Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Elsewhere: ACA, Cruz, Post-Policy

Today I have a post over at PP about the ACA, implementation, and public opinion.

Yesterday at PP I had a fun one about "How to be Ted Cruz." Alas, it sort of got lost because Jennifer Rubin posted her Ted Cruz slam at almost exactly the same time.

At Plum Line yesterday, I wrote about post-policy Republicans and the debt limit.

Oh, and at Salon over the weekend, another one about term limits, focused a little more on why it keeps coming back.

And I'm just going to add: I've been enjoying the last two months of Watergate blogging, but I'm really, really, ready for things to calm down a bit finally.

Oy, Fournier

A president is in trouble when he’s forced to defend his relevancy, as Bill Clinton did 18 years ago, or to quote Mark Twain, as Barack Obama did today. “Rumors of my demise,” he said at a news conference, “may be a little exaggerated at this point.”

Not wrong – just “exaggerated.” Not forever – just “at this point.”

Parsing aside, Obama channeled Clinton’s April 18, 1995 news conference by projecting a sense of helplessness – or even haplessness – against forces seemingly out of a president’s control...

“So my question to you,” ABC reporter Jonathan Karl asked Obama, “is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through Congress?”

Ouch. “Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan,” Obama quipped, “maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.” Then he quoted the humorist Twain, who once denied his death....
[T]he president risks losing the public’s faith when he waves the white flag too often, especially on problems that can be fixed. Blaming the GOP and larger structural problems don’t help the country, much less his legacy.
Interesting theory! If only we could find a way to test it.

Oh, wait -- I know.  We can look it up and see what happened.

When Clinton was supposedly projecting helplessness, Gallup was in the middle of a poll, and he scored a fairly weak 46% approval rating. Did his widely-reported press conference destroy him? Was it a disaster for him to "wave the white flag too often" leading to his "losing the public's faith"? Uh, no. Actually, his approval was already up from the winter lows, and spiked up more after the Oklahoma City bombing, although that was short-lived. So it basically stayed in that same range through the summer, and then gradually started improving that fall, and didn't stop improving until he became a very popular second-term president.

Oh, and along the way he was emerged victorious in a months-long budget battle with a Republican Congress.

What Fournier may be remembering is that a lot of reporters jumped on Clinton's press conference remarks to write his obituary. What he's not remembering is that those reporters were dead wrong. It turned out that Clinton was in fact relevant; it turned out that reporters who were pressing him were the ones who misunderstood the situation.

(Bonus feature: Fournier refers to John Boehner as "far less charismatic" than Newt Gingrich. I don't really know what charismatic means, but whatever the case is with Boehner, Newt Gingrich is unusually good at making himself very unpopular with most voters. Although there are will always be some reporters who buy his snake oil).

There's sort of a confusion of terms here, anyway. It does matter, per Neustadt (and I think he's right), what Members of Congress and other "Washingtonians" think about the president's negotiating abilities. It doesn't matter, however, what the public at large think, since they're not the ones negotiating with him. It might matter how popular he is with the public at large, but that's likely based more on results (whether correctly attributed to the president or not) than with the inside baseball of Hill negotiations.

At any rate..."relevant" wasn't a disaster for Bill Clinton, and doesn't even make a good symbol for his low point, which was several months earlier. What "relevant" really symbolizes is the ability of the press corps to misunderstand what's going on -- they didn't see, for a long time, that Newt Gingrich was a toxic disaster for Republicans and that Clinton, after two mostly awful and disappointing years, had improved his performance considerably and was also in good shape for becoming popular as well.

Which doesn't mean that "demise" will turn out to be...well, the point is that it doesn't have any deep meaning at all. No matter how much some reporters want these things to work that way.

C'mon, Take (More) Questions, Barack Obama

Barack Obama holds relatively few press conferences -- and must answer fewer questions when he does than any other president.

At today's press conference he called on six reporters. Granted, some of the questions were two entirely separate parts, but at best it was maybe eight or nine questions.

Here's a press conference from Ronald Reagan in which, if I'm counting correctly, he took 23 questions, although here's a later one in which he took just 9. Counting question is sometimes pretty tricky; here's one with George H.W. Bush, after the tax reversal, with over a dozen separate questions, but lots of follow-ups on top of that. Bill Clinton answered 10 here. And here's one where George W. Bush took 19 question.

Now, if Obama was coming out once a week or more, the way that FDR did, or even regularly twice a month, as the next few presidents did more or less, then half a dozen questions would be fine. But the combination of few press conferences and few questions stinks. And the apparent trade-off -- longer answers -- doesn't really make up for it, in my view.

By the way, I thought the questions were pretty good today. Sure, Jonathan Karl's "do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?" was phrased in a silly way, but of course after a presidential priority is defeated in the Senate, he's going to get that type of question. They covered immigration, the hunger strikes at Gitmo, the Boston bombing, ACA implementation, Syria...all good topics; the only really misstep was a Benghazi question. But no North Korea, no Afghanistan corruption question, no question about any of his blocked nominees (or his failure to nominate anyone for many judicial and executive branch posts), and plenty more.

Anyway, I have no idea whether it's a deliberate strategy to answer as few questions as possible, or he's just naturally long-winded in this context. But while I don't think he's particularly good at the format -- I'd say that Clinton and George H.W. Bush were solidly better, and I suppose I should toss JFK in there too -- he's also not someone that the staff needs to protect from doing it (as was the case with Reagan and George W. Bush). He should find a way to take more questions.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Kirsten Dunst, 31.

No shortage of good stuff:

1. Marc Ambinder notes that we've learned a bit more about the hunt for bin Laden, and it points again to a key point: "Based on what we know SO FAR, torture did not PRODUCE the intelligence leads that led to bin Laden's killing." Of course, the case for and against torture does not turn on this -- but it's still worth knowing which way the evidence points.

2. Elizabeth Drew on "arm-twisting."

3. The president's position on political science -- and the likely effects, from Seth Masket.

4. Ed Kilgore has a good point about the squishes.

5. And Kevin Drum gives some advice for empirical research on Congress.

April 29, 1973

The newspapers are demanding resignations; Haldeman, when he reads them, realizes that the fight for leaves is probably over. And in fact, Nixon calls from Camp David to summon him and Ehrlichman for early afternoon meetings, with Ziegler calling back to let Haldeman know that the decision has been made: both of them would resign, and Dean would be fired. On top of that, Nixon is having Attorney General Kleindienst resign, and replacing him with Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Catch of the Day

It goes to Jamelle Bouie, who has a terrific response to the latest exercise in fantasy party history by the National Review's Kevin Williamson. As he says, it's based on
a heavily revisionist history of American politics, in which the GOP never wavered in its commitment to black rights, and the Democratic Party embraced its role as a haven for segregationists. In this telling of history, black support for Democrats is a function of liberal demagoguery and crude identity politics. If African Americans truly understood their interests, the argument goes, they’d have never left the Republican Party.
Williamson's focus this time is on a specific episode in Barry Goldwater's career. I have no idea whether Williamson is correct or not about it...it doesn't really matter. The point is that Williamson uses his anecdote in defense of, once again, his totally bizarre version of party history.

Bouie does an excellent job of briefly reviewing the real party history that Williamson, somehow or another, manages to ignore. Basically, Williamson still wants us to think that the Democratic Party was (and still is, but in disguise) nothing but George Wallace, and that the GOP was and still is nothing but Jacob Javits. He somehow or another manages to miss the epic battle between the segregationists and liberals within the Democrats -- and also misses the part in which civil rights Republicans were driven from their party.

Now, Williamson is trying to make Goldwater into a hero of civil rights, despite his vote against the Civil Rights Act. The point is that it really doesn't matter whether Goldwater was personally a bigot, or even a champion of civil rights on particular circumstances, or not. What matters is that the people who actually cared about civil rights supported legislation that Goldwater opposed -- and what matters far more is that over time the people who opposed civil rights lost their battle within the Democratic Party, but beginning with Strom Thurmond they found a home in the GOP. That's not to say that the GOP became a segregationist party; that would be taking it too far. But it's not only true that by the 1980s most opponents of the civil rights agenda wound up in the Republican Party, but also that the heirs of the civil rights Republicans really just aren't welcome in the today's GOP.

Seriously, it's as if Williamson just thinks that belief in the existence of Hubert Humphrey, Adam Clayton Powell, and other civil rights Democrats is sort of like believing in UFOs. He also seems to believe that it's necessary to recover the well-known facts about the old segregationist Democrats. As I've said before: it's perfectly reasonable to investigate the complicity of such figures as Adlai Stevenson and Franklin Roosevelt in that story. It just has very little to do with what was happening within the Democratic Party by 1964, and absolutely nothing to do with the Democratic Party by the 1980s, let alone the 2010s.

Post-Policy GOP and Sequestration

Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas write:
Republicans wanted entitlement cuts. They’re not getting them. They wanted to protect defense spending. Instead, the Pentagon is getting gutted while Medicare and Social Security are left mostly untouched. They had an eye toward tax reform. Nuh-uh.
That is, keeping sequestration in place is, they write, lose-lose when it comes to policy.

Which would be absolutely true if Republicans really did want entitlement cuts, defense spending, tax reform, or, as they go on to discuss, long-term deficit reduction.

If, however, we take the "post-policy" idea seriously, then it's a little easier to understand. Republicans, for example, are rhetorically in favor of "entitlement" cuts, but they have opposed actual Medicare cuts and some of them opposed Barack Obama's chained-CPI proposal, too. Those post-policy Republicans are happy to bash "entitlements," but what they're for? It appears that what they're for is for Democrats to propose cuts in Medicare and Social Security that they can then oppose.

Granted: clearly some Republicans want (for example) higher defense spending, including both Republican politicians and GOP-aligned interest groups. But in the aggregate, it's really not clear that "Republicans" care very much about any of these things other than as excuses for rhetoric positioning. In that sense, Republicans may be less in favor of defense spending than they are in favor of being able to claim that Obama cut defense spending, and then having an excuse to blame any particular national security outcome on those defense cuts.

I'm not sure one can prove this one way or another, but it sure seems to me that the post-policy idea works really well at explaining what we're seeing.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Kate Mulgrew, 58. Excellent captain, even if she is the only captain to get dumped by Sam Malone.

Plenty of good stuff:

1. Andrew Rudalevige on Barack Obama and Taylor Swift.

2. Jonathan Cohn does not see a train wreck coming on ACA implementation. Rough road, but no train wreck.

3. But on the cost side, see Ezra Klein's important reported story about the one thing that might work...but no one wants it.

4. With a useful follow-up from Aaron Carroll.

5. Since I wrote about this last week, I think I should link: Aakash Abbi, the student who taped Frank Luntz defends it.

6. Seth Masket on women as candidates.

7. And Ann Friedman's Disapproval Matrix.

April 28, 1973

"Told me to get the statements written in the best possible way. Says he isn't going to mention our names in his TV talk Monday."

That's Haldeman's report of his morning phone conversation with Nixon; the president is at Camp David, and the decision has been made that Haldeman and Ehrlichman will both take a leave, not resign. Nixon wants them to come to Camp David, but their lawyer wants them to wait until the next day, and so they spend the Saturday writing their statements requesting leaves until their names are cleared.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Question for Liberals

Since I think I'm writing about this soon: holding spending the same, which do you prefer: higher taxes (written, let's say, by liberals, so making taxes more progressive) or taxes where they are and a larger deficit?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

George W. Bush: conservative president, or not? What's underrated about him? What does the conventional critique get right?

April 27, 1973

Floods in Mississippi. The President flies down there and back, meeting with Haldeman on the way there (and earlier in the morning) and both Haldeman and Ehrlichman on the way back. More of the same: would they take a leave? Resign? An indefinite leave or a 30 day leave? At one point, there's a proposal that they take a vacation? Nixon pretty clearly has decided that they're gone, but he's not able to simply say it, and so this has been going on all week.

Pat Gray, the story of destroying the material in Hunt's safe having reached the press, finally puts himself out of his misery and resigns. Gray, for some reason, is never prosecuted. Agents opened his office safe after he left, and found Watergate materials he had obtained from the CIA and never passed along to the people investigating the case.

Kleindienst and Nixon talk on the phone about that after Nixon gets back from Mississippi:


Kleindienst: ...In view of Pat's resignation, Mr. President, it would be my recommendation that I just administratively permit Mark Felt, who --

President Nixon: No, I tell you. I don't want him. I can't have him. I just talked to Bill Ruckelshaus and Bill is a Mr. Clean and I want a fellow in there that is not part of the old guard and that is not part of that infighting in there.[...] He'll do it as acting director until we get a full director.


Mark Felt was already passed over once when Gray was installed Acting Director, and Nixon was right to not trust him: he was the source feeding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein information as "Deep Throat."

Next, a call with Henry Petersen:


Petersen: ...I just wanted to call you and give you a report on that -- on the Ellsberg case.

President Nixon: Yes.

Petersen: Judge Byrne had opened it up last night and was inclined to the view that disclosure to him was sufficient.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Petersen: And then apparently overnight he changed his opinion.

President Nixon: Right.

Petersen: And read the memorandum from Silbert to me in open court, indicated that the defendants were entitled to a hearing on it, requested disclosure of the source, which I've authorized, and asked for all the information the government has. We don't have anything.


In some ways, the whole point of the cover-up was to keep the Plumbers operations, the whole "White House horrors," secret. Now not only is the cover-up of Watergate blown beginning with McCord's accusations, but everything else is coming out. And while the judge doesn't declare a mistrial at this point, the whole point of the Plumbers -- the operation to get Ellsberg rather than just let the law take its course -- now is close to letting Ellsberg go free.The trial is suspended for now, with Judge Byrne waiting for the government to double-check whether there's any more information they have on Ellsberg that the didn't turn over. It is, of course, another headline story.

Petersen also comes to his senses and refuses Nixon's earlier request of detailing the government's case against Haldeman and Ehrlichman, saying; " I don't think I can produce. I'll tell you why. Most of the information -- almost everything they have -- [...] It's all grand jury." Nixon accepts it, but it must be a blow; if Petersen isn't going to keep him informed over everything the prosecutors are up to, his situation (not to mention the situations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman) are set back considerably.

Petersen then says that, with negotiations with Dean stalled, he no longer has any advice against Nixon firing Dean, but he also presses Nixon to get rid of Haldeman and Ehrlichman as soon as possible.

Haldeman then comes in, and they go over the March 21 tape again. Nixon's concern this time is that it can't be read as ordering Dean to make the payoff to Hunt.

Later that night, Nixon meets with Ron Ziegler, his press secretary who he's now talking to more now as Haldeman and Ehrlichman are on the way out and Chuck Colson is gone. The conversation turns, early on, to the biggest topic there is...


President Nixon: [...] I can do quite a job of that Goddamn press, I hate to do it, but I will. I have to. But tell me this, in spite of all their vindictiveness and so forth, they -- the press still wants the President to come out all right? I mean -- I mean my -- except for [pundit Martin] Agronsky and a few others, they don't call for impeachment so far. I heard on the Agronsky show they had --

Ziegler: they didn't call for impeachment. They referred to it, you know, the wording.

President Nixon: Christ, impeach the President on John Dean -- John Dean's word. [Pause] I wonder what documentary stuff Dean's talking about. He claims he's goe some documentary stuff. [...]

[And then later in the conversation]

President Nixon: ...But they can't want frankly to see Agnew be President.

Ziegler: That's right.

President Nixon: No, really. You know -- well, I don't think of impeachment, good God Almighty, the point is they've got to want this country to succeed. The whole hopes of the whole Goddamn world of peace, Ron, you know, where they rest, they rest right here in this damn chair. [...]


Nixon is heading to Camp David for the weekend, and he concludes his conversation with Ziegler about the outlines for a speech to the nation on Watergate, a speech which will mark the end of the White House service of his top two staff members. He talks about how hard it has been to actually get them to resign, but the mechanics of doing the deed are already well on their way on this Friday night.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What Mattered This Week?

I don't know that it was the most important thing of the week, but the Obama Administration filed their appeal on the recess appointment decision; of course, the appeal was expected, but the case matters quite a bit (also, I wrote about it yesterday).

Nice to get all the presidents together, but attempts to rehabilitate George W. Bush aren't going to work, and  don't really matter.

That's what I have. What did you notice? What do you think mattered this week?

April 26, 1973

The day starts with yet another long Nixon-Haldeman meeting, assessing where they are and what, if anything, they can do about it. The same issues, most notably still searching for a strategy for Dean. Should he be fired? Given immunity? What can keep him from turning on Nixon? What can discredit him, thus helping Haldeman and Ehrlichman? And always, the undercurrent: what if the interests of the conspirators diverge?

Haldeman, with Ehrlichman, go off on another marathon meeting with their lawyers at midday. The president has his first in a series of calls with Attorney General Kleindienst about the Fielding break-in and other matters. Of course, Nixon isn't exactly honest with his AG:

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Return of Lazy Mendacity

Oliver Willis yesterday asked:
what is it with cons[ervatives] who provide links to stories that disprove their accusations?
Hey, I know that one! It's lazy mendacity.

On a totally different substantive topic, Conor Friedersdorf had a great example of lazy mendacity, also yesterday -- conservatives linking to a NYT story about Boston and quoting something from mid-story to support a claim that the press was ignoring the bombers' religion, when in fact the headline and the lead (yeah, I spell it that way usually) were about "Islamic Extremist Beliefs As Motive." In other words, while Friedersdorf goes to great pains to show that the claim is wrong, all anyone really needed to do was to look at the story that was supplied as evidence.

The point is that there's something about the conservative marketplace which encourages quite a bit of laziness on the part of those selling to it. You don't need to be clever; you don't need to show your work. All you need is to read the audience well and supply the kinds of outrage they're looking for. And, as conservatives should know, if you provide incentives for something, you'll get it.

Of course, there certainly are very good pundits among conservatives, and solid, substantive politicians...it's just that the market rewards appear, for the most part, to be elsewhere. And so: lazy mendacity.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Pablo Schreiber, 35.

Some good stuff:

1. Josh Barro notes: "There is still no Republican health policy agenda."

2. Adam Serwer on the guest worker problem and the provisions in the Senate immigration bill.

3. The Hawaii Democratic Senate primary, reported by Scott Bland.

4. Do Members of Congress have any idea how the ACA works? Aaron Carroll says: looks like they don't.

5. And Molly Ball on women running for office.

April 25, 1973

Nixon arrived back in Washington on the 24th, still without having resolved anything. Also on the Tuesday the 24th, John Mitchell testified in front of a grand jury -- but not the Watergate one; this was an investigation related to financier (later fugitive financier) Robert Vesco.

At the White House, Haldeman and Ehrlichman meet with their lawyers, who then meet with Nixon. They're at a stalemate; Nixon clearly wants them to resign, but the lawyers don't want them to go, and Nixon isn't willing to force the issue yet. 

The three co-conspirators -- the president, his chief of staff, and his other most important staff member -- meet in the late morning at the EOB office, where Ehrlichman presses Nixon to come clean:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bush, Principles, and Presidenting

The discussion of George W. Bush's intelligence, or lack thereof, continues. My position on this, as I've said many times, is that I've heard him speak on baseball and he sounded sharp enough; I attributed the evidence of his presidency not as a lack of innate intelligence, but as a consequence of his lack of interest in the world of public affairs and policy.

Two new contributions worth looking at. Kevin Drum looks at Keith Hennessey's anecdotes intended to show Bush's smarts and sees, instead, impatience and lack of interest in details. And Ed Kilgore wants to blame GOP orthodoxy, and not Bush at all, for the policies Bush adopted and urged.

I think it's probably correct to say that Bush arrived at the policies he supported because they conformed to conservative ideology, or at least GOP orthodoxy, of the time. However, that's not good enough. All presidents are driven by what their party wants, and part of being a good president is finding ways to keep party actors happy. Even if it means supporting unpopular policies, in some cases.

But presidents also need to know when to resist the party when the party wants something that won't work -- for the sake of the party, among other reasons, even though many party actors won't accept that.

And even more critically, presidents have to resist the temptation to accept party ideas as invariably correct -- and then the temptation to try to do the right thing. Generally, presidents are asking for trouble when they try to do whatever they believe is, in the abstract, the "right thing." That's true if it's "right" for ideological reasons, as with (perhaps) Bush; it's true if it's "right" based on the president's moral intuition, as was the case with Jimmy Carter or Woodrow Wilson.

Presidents do not have any special claim to superior moral intuition, no matter what Carter or George W. Bush seem to believe. Nor do they have any special ability to channel the beliefs of "the people," as Wilson believed. When they attempt to do so -- when they attempt to base policy choices on their principles -- they are apt to get it all wrong, because there's no institutional reason that they should get it right. We might as well select our presidents by lot.

What presidents do have -- and all elected officials have it, but presidents have more of it than anyone else in the system -- is access to the very best clues about what policies will be "viable" (in Neustadt's term). They have access to more, and more varied, information sources than anyone else. What's more, because their constituency is so large, they have access to the reactions of more, and more varied, organized groups than anyone else.Those reactions are often even better sources of information than the raw policy data that experts might give them (although to be sure the reactions of experts are an excellent source of information.

Good presidenting, perhaps more than anything else, is the art of extracting information from political action and actors. What does it mean when this general says that an occupation will take more troops than his bosses at the Defense Department say it will take? What does it mean when this DoD official (representing what faction? How?) disagrees? What does it mean when this ally objects to the course the United States is taking; what does it man when that ally goes along? How much weight to give private statements, and how much to give public? When is the support or opposition being given for a policy pro forma, and when is it sincere and intense? And what is that intense support or opposition really saying about the policy?

There are no magic formulas to answer those questions. It takes excellent governing skills: the ability to assess people and situations, deep knowledge of the political system and groups within it, a full sense of representational relationships. Some detailed policy knowledge can't hurt, although no president will have enough to substitute for those more general skills, and policy knowledge can even get in the way -- a determination to always do what's "right" can be just (almost?) as much of a problem if it's based on the president's personal policy expertise as it is if it's based on ideological principles or gut feelings.

So, yes, I do think it's true of all presidents that they are heavily influence by their party's positions, and that's as it should be. But presidents also must know when to push back against their party's positions (or ignore them, or give lip service support to them).

The difference, really, between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is that Reagan -- who surely was as much of an ideologue in some ways as Bush -- was at his best pretty good at seeing danger and avoiding it. George W. Bush? Spectacularly bad about seeing danger coming and avoiding it. That's not because Reagan (or other, even better presidents) had better "principles" or ideology or guts -- it's because they were excellent politicians. George W. Bush, alas, was a terrible politician, and a terrible president.

The Sad Death of Off-the-Record

One of the very useful bits of education I had as a grad student were the frequent visits from politicians, other political actors, and journalists to small lunch seminars hosted by Nelson W. Polsby's Institution of Governmental Studies. Some of them didn't depart from their normal talking points, but most of them spoke reasonably openly. Many of them also spent the day hanging out in Nelson's office, or stuck around for tea at the IGS later in the day. Some would also make guest appearances in undergrad classes, or otherwise share their time.

Again, some of them were basically a waste of time. And of course even when they were "candid" you wouldn't want to take everything they said at face value. But we got a lot of good, partially revealing stories, a good way to get a sense of them individually, and cumulatively a good education in what politicians, national journalists, and political operatives were like.

If you've seen today's news, you know where this is going. Frank Luntz -- and regular readers know how much I dislike him, but I would have been happy to have him at an IGS noon seminar -- was giving a talk to some students, asked that part of it be off the record, only to have a recording of it show up at Mother Jones today.

Did anyone do anything wrong? I don't know. "Off the record" is, normally, an agreement between someone and reporters she's speaking with. Are bystanders covered? I'd say anyone who was in the room and didn't say anything was being dishonest to Luntz. How about Mother Jones? Given the very slight news value of the recording, I don't know that it was worth running, but Mother Jones isn't bound by someone else's agreement.

The person who taped it, however, wasn't primarily betraying Luntz. He was betraying his fellow students -- and all fellow students. His actions, and the actions of anyone who does this sort of thing, make it impossible for public figures to speak candidly, or anything resembling candidly.

Now, it's always been up to the judgement of the speaker in these sorts of situations to read the room and adjust. A large room full of undergrads is different than a couple dozen scholars and grad students. Evidently Luntz misread his audience here. But we want public figures to risk that sort of thing, and it's really too bad when they get burned for it.

Of course, the stakes matter. It's one thing to expose what a presidential candidate says to supporters behind closed doors; it's quite another to expose something mildly embarrassing a political hack says.

Anyway, given the current technology, this sort of thing is probably inevitable. But it's too bad. A real step in the wrong direction.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Christopher Newman, 58. Nope, I never heard of him, either. But he was on the crew -- assistant director or some such on...ready? Match Point; Sense and Sensibility; Much Ado; Brazil; Return of the Jedi; The Great Muppet Caper; and Supermans II and III. Also, Rome -- and he's a producer on Game of Thrones. And lots more. That's not bad! Enough to even mean we should forgive whatever contributions he had to, alas, The Phantom Menace.

Good stuff:

1. Sean Trende on the possible electoral effects of passing immigration reform.

2. Okay, there are lots of good reasons not to like Dilbert, but the basic point of Dilbert is one worth knowing. Kevin Drum doesn't talk Dilbert, but makes a good point about real government waste.

3. Reid Wilson has a good overview of Senate 2014 recent developments.

4. And no Medicaid expansion for Montana...because a state legislator hit the wrong button. Stochastic universe, anyone? Sarah Kliff has the story.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Judges, Please

The good news, as I discussed in the earlier item, is that the Senate is getting better at processing judicial nominations.

The bad news? They're running out of nominations to process. Not because all the vacancies are filled. No, it's because the promised increased pace of judicial nominations still hasn't materialized.

There remain around 60 spots without any nominee, including 11 at the appellate level. And including three spots, still, on the DC Circuit. It's true that some of this is the Senate's fault, with (mostly) Republican Senators blocking home-state selections (and Democrats in the Senate supporting their ability to do so). Sure, Barack Obama isn't technically bound by that, but it's not unreasonable for him to choose to work things out rather than send up doomed nominees. But he hasn't used public pressure to get things moving (and this might be a case where that might help). Nor has he, as far as we know, aggressively bargained to get things moving. And he doesn't have any excuse for those DC Circuit spots.

We've been hearing all year that Obama is really going to do better this time. Maybe he will. All I can say is that there's no evidence of it yet; there have only been a handful of new nominees so far this year, not enough to keep up with new vacancies. 

Let's have some judicial nominees, please, Mr. President.

Tentative Report Card on Senate Reform

The Senate just voted unanimously to confirm Jane Kelly, nominated by the president for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. This is how it's supposed to work! Kelly was nominated on January 31 of this year for a brand-new opening, with Michael Malloy taking senior status. A circuit court spot filled in under three months? Well done, Barack Obama and the Senate!

So, two things. One is that everyone has given Harry Reid a lot of grief over Senate reform, but it sure seems to me that things have been steadily improving. That's five circuit court vacancies filled this year so far. It leaves only four pending circuit court nominations. Granted, there's a 10th nominee who was defeated by filibuster. But again, and this is important: reform wasn't designed to change the 60 vote de facto requirement; it was designed to eliminate delays, or at least improve efficiency, while leaving the 60 vote Senate in place. Reformers may not like that goal, of course. But that's what they were trying to do, and I think there's a pretty good chance they've succeeded.

On executive branch nominations, the story appears to be much the same. I count just a handful of executive branch nominations which have been on the Senate calendar -- that is, have cleared committee and should be available for a final vote -- longer than a couple of weeks. Now, I'm not sure how much of that is that they've been doing a good job of processing them, and how much of it has to do with delays elsewhere. But again, this is not how things were in the 112th or even the 111th Congress, when long delays were common even when there was no real opposition.

It's not just nominations. Republican Senators were willing to vote cloture on the motion to proceed on the gun bill, allowing that legislation to get to the Senate floor. And reform also appeared to work both ways on that one -- Republicans were able to get votes on several of their amendments. Yes, it's all within the 60 vote Senate, and no, I don't think everything should be filibustered. But it's significantly better, within that, to at least have bills coming to the floor and to have something resembling an open amendments process. Even if it has to be with a 60 threshold.

To be sure: it's not good enough. We're still seeing way, way, too many serious attempts to block executive branch nominations; those should be very rare. Nullification through nominations is still going on for selected positions. It should not be. It is still possible that Republicans are blockading the DC Circuit Court, although it's hard to know given how few nominations Obama has sent up. On legislation, it may be in the interests of all Senators to preserve the possibility of filibusters, but 60 on everything is bad for the Senate.

But strictly within the limits of what reform was meant to do -- to make the 60 vote Senate work better -- I think the early returns are actually pretty good.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Bruce Kirby, 85. Third-most-common Columbo occasional actor, despite not (unless I missed one) being a Cassavetes guy. Excellent, whether in sitcoms or cop shows.

The good stuff:

1. I rarely link to editorials, but I think the NYT gets points to something important here. One of the real hallmarks of the current group of Republicans is passing policies and then blaming Barack Obama and the Democrats for them; it's unusually irresponsible, but they keep going back to it.

2. Negative recruiting: very difficult to study. Reporters Greg Bluestein and Daniel Malloy look at Democrats in Georgia who are trying to prevent a nasty primary.

3. And I'm glad now that I didn't get into last week's discussion of baseball salaries, since instead I can just send you to Robert Farley, who totally nails the subject. I should say, by the way: getting rid of the reserve clause is a rare thing which should unite those of virtually all political views.

April 23, 1973

Nixon now decides: Haldeman and Ehrlichman should not take leaves of absence until everything is resolved; they should resign in order to fight any charges against them. That's the advice he's getting from pretty much everyone he consults; of course, what none of those people know that Nixon does know is how guilty they both are -- and how guilty he is.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Elsewhere: Post-party, LBJ,

New Salon column: it turns out that of the ten low-numbered bills reserved for the party agenda, Republicans in the House have only used...one. They really aren't even trying to pretend they have an agenda, do they? And no, it's not a conservative/liberal thing: Republicans usually have no shortage of bills to highlight. It's this group.

Over at PP, I'm asking for please no more LBJ comparisons. One reason? There's a good chance that Johnson's overbearing arm-twisting backfired in the long run.

Yesterday, I argued that on immigration, the key players are House mainstream conservatives. John Boehner will ultimately do what they want. And yesterday at Greg's place, I noted that Republicans are still pushing the same old "cut spending, except on any program you name" talking points.

Max Baucus

Max Baucus announced today that he's retiring after this Congress.

He's been, I'd say, a good Senator -- with the faults of good Senators. Senate Finance Committee Chairs, at least the modern ones, have tended to be deal-makers who cared more about getting things done than any particular substantive concerns, with Bob Dole being maybe the perfect example, along with Lloyd Bentsen and Baucus.

Baucus infuriated liberals, mostly because, well, he wasn't one. They were wrong, in my view, in their attacks on him for attempting to get Republicans (or at least Olympia Snowe) on board for the ACA in 2009; while it was ultimately unsuccessful, it was hardly certain that it would be, and the delay was more myth than reality.

On the other hand, Baucus's choice to work with Republicans in passing massive tax cuts in 2001 was a real example of choosing getting things done over substance. That's the one that liberals should hold against him.

Dealmakers are rarely beloved, other than by their constituents who enjoy the benefits, and perhaps by Congressional scholars (and hangers-on). And liberals are particularly upset with Baucus right now after his vote against Manchin-Toomey last week, a vote which evidently wasn't about electoral incentives unless he had a very late change of heart about running. But my general feeling is that the ACA should count on the plus side for Baucus, for liberals that is.

All that said, if Democrats do hold the Senate, the man in line to be the next chair of Finance is the mainstream liberal that Baucus isn't. Ezra Klein has a good profile up on Ron Wyden -- who is, as he says, more idiosyncratic than liberals probably want, but his instincts surely are basically liberal. Wyden isn't really in the Dole tradition; if you're looking for a comp, perhaps try Daniel Patrick Moynihan, minus the pretension, I suppose.

At any rate, the high turnover in the Senate continues. Are there more shoes still to drop? It's still early in the cycle.

An Unusually Naive Slip From Wonkblog

Today's Wonkbook (from Evan Soltas and Ezra Klein) tells the story of the Republican reluctance to go to conference on the budget, and concludes:
And Senate Democrats aren’t having it. After years of Republicans complaining about secret deals and hammering Senate Democrats for betraying regular order, they’re calling the GOP’s bluff. That’s why Reid intends to move towards conference this morning. Either Republicans will agree, and regular order will proceed — which will likely mean no deal, and which will then give House Democrats a chance to throw their bombs — or Senate Republicans will filibuster, and that will be the end of the regular order talking point.
My prediction: no, it won't be the end of that talking point. We'll still see Republicans claiming that Democrats are irresponsible on the budget because the Senate didn't pass a budget resolution for four years.

And they'll make that point primarily in the Republican-aligned partisan press, where they'll rarely get any pushback on it. Remember, the "four years" of not passing a "budget" included the time after the Budget Control Act was passed, which in addition to being far more important than a budget resolution (the BCA was law; budget resolutions are not) actually did have the word "Budget" right there in the title. But that didn't stop the talking point, any more than some Republicans refrained from making those hilarious teleprompter jokes even when they were, themselves, reading those jokes off of a teleprompter.

Generally, I continue to not be a big fan of the "if we do this then they won't be able to say that" line of reasoning. It can work, but usually? Not really. Especially in cases such as this in which we're talking about rhetoric that's mainly aimed at one's own strong supporters in order to give them something to feel aggrieved about.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Valerie Bertinelli, 53. Yes, of course I watch her retread show on TVLand, although I watch it the old fashioned way -- when I happen to see it when I'm flipping around the dial. If you haven't seen it...it's exactly what it should be, no better but no worse. Excellent idea, though.

Some good stuff:

1. Jay Ulfelder's guide for social scientists on twitter.

2. Dan Amira on the (un)reliability of Rand Paul on civil liberties issues.

3. 2016 (Republican) rules update, from Josh Putnam.

4. More on studies of the health care cost slow-down, from Sarah Kliff.

5. Nice Sean Trende item on the gun bill and midterms.

6. And Dan Larison on George W. Bush's foreign policy.

April 20, 1973

The fallout of the last round of revelations continues, while John Dean and the prosecutors continue their stalemate. It's still not entirely clear which way Dean will wind up going.

The president, after meeting with Haldeman in the morning, leaves for the weekend for Florida, taking Ron Ziegler and Pat Buchanan with him but sending Haldeman and Ehrlichman to Camp David.

Nixon continues to work closely, now, with Henry Petersen. Nixon is walking a fine line; Petersen, at this point, doesn't have any realization at all about Nixon's role in the cover-up; the president pumps him for information about the progress of the investigation, without raising any suspicions. The key for Nixon at this point, remember, is to try to keep Dean from testifying about his Oval Office conversations. Well, that, and keeping Haldeman and Ehrlichman (and I suppose Colson, although he's already gone from the White House so there's less an issue there) from turning on him. Especially if, as is very likely at this point, they are indicted. Their lawyers have convinced Nixon to keep them on for now, but they all seem to know by now that it's only a question of how it's to be done, not whether it's to be done. Indeed: Nixon intends to ask Ziegler and Buchanan, as well as his friend Bebe Rebozo, what to do, but it's pretty clear he knows.

It's Good Friday. Nothing much changes the next two days, although Nixon has a phone conversation with Haldeman on Easter, going over the same material again. The newspapers and all of Washington are buzzing about the whole thing -- what Dean will say, what Mitchell said to the grand jury, the fate of the president's two most important members of the White House staff. Even, now, the possibility that Nixon himself could have known more than he let on.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Cranky Blogging 3

It's been a while since the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle made me cranky, at least politically cranky...but, yup, yesterday's did the trick. It was 24 Across: "Tammany Hall corruption, e.g.?" The answer: "Evil from New York" (The question mark in the clue is pegged to the theme, which had to do with "flipped front" so that the answer was a riff on "Live from New York").

"Evil"? Really? I suppose that to some extent it's justified, since it asks about Tammany Hall corruption, as opposed to Tammany Hall or machine politics in general. But, really, the crossword writer and editor can't think of a better example of New York evil?

It's all Goo Goo nonsense, in my view. For the best understanding of "corruption," read Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. That's not to say there was no dishonest graft or other even worse behavior, but normal machine politics, including "honest" graft, is in my view probably a positive, but at any rate far from evil.

Evil? Try a progressive politician...say, Woodrow Wilson.

Monday Cranky Blogging 2

Yes, yes, Maureen Dowd, but everyone already got there before me, pointing out that presidents cannot, in fact, wave a magic wand or say magic words or whatever and get Members of Congress to do anything they want.

I'm not sure if have all of them, but: Seth Masket is excellent. Kevin Drum made some good points (I'd quibble with him about party leaders vs. backbenchers, but he's right about the presidency). Jamelle Bouie is always very good on this issue. From a reporting point of view, Robert Costa makes the useful observation that Obama was already doing the best thing he could have in order to get Republican votes. All very good, and makes anything I'd add at this point pretty superfluous.

What I think needs some additional analysis, though, is this bit: "After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations."

I think that's where any real analysis of this episode has to start, really. It's what Josh Kraushaar in his piece on how "Obama misread the politics of gun control," which centers, contra Dowd, on just how difficult it was going to be to pass anything, in large part because of the specific Senators who would be needed and their electoral incentives.

The question remains, however: what should Obama have done? He could have, as he did after Gabby Giffords was shot, just said nice things in a speech, instead of asking a bunch of politicians for a very tough vote. But that would have had costs, too. See, not only does Obama not have the power to demand votes from Members of Congress, but he also doesn't have the power to shut up those who wanted a big push for a bill. And it would have been an extremely awkward position for Obama, to say the least, to appear indifferent to a bill moving through the Senate -- and I think it's certain that Dowd and others would have lit up Obama even worse if he had taken a fully hands-off position.

The truth of this story is found somewhere in the middle, I should think. Those arguing that Obama had little influence are stretching, in my view: had Obama not taken the lead, I doubt a bill would have reached the floor of the Senate. The president was able to push for a legislative response, and my sense from the reporting is that he was able to strongly influence the nature of the response (expanded background checks, rather than an assault weapon ban or some other idea). He was part of the reason the bill got as far as it did. That partial success, in turn, may mean that there's a much better chance of passing something similar at some point in the future. That's not a bad several weeks worth of work, to tell the truth.

Does that mean Obama made the right choice? It's very hard to judge these things, especially with limited information. But, as all of those linked at the top point out, assessing any of it depends, to begin with, on a realistic idea of what the president's options are, and what his influence is.

The Wrath of the Conquest of the Planet of the Bride of the Son of the Return of Cranky Blogging

It's not exactly about any one thing in particular, but just thinking about the horrific mistake that GOP governors made in 1999 to put some guy who had no real interest in government or public affairs into the Oval Office...well, it sure makes me cranky every time I think about it.

Fine, I suppose there's more; there's a news peg to it. George W. Bush's presidential library is about to open, and so we're getting Bush stuff all over the press, such as this National Journal piece on Bush's "Reluctant Re-Emergence on the Political Scene" with a subheadline that "these days he's more interested in painting, golfing, and enjoying time away from politics."

Which makes me cranky because as far as I can see, he was always more interested in golf, baseball, and pretty much everything except the world of public affairs.

Oh, I think he enjoyed the game of electoral politics (is it too mean to say that he enjoyed it especially when he was winning? Perhaps). As Richard Ben Cramer taught us, the Bush family is nothing if not competitive. But beyond that? I find it very, very, easy to imagine that he paid little attention to public affairs either before or after his political career.

And I think that's highly unusual for politicians, and pretty much unheard of for presidents. Granted, it's not as if they're all Bill Clinton, who seems to be almost pathological in his obsession about policy, by all accounts (then, too, Clinton seems pathological in so many obsessions). Plenty of politicians appear to be highly interested in one realm of public affairs but relatively indifferent to others. And certainly many are drawn to politics as a career mainly because they love the power that it gives them, or because they like the attention, or whatever. But there's normally a reason that they become politicians and not, I don't know, rock stars.

That's even true for most dynastic politicians; they may have gone into the family business simply because it was the family business, but most of them absorbed interest in the world along with their choice of career. I'm not much of a fan of JFK or Al Gore, but I don't think anyone would accuse either of them, or George H.W. Bush for that matter, of having little interest in the world of public affairs. There are some politicians who seem to be far more interested in the processes of policy-making than the outcomes...I get the sense that Bob Dole was like that, for example, and I think a lot of Congressional leaders have been like that to a greater or lesser extent. But for them, mastery of process makes mastery of substance necessary, so it doesn't much matter.

If I'm right about Bush -- and, to be fair, it's possible we'll learn more in the future that will prove me wrong, although I doubt it -- then I can't think of anyone at a high level of politics even remotely comparable. All of which made him ill-equipped to cope with the presidency. All presidents have to deal with insufficient knowledge about public policy; Bush had far less, on far more topics, than most. And he had fewer successful (or, to be blunt, sober) life experiences to fall back on.

Anyway, my guess is that Bush's reputation will wind up if anything worse, not better, than his current reputation. Why? Because I suspect that when we get more information, we'll see more instances where he was indifferent, uninvolved, unprepared, easily manipulated, and generally not up for the job and not particularly interested in doing anything about it. In other words, I'm guessing that the worst stereotypes of him as president will turn out to be true -- and that his reputation, currently hurt by outcomes, will stay lousy or get worse as we learn more about process. Note: I twice there said "guess," and I mean it; I could be wrong! But I've yet to see any evidence that pushed me the other way.

Dan Drezner, while hardly defending Bush, thinks that there is some reason to believe his reputation will improve. Drezner says that Bush has been a good ex-president...but he's been "good" more in the sense of Gerald Ford (staying out of the way) rather than a Jimmy Carter, doing good works. I sort of expect that Bush will wind up doing good works the way that his father has, eventually, but he certainly isn't going to be a Carter or a Clinton. Nor will he, obviously, spend his retirement writing books about important issues, the way that Nixon did.

Drezner also thinks Bush will accrue "credit" because of what came after him, at least when it comes to Republicans and foreign policy/national security. I disagree! I think that Bush will -- properly -- be seen as responsible for that poor quality. After all, most of it comes from Bush's administration promoting people who are now responsible for much of that poor quality, and discrediting or undermining those who were more sound on those issues. Going back to the previous paragraph -- Bush deserves some blame for this post-presidency, too. It's true, and as Drezner said to Bush's credit, that in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks Bush worked against "anti-Muslim hysteria." But it was Bush Administration veterans who encouraged that sort of thing during the Obama years, and George W. Bush sat by and did nothing, when it's quite possible he could have made a difference.

And then Drezner gives Bush, or at least his economic team, credit for their actions in fall 2008. I don't know...I think it's more likely that historians will focus more on inaction leading into the economic disaster (or policies which actively brought it on) rather than policies which avoided even worse outcomes. In that sense, it's much like the Bush Iraq policy in his last two years in office; whatever good marks he gets for changing course, it's all in the context of rescuing a self-made disaster.

A have to mention this somewhere...there's torture. I mean, first of all, that Bush's administration adopted torture as policy. Even if we want to give a very generous reading of things, it's still a terrible mark against him. And again: I do think that Bush is the one person capable of preventing the Republican Party from becoming the pro-torture party, or at least of dramatically changing the odds of it happening, and he hasn't done it. On top of that, there's the civil liberties record...yes, all presidents (Madison excepted) do poorly on that during wartime, and on civil liberties it's hard to say that Bush was the worst, but still he was pretty awful, and that's apt to look bad to future historians.

Despite all this, we're already seeing and are sure to see revisionist stuff about Bush, most of it perfectly evidence-free.

The whole thing is enough to make me very, very cranky.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Catherine Mary Stewart, 54.

And here's some good stuff:

1. The number one justified conservative complaint about the press: how "conservative" and "right-wing" are used interchangably for both folks like Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney, on the one hand, and Hitler, on the other. During the tail end of the Soviet Union, the faction which wanted to keep communism as it was regularly was referred to as, yes, conservative. Philip Klein was annoyed by it on Friday.

2. Emily Bazelon on Miranda.

3. Good journalism: excellent look at House and Senate recruiting, from Shane Goldmacher.

4. If you want to know why gun measures keep losing despite polling that shows their popularity, you definitely want to read David Karol.

5. And I was hoping to get to this on Friday, but I'll just link instead: Travis Waldron is correct about baseball salaries. The proper liberal response to the rise in baseball salaries after 1975 should be, it seems to me, that business can thrive when the workers thrive (while the proper conservative response should be: hey, markets are really powerful and in many circumstances do an excellent job).

April 19, 1973

With the big Washington Post story out in the morning, much of the day is consumed, again, with whether Haldeman and Ehrlichman will stay or go.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Question for Liberals

I'll go with the same question: just in terms of electoral politics, what's the best outcome for the Democratic Party on immigration?

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Just in terms of electoral interests, what is the best outcome for the Republican Party on immigration?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

April 18, 1973

"The P had me in at 8:00 this morning. Said that if this thing goes the way it might, and I have to leave, he wants me to take all the office material from his -- ah -- machinery there and hold it for the library."

What Mattered This Week?

Ugh. What didn't matter this week?

I suppose a lot of this is in the we-don't-know-yet category. Of course, the events in Boston and in Texas certainly mattered to the people involved. Whether they matter beyond that...well, we'll be getting tighter security at sports events for a long while, at least. But we're yet to know any larger importance for the marathon bombings.

As for the Texas explosion, was it a sign of lax regulation and more to come unless there are changes? Or was it a freak event?

And then there was everything else that happened this week. To tell the truth, I'm still catching up, so I don't even know much about anything that wasn't in the headlines or in my particular radar.

So I'll leave it all to you. What do you think mattered this week?

April 17, 1973

Today was another major Watergate day. This time super-major.

Friday, April 19, 2013


It's basically a rerun, but over at PP today I argued that, yes, political responses to things such as the Boston bombings are not only justified, but actually quite patriotic.

Yesterday, I poked at Boehner a bit, saying that his current position on budget procedures is the correct one.

And earlier, I reacted to the demise of the gun bill and talked about what comes next, and had a companion piece on how the gun fight might (or might not) lead to Senate reform.

That's it for now. With any luck, I'll have a baseball post later, and there's plenty more Watergate to come. I don't know about you all, but I'll be happy to get my focus onto baseball over the weekend.

Once More on "Is It a Filibuster?" (Hint: It Is)

This one might be a little redundant at this point, but everyone is pretty much focused on the manhunt in Boston right now, and I have nothing to say about that, so I might as well continue filibuster blogging. And besides, maybe this is still necessary -- because Kevin Drum is a smart guy, and if he's still a bit confused on this point, maybe lots of people are.

So this comes from a post Drum wrote last night in which he said that the press should call what happened to Manchin-Toomey a filibuster, even though "Technically, however, it's not a filibuster, so reporting it as one isn't precisely correct."

This made your plain blogger quite cranky. I took to twitter to fight it out, but Boston was exploding right then and it was late anyway, so I sort of cut it short. No fancy storify stuff here; I'm going to quote him and paraphrase myself, and then conclude what I would have said to conclude it.

Me: Yes, it is a filibuster. 

Drum: "I agree we should call it that, but technically a UC just isn't a filibuster. It's a UC done under threat of a filibuster."

Me: No, that's not it. here's the sequence:

1. There's a filibuster 

2. The two sides then decide how to settle the filibuster.The 60-vote threshold UC is an agreement on how to settle the filibuster. Not by waiting it out, not by a cloture vote, but by a 60-threshold vote

3. And then the vote itself both resolves the filibuster and resolves the issue. Under 60, the amendment is defeated by filibuster; over 60, it overcomes the filibuster, and also passes the amendment, all in one.

Drum: "At what point is the filibuster formally declared?"

[End of twitter; this is me, now]

Me: I have three answers to that one!

(1) Wiseass answer: when Mitch McConnell said on Election Day in 2008 that it was a 60 vote Senate.

(2) Practical answer: Mitch McConnell has in fact insisted on 60 votes for practically everything beginning in January 2009. He does not always insist on a cloture vote; sometimes they negotiate another resolution, including no separate procedure at all on some things that clearly have far more than 60. But almost nothing, and certainly nothing of importance, passes without 60. That's a filibuster.

(3) Additional answer: It's unlikely that McConnell has to spell it out at this point, but surely if Harry Reid asked him (or whoever; it could have been negotiated by the bill handlers and opponents) whether they could just use regular order and proceed to a simple-majority vote on Manchin-Toomey, Reid was told they couldn't. 

More generally: "formally"? Filibusters don't have to be formally declared. Indeed, sometimes in the old days it wouldn't be certain that a speech or a never-ending series of amendments was really a filibuster-to-kill, as opposed to a filibuster-to-delay, or just a really long-winded Senator. It's even possible that the filibustering Senator(s) hadn't really figured it out yet. It made counting filibusters really hard! (Read Greg Koger if you want more on that). 

But that's not necessary now. Republicans have declared a 60 vote Senate. They are demanding 60 votes to pass any bill, any amendment, any nomination, anything. That's a filibuster on everything. Technically and all. 

I think -- and I'm not just talking about one post here, but generally -- part of the confusion is caused by conflating three things: whether there is a filibuster; how the filibuster is conducted; and how the filibuster is resolved. How it is conducted and how it is resolved are both determined by the tactics of both sides, and sometimes by agreement between both sides. Again, it could be resolved by forcing Senators to talk and seeing whether they would keep going or not (attrition); it could be resolved by a cloture vote; it can be resolved by informally agreeing whether or not there are 60 votes and then moving ahead if there are and pulling the bill/amendment/nomination if there are not; and it can be resolved through this 60 vote threshold thing. And it can be conducted by Senators standing on the Senate floor and talking, or, under current norms, by Senators informing leadership or bill managers that they'll insist on 60. 

But it is wrong to say that insisting on 60 is threatening a filibuster. The demand is the filibuster, under the conditions -- which hold now, and have held for decades -- that the way a filibuster is conducted is by notifying people of the demand for 60. 

And so, whenever 60 is demanded, and however that is resolved, the press should report that a measure has been filibustered, and if it fails -- again, however it is resolved -- they should report that it has been defeated by filibuster. 

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Tim Curry, 67. Hey, I did not realize that he was involved in "Clone Wars." Anyway, mainly because he was in the sadly underappreciated "Oscar."

Not sure that anyone is interested right now with the Boston manhunt going on, but there's always good stuff:

1. More from Sarah Binder on the gun bill and the 60 vote threshold. Excellent, of course.

2. Matt Yglesias on low-skill immigrants and the principles involved in immigration policy.

3. And John Patty on the gun vote.

April 16, 1973

As Haldeman says, "Another all-Watergate day, as they generally tend to be now."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Without the Filibuster?

I mostly want to call everyone's attention to two excellent posts, by Brian Beutler and by Ryan Grim, which take seriously a key fact about the gun bill consideration: simple majority votes on amendments would have not only allowed Democratic amendments to pass, but would also have allowed Republican amendments to pass. In particular, the Grassley substitute, backed by the NRA, received 52 votes. But I'll do a little speculation and thinking about reform options from where they leave off.

As they both point out, in a simple-majority environment, things might have been different. It's absolutely possible that Democratic defectors might have been willing to hang with mainstream Democrats if their votes were needed -- any whipping on amendments surely went into the close Democratic amendments, not the GOP items.

This is not, in and of itself, a reason to oppose Senate reform in general, or even a majoritarian Senate in particular. But as I said before the bill came up: reformers should be clear what they want.

For example: in a Senate with very loose controls on what bills and amendments come to the floor; with one tightly disciplined (or ideologically rigid) party; and with simple majority voting on everything, then the tightly disciplined party might do very, very, well over time. Even when it's in the minority, even when it's in a fairly significant minority, that party shouldn't find it hard at all to get its way on many, and maybe most, bills.

Moreover, that minority party would have strong incentives to act as tightly disciplined as it could. After all, in a 55/45 Senate, if the minority can figure out something that can pick off six majority party Senators, they get to win as long as they all hold together. And as long as there are loose controls over the floor, they can design whatever they want with that goal in mind.

The obvious recourse for the majority, in that situation, is to eliminate opportunities for the minority to offer amendments. Otherwise, they risk simply get repeatedly rolled by any smart minority willing to hang together.

In other words, it's very easy for reform, once it starts, to wind up where the House has wound up -- with a majority party quasi-dictatorship.

Again: that doesn't mean one should oppose reform. But anyone who thinks that majority party rule in which the minority cannot participate meaningfully in governing, including offering alternatives which can receive votes, is some sort of obvious democratic system is overlooking some very real problems with that kind of system.

At the same time, anyone who is happy with a status quo which requires an arbitrary 3/5 supermajority for everything, and thinks that such a system is obviously the democratic one, is at least just as wrong if not more.

What remains unclear is whether it's really possible to get a third alternative -- one that gives the minority party meaningful participation, and which allows intense minorities (whether they are partisan minorities or just minorities on some issue) to have real chances to succeed against indifferent majorities.

To be sure, there are reasonable arguments in favor of majoritarianism and against that third alternative, but in my view they are losing arguments (as are those favoring the 60 vote status quo). But if it isn't possible to design the third alternative, then it doesn't really matter whether the theoretical arguments hold or not.

Still, I think the arguments about democracy are important and worth keeping at center stage during these debates. It's simply not true that democratic theory would consider a pure majority-party-run Senate to be necessarily the most democratic. You can argue it, but you need to do so, from where I'm sitting.

Everything You Want To Know About the 60 Vote Threshold Agreement

The votes on the gun bill amendments were held under a unanimous consent agreement requiring 60 yes votes for an amendment to be adopted. That seems to have confused some of the coverage, in particular about whether this was filibuster-related or not. The answer, as I said yesterday, is that it absolutely is filibuster-related: Manchin-Toomey and the other amendments which reached 51 votes but not 60 were in fact defeated by filibuster, and that's what reporters should be saying. See yesterday's post for the general discussion of the gun bill and filibusters, but here I want to sketch out what we know about this particular Senate procedure.

Key points if you don't want to read a long post:

1. The 60 vote threshold procedure is relatively new.

2. It is a way of processing filibusters.

3. It is very similar to the demise of "talking" filibusters: it's efficient for the majority party, given a known filibuster.

4. Since the current situation is "filibuster on everything," there's always a known filibuster, so it's not surprising that 60 vote threshold votes have become common.

First, by way of introduction: virtually all bills in the Senate are considered under some UC agreement, which govern which amendments will be brought up and under what conditions. Without a UC agreement, a single Senator could block progress at any point, so they don't move ahead until they read a deal. That's as opposed to the House, where bills are considered under a "rule" drafted by the party-dominated Rules Committee and approved of by a simple majority vote of the whole House that the majority party always wins. UC agreements are limited only by the creativity of the drafters and what they can get everyone to go along with.

According to CRS, UC agreements incorporating a 60 vote threshold began "from at least the early 1990s." There were none during the Congresses that met from 1999 through 2004. Then there were eight amendments and three measure which used that standard in the 109th Congress, 2005-2006, and it became more common in the 110th Congress, 2007-2008. That's what a 2008 CRS report has; a 2009 version doesn't have any more, and if there are more recent versions they don't seem to be available. (I've also checked with Greg Koger, and he doesn't have anything more specific).

So: why a 60 vote threshold?

It makes sense in the context of knowing that the minority intends to filibuster an amendment (or a bill). For the majority, it accomplishes quite a bit. It removes the time that a cloture petition would need to sit before a cloture vote could be taken; it also removes post-cloture time. That means that getting a vote on a controversial amendment can take a short time, instead of basically chewing up an entire week. Not only that, but if a minority party wants and without a UC 60 vote threshold, they can filibuster each of a series of amendments, each one using almost a week of Senate floor time, even if they don't care at all about that particular amendment.

There's also the advantage, which either the majority or the minority might want, that it allows a substantive vote on something instead of a procedural vote. That might appeal to a minority which is being taunted to "allow a vote" on a measure; adopting the 60 threshold UC accomplishes that, at least to the extent that it confuses things.

It's not included in the CRS report (which precedes the true 60 vote Senate initiated in January 2009), but in a situation in which absolutely everything the majority proposes, it seems to me that there's another important reason for the majority to use a 60 vote UC instead of just going through a series of filibusters. If both sides have amendments, then the majority is put (as far as I can see) at a disadvantage. For majority-backed amendments, 60 votes are needed to overcome a minority-party led filibuster. But what about for minority-backed amendments to a bill that the minority opposes? Of course, if the majority party has the votes, it can simply defeat those amendments by simple majority vote. But if the minority party can come up with more appealing amendments -- ones that can command a chamber majority but that most of the majority party opposes -- then what? If the majority filibusters those amendments, then the minority only has to allow the filibuster to continue in order to bring consideration of the bill to a halt. Got that? Democrats are in the majority. The Republican Smith Amendment comes to the floor, an amendment that could get 51 votes by holding all Republicans and a handful of Democrats. If Democrats filibuster the amendment, and if Republicans just let them filibuster indefinitely...then Democrats can't move ahead to final passage of the bill, since the Senate is still stuck on the Smith Amendment. In other words, under filibuster-everything conditions and without the 60 vote threshold UC agreement, majority party amendments will need 60 votes, while minority party amendments will only need 50 votes. That's a pretty good reason for the majority to prefer the 60 vote threshold on all amendments UC agreement.

(Of course, by definition it's easier for the majority to get to any particular standard, whether it's simple majority or 60 or whatever. But it's not necessarily easier for the majority party to get to 60 than for the minority party to get to a simple majority).

So overall, the 60 vote threshold should be seen as yet another accommodation that the majority party makes to constant filibusters from the minority party. Just as with the decision to avoid the "talking" filibuster, it's in the majority party's interest to do things this way if you assume that the minority will always take advantage of the filibuster whenever it can.

Why, then, does the minority accept it? Well, partially it might be for the spin: as with the demise of the talking filibuster, it makes the filibuster less visible, and therefore perhaps more difficult to criticize. A lot of people believe that. I don't, really, but then again what really matters is whether the minority party believes it.

My guess, however, is that it's really for the same reason that the minority party allows the majority to dispense with the reading of bills or any of the other things that require unanimous consent that the minority habitually agrees with, and the same reason why the minority doesn't simply act as a cartel to block absolutely everything the majority proposes: the minority party has an excellent deal in the Senate, and they probably don't want to push too hard lest the majority impose reform that would change that. It's one thing to insist on 60 votes for every amendment; that's new in Senate history, but it has some basis in Senate rules and norms. To insist on the majority needing 60 on amendments and the minority only needing 51...well, that risks majority-imposed reform.

Okay, one more point. Remember all those charts you've seen that measured the rise of filibusters by counting cloture votes?

These 60 vote threshold votes are one of the reasons that those charts are terrible measures of how many filibusters there are in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama-era Senates. None of the nine amendment votes on the gun bill that the Senate has considered this week have produced cloture votes, but all of the Democratic amendments -- and, in effect, in retaliation all of the Republican amendments -- were filibustered. So that's nine more filibusters not accounted for in the cloture vote count -- cloture votes (not filibusters, but cloture votes) which were avoided by a procedure that didn't even exist in the 1980s and earlier, and which wasn't used regularly until George W. Bush's second term.

(Further complicating things: in a situation where most, but not all, things are filibustered, then you can get false positives here, too. That is: perhaps only one or two of the nine amendments would have really drawn filibusters. However, under conditions in which many or most things are filibustered, both sides may just agree to the 60 vote threshold because it's convenient. Yet anyone counting this is either going to come up with zero filibusters, thus missing real ones, or nine, thus (per this hypothetical) overcounting.)


Thanks to Greg K. and to another email correspondent, for pointers on this. I'll update/correct if there's anything more that turns up.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Melissa Joan Hart, 37. I wonder if I'll wind up eventually watching her current show (she has one -- third season about to start, apparently). We've been watching Clarissa recently; still holds up extremely well.

Some good stuff:

1. An approach to studying legislation as it moves through Congress, from Scott Adler and John Wilkerson, that looks very promising to me -- plus a great illustration of just how many separate bills wound up on the ACA. Via John.

2. Alison Dagnes seems to be having a ton of fun writing about and teaching the invisible primary.

3. Recognize this? Name the US political figure who said it? "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." What if I spotted you that it's a president? Still no idea? Carah Ong on the 60th anniversary earlier this week of Ike's "Chance for Peace" speech.

April 15, 1973 (part two)

We're now in the evening of Sunday, April 15. Nixon finishes up on the presidential yacht, and heads back: "I dreaded having to go to the White House and face the bleak choices I knew were waiting..."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Manchin-Toomey and the Filibuster

The background checks portion of the bill will be defeated today. It was being added as an amendment to the bill, and under a consent agreement all amendments needed 60 votes; it's not going to get there.

Some notes:

1. The correct thing to say about this is that the amendment was defeated by filibuster. It's a little tricky, but that's the essence of it. The UC agreement under which the amendment (and all amendments to this bill) is considered requires 60 votes; that's agreed to in order to avoid a cloture vote, which is necessary because of the standing GOP plan to filibuster everything. It is wrong to say that "Senate procedure requires 60 votes." Senate procedure only requires 60 votes in case of filibuster. Which, under current conditions, means in virtually all cases. Manchin-Toomey is defeated by filibuster.

2. All that said: anything that gets only four Republicans wasn't going to win in the House. Right now the House is split 232-201. Four Republican Senators is 9% of GOP Senators; the same percentage in the House would be 20 Republican votes, which means a tiny majority in the totally unrealistic case that every Democrat voted for the bill. So there's a very good chance there isn't even a simple majority in the House. Which wouldn't be close to enough: for Republicans to be willing to take up the bill at all, most mainstream conservatives would want the bill to come up (although not necessarily be willing to vote for it). That's simply not going to happen on a bill that gets 4 of 45 Republican Senators.

3. It's also important to remember that Manchin-Toomey is one of a series of possible provisions in an overall bill, and that filibuster rules also protect the majority to some extent. The 60 vote threshold that's blocking Manchin-Toomey may be necessary to prevent poison pill amendments from being adopted. Indeed, knowing that it takes 60 to get anything into the bill should change the opponents' strategy: instead of trying to design an amendment that would get a majority and then lead to the majority party abandoning the bill, the opponents may simply design amendments that will lose but supply votes which can be exploited later on.

4. Note that in the House, governed as it is by strict majority party rule, the majority party doesn't have to worry about popular amendments (or bills) that they don't want; they simply refuse to allow votes on them.

5. It is not entirely clear that a majority party rule system in which popular amendments and bills do not receive any vote at all, even if they would get a majority of the full chamber, is more democratic than a system in which everyone can force votes on any bill or amendment, but it takes 60 votes for passage. It's not even totally clear that a chamber in which every amendment and bill could always get a simple-majority vote is more democratic (because of the poison pill problem, and more generally because of unstable "majorities" on issues), but that may be irrelevant because in practice it's hard to get that middle ground.

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Kristine Sutherland, 58.

Also, good stuff:

1. Kevin Drum highlights an Elena Kagan dissent.

2. Scalia, not so much with the judicial temperment; Rick Hasen has it.

3. Ed Kilgore notes that Rand Paul's Howard speech seems to have adopted Kevin Williamson's version of party history. To me, that raises the question: could Paul have sounded like a jerk because he really didn't know what he was talking about? Once again, there are costs for having an information structure within a party dedicated to fooling you own followers.

4. And Alyssa Rosenberg has some advice for the TV people for how to fill time during a crisis. I think the problem she identifies -- what to do in a situation where one-subject coverage seems appropriate but actual news only shows up in bursts -- is an excellent one, whether or not you agree on her specific suggestions.

April 15, 1973 (part one)

PRESIDENT: Yeah. I had a call from Kleindienst.

EHRLICHMAN: Yeah. I heard you did and I thought you ought to take it.

PRESIDENT: Oh sure, sure, I didn't, I didn't refuse. He said "I should see you, and I'd like to see
you alone this afternoon. Today." I said fine.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Elsewhere: Torture, Budget, OFA

Over at PP today, I brought back my argument for how to prevent another round of torture: pardons plus Truth Commission.

And two new(ish) columns to link to. My Salon item over the weekend suggested that people who want to support Barack Obama's agenda shouldn't donate to OFA -- their money is better spent on candidates in the 2014 cycle.

While at TAP, I talked about what people think they're talking about when they talk about balanced budgets.

Oh -- just a quick update for Watergate readers. There's been so much over the last few days that I've fallen behind. I'm scheduled to work at April 15 tonight...I'm not sure how much there is, so it's possible I'll fall even farther behind (I'm pretty sure there's enough that I can't get to the 16th also). Not to worry, though; I think I'm better off getting more in, even if it means losing the conceit of 40 years exactly for a few days. At the worst, I'll get caught up once things settle down after the end of April, but with any luck I'll be up to date within the next few days.

Catch of the Day

Well, some days, you don't have much of a choice, do you? The catch has to go to economists Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, who have a new paper out demolishing Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff on the effect of high government debt on the economy -- with a big assist to Mike Konczal, who wrote a clear and readable blog post explaining the conflict nicely.

The headline here is that Reinhart and Rogoff apparently made a simple computation error, but the Herndon-Ash-Pollin critique goes well beyond that -- as do other critiques previously aired (disclaimer: I haven't read either paper; I'm just relying on what economists and economics-literate bloggers and reporters are saying).

While it's probably a good idea to be cautious of the critique (just as it would have been a good idea to be cautious about the original paper), it certainly isn't good news for preachers of austerity.

I've seen some snark on twitter suggesting that no one who has recommended austerity, including those who specifically cited Reinghart-Rogoff as their reason, will flip as a result of this. That's probably correct! But only because it's extremely unlikely that very many people really relied on economics in the first place.

So my guess is that this debunking will get exactly as much weight now for most people as the original paper had: very little.

A more complicated question is how much should economists count towards economic policy? After all, if the profession is capable of making a mistake this big (apparently), should they be trusted? The answer, I would argue, is that politicians should certainly make use of economists -- and other experts -- but be very wary about hearing only what they want to hear. That's a lot easier said than done, and it doesn't really give policymakers any clear, bright rules, and it doesn't even assure success if you're good at it. All it does is increase your chances of policy success. But that's still worthwhile!

That is, all of this does really point to a key governing skill: being good at sifting through expert advice. And perhaps the first thing about that is that a politician will only be good at it -- only get good at it -- if she realizes that it's important and really tries to do it. As opposed, say, to simply choosing policy and then seeking out supporting expert opinions. Because one can always find expert support, no matter how goofy the policy preference. Again, however, even if you go about it the right way -- even if you are looking for what the experts really do think, and you want to take that into account when choosing policy -- it's still going to be extremely difficult to be good at it. Especially when you realize that policy-makers in general,  and presidents in particular, must do it across an impossibly wide range of policy areas which involve all sorts of different disciplines. Each of which has its own internal debates. Many of which have entirely different forms of credentialing and peer review. Most of which ever have a definitive answer -- but all of which have people who promise that what they have found is the definitive answer.

Also: nice catch!
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