for Romney to tie together that attitude with an approach that would be guaranteed to get under Obama's skin:

"In the private sector, one of the things I did was invest in companies. I learned a lot about how jobs are created, but I also learned a lot about leadership. One of the things I had to do when we got involved with a company was evaluate its leadership and see if it needed a change. And let me tell you, if I got involved with a company that was losing money and jobs hand over fist and piling up debt like there was no tomorrow, and I found out the CEO had been in the job four years and still spent most of his time blaming his predecessor and his co-workers, I'd fire him and get somebody in there who could get results." A response like this, besides being one virtually guaranteed to tick off Obama, makes the whining look petty and small. But it would also do something else, too: workers of all types, but particularly blue-collar workers, resent the idea of the incompetent senior management which survives pain while they bear the brunt of it. Romney should do his utmost to speak for those who demand accountability and turn his negative role as one of the suits into an advantage.

Don't Get Mad, Get Even: Continuing in this vein, candidates who complain about negative ads come off as losers. But Romney also has an opportunity he needs to take to set the record straight as to some of the more outrageous falsehoods being thrown at him, ranging from the delusional fabulist claim that he intends to raise taxes on the middle class to the ads blaming him for things done at Bain Capital after he'd left to run the Olympics.

Here, too, how you say it matters. The better approach is to acknowledge that he's a big boy and negative ads come with the territory - but that the voters deserve to be told the truth.

I Question Your Premise: Similarly, conservatives and Republicans - myself included - spend a lot of time beating up the media for bias, but it comes off poorly when the candidates themselves complain about it in general terms. But as Newt Gingrich demonstrated during the primary debates, it's another story when confronted with an obviously loaded/slanted line of questioning. Romney will never have Newt's facility for doing this, but he should enter ready to pick on a question or two that strike him as especially outrageous, and use it to force discussion of some issue Obama doesn't want to get into.

Four More Years? Romney this week has been hitting what I think has to be the core of his closing argument about the election as a whole, which is more about Obama than Romney: the country can't afford four more years of this. No matter what else Obama throws out there as a distraction, Romney needs to keep bringing it back to the actual record of the past four years and the extreme unlikelihood that anything's going to improve if we give Obama four more - and communicate a certain incredulity at the idea that anybody could consider the past four years a good record or something they'd want more of. He should not try to steal Reagan's "there you go again" line, which will look transparent - but he absolutely should ask Reagan's equally famous and perennially relevant question: are you better off now than you were four years ago? The beauty of the question is, the voters and not the politicians or the media get to have the final answer.

Advice for Obama

Obama's greatest weakness as a debater is the contrast to his soaring rhetoric on the stump, and of course he's rusty. That said, his debates with McCain were some of the better debates in recent memory. He may be full of silly ideas, but he's not stupid. Aside from the obvious need to keep his cool, stay on script and not have another "you didn't build that"/"spread the wealth around" moment that inadvertently reveals his actual thinking, here are some of the things he'd be wise to consider entering this debate.


Stick to The Issues: Obama has run much of his campaign away from the issues, in particular focusing fire on Romney's business career, taxes and wealth. But focusing on those points in the debate could be a disastrous error. First, as we saw throughout the Republican debates, Romney is at his weakest when debating public policy; he's at his strongest and most vigorous when defending his own business career. Second, Obama's invested a huge amount of money in unanswered negative ads on Romney's biography; it would be a colossal error to give Romney the chance to rebut those in free airtime in front of an audience of tens of millions of voters.

Tag Team: Romney is well-prepped to defend his business career and he knows what he wants to say about issues like Romneycare and the auto bailout. Paul Ryan will come well-prepared to defend his own plans in Congress. The wise approach is to switch: make Romney defend Ryan's plans, many of which he's not nearly as comfortable with or prepared to address, and have Biden make Ryan defend Romneycare, which he obviously loathes, and Mitt's taxes.

That said, the spectacle of Romney defending Romneycare is one that always puts a drag on GOP base enthusiasm, and is probably too tempting a target to pass up.

Leave The Straw Men Home: Obama has few more unappealing characteristics than his tendency to sneer at straw man caricatures of everyone who disagrees with him. "You didn't build that" and "bitter clingers" came out of that sort of thing, as have a number of his other gaffes. Romney's 47% line has given the most divisive partisan occupant of the Oval Office in memory a fig leaf to try to rebuild his tattered reputation as an above-the-fray guy, but the minute he starts painting everyone who criticizes him as racists, extremists, ignoramuses, etc., he'll remind people why they were so sick of him by 2010.

Forget George Bush: Everybody's opinions about Bush are cast in concrete by now. The excuse-making is unpresidential and opens up precisely the kind of rejoinder from Romney I noted above. At some point, it's just counterproductive.

Leave General Motors Alone: The Obama campaign has told a fairly compelling story about General Motors: Romney wanted it to go out of business, but Obama kept it out of bankruptcy and saved the company. The problem is, the narrative doesn't survive contact with the facts: Romney argued for a bankruptcy restructuring, Obama poured billions into the company and couldn't avoid a bankruptcy restructuring anyway: on June 1, 2009, the company filed one of the largest bankruptcies in American history. And the GM saga is right in Romney's wheelhouse - it lets him talk about business as a businessman. He's the son of a car-company CEO; he knows this stuff inside and out and should be ready to tear the Obama story to ribbons (recall that the bailout was unpopular, not because people wanted GM to fail but because the government picked winners and losers in the bailout and let a lot of other companies go without similar bailouts). Obama may be forced onto this turf, but it is not where he should want to go.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)