Campaigns Don’t Much Matter

Morris FiorinaAfter Obama’s underwhelming performance at the first general election presidential debate, I was depressed like most liberals. But after two and a half days, I ebullient. What happened? The Jobs Report came out and unemployment had dropped below 8% for the first time in years. You may remember that I was not the only person to think that this was a big deal. Many conservatives suggested that the BLS was faking the number to make Obama look good. Whatever. But the point is that I (and others) knew that Jobs Report completely overshadowed the debate performance, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time.

I bring this up because Molly Ball wrote an interesting article this afternoon, 5 False Assumptions Political Pundits Make All the Time. I can’t resist a headline like that, because I’m always on the lookout for ways that I might be embarrassing myself. Of course, in this case, it just showed how brilliant I am.

The article discusses a paper by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina. The five false assumptions are: (1) the electorate is not “polarizing,” it’s “sorting”; (2) candidates change more than voters do; (3) independents aren’t partisans; (4) “division” is easy to overstate; and (5) campaign ads really, really, really don’t make much difference. Assumption (3) is not all that strong. We know that most independents tend to be either Democratic or Republican. All he’s saying is that people who call themselves independent really are more independent than those who pick a party. That seems pretty obvious to me and hardly worth noting.

It is assumption (5) that I found most interesting, and it is what takes us back to the debate performance and Jobs Report. What seems very clear to me (I discussed this a little about Stuart Stevens the other day) is that campaigns don’t matter much. It is all about the politicians make their case for their preferred policies. But as we know from assumption (2), people don’t really change their opinions. In any national election, if everyone voted, the Democrat would always win. As a Democrat, the main thing I care about regarding elections is that lots of people get out to vote. (Otherwise, I care that all we do is nominate moderates!)

During the period leading up to the November elections, I knew that the economy was doing better. It wasn’t doing a lot better, but it was clear that we were heading in the right direction. Once that very strong Jobs Report came out, I was pretty sure that Obama had the election in the bag. It wasn’t that the report made Obama look good (and thus the conservatives screaming made no sense). It was what the report said about the economy. I think it comes down to the fact that poor people especially tend to not bother voting if they feel things are going badly. Regardless, take away all of Romney’s gaffs. Take away the poor convention. Take away Obama’s two good debates. Take away Hurricane Sandy and Chris Christie. Obama would still have won that election.

Let me rephrase what Firoina said: Campaigns really, really, really don’t make much difference.


Paul KrugmanBen Bernanke spoke before the Senate yesterday. And as much as anyone can tell, given that only people who work at the place can fully comprehend “Fed Speak,” he seemed to be saying that we shouldn’t worry about the deficit right now and that we could use some stimulus. And you know who that sounds like? Well the man himself knew what it sounded like. This afternoon, Paul Krugman wrote, “Ben Bernanke’s testimony today was highly Krugmanesque.”

I could, of course, could note that this is a good thing. It doesn’t matter to a wacko Republicans who want to abolish the Federal Reserve because… Well, just because. (Fiat money! Inflation! And don’t forget: Greece!) But it ought to matter quite a lot to supposedly liberal thinking Democrats. That didn’t stop democrat Joe Manchin spending all of his allotted time trying to get Bernanke to admit that the debt really was the biggest threat to our nation. Bernanke wasn’t buying it and so I hope more and more people will see that we have much bigger fish to fry. Like jobs!

But I’m not here to talk of the need to fix the US economy. I’ve done that many times before. I’m here to talk about “Krugmanesque”! The man coined a term for himself! And really: there is definitely something very distinct about what Krugman says, but not how he says it. And to be fair, that’s all he was saying. But if Krugman can coin his own term for himself, then so can I.

My question is: what does Moraesesque mean? Given that I am a ranter and not a Nobel Prize winning economist, the term must apply to my style. And I can think of no better example of Moraesesque than when I talk about Avik Roy:

You fucking conservative lackey. I want to rip off your scrotum and suffocate you with it. Cock sucking plutocrat bastard!

Yep. This is the one I’ll be remembered for! Just like Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Roberts Has Long Hated the VRA

Chief Justice RobertsSomething I really hate is how John Roberts is held up as some model of reasonable conservatism. I’m sure he will go down in history just like William Rehnquist: a man who is extremely conservative but is said to be reasonable because the people who came after him were even more extreme. In the case of Roberts, Samuel Alito provides all the breathing room he could want.

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. All the conservatives justices (except Thomas who never says anything) were very aggressive in their questioning. In particular, Roberts asked, “Is it the government’s submission that citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?” This goes right along with what has become standard operating procedure for the conservatives on the court. This isn’t a question; it is polemics in its purest sense. The question is not about citizens, although I suspect that yes, they are more racist. The bigger question is if there are systemic aspects of these systems that perpetuate racism in how voting is done. And after this last election where all kinds of clearly racist attempts were made to finesse the election, these questions shouldn’t even need to be raised.

In fairness, the real question here is whether we should keep assuming that areas that were once overtly racist should be held to a higher standard. Should they have to get preapproval from the federal government before they change their voting laws. I wish we were going in the other direction: moving toward making all local governments get approval before changing the law. The way it now works, some place makes it harder for minorities to vote; they are slapped down about it later; but that doesn’t change the skewed election results.

John Roberts has a long history of being against the Voting Rights Act. He was a big part of the Reagan administration’s push to weaken the law. Adam Serwer wrote the history of this, Chief Justice Roberts’ Long War Against the Voting Rights Act. In it, he details how Roberts argued that the federal government should have to prove the law changes were intended to be racist. In other words, it’s all good as long as some governor doesn’t say, “This law will keep them darkies from voting!”

It’s very sad, but Roberts clear undemocratic opinions are typical of conservatives everywhere and increasingly the elite everywhere. At the hearing today, the conservatives seemed to be very concerned about how democracy worked and indicated the need for them to step in and fix its problems. We’re not talking about stopping mob rule. Instead, Scalia noted that the law was so popular that the legislators didn’t feel free to vote against it. What a terrible thing, right? Representatives actually listening to their constituencies? What’s next: the rule of law?!

Don’t be surprised if the important Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is struck down. In fact, don’t be surprised if the whole act is struck down. This court has shown an eagerness to make decisions that are far broader than the question at hand. It used to be that the court calmed a more excitable legislature and executive. Now, the court is the more excitable. And democracy is in great danger.

100 Years of Irwin Shaw

Irwin ShawOne hundred years ago today the great writer Irwin Shaw was born. About a year ago, I spent a couple of weeks with his Short Stories, Five Decades. It reminded me of when I first started writing about 25 years ago. I became obsessed with his short story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” I read it again and again. It tells the story of a man’s life from one day in high school that he looks back on as the pinnacle: an eighty-yard touchdown run during football practice. It is perceptive that Shaw used this example. In one way, anyone can understand that doing this would make a boy feel very good about himself. Life is like that: relatively little things can put on shine on life. But another way of looking it is that it is pathetic. It is high school and it isn’t even a game — just a practice.

All of Shaw’s work is filled with unspoken truths. No one ever seems quite able to communicate what they think and feel — even to themselves. Everyone is left with the vague sadness that you think life is really all about when you are young. Of course, as you get older, you learn first hand that this is exactly what life is about. The one thing we all share is regret about everything. Shaw conveys this idea with an expansive collection of characters and their stories.

Shaw is kind of a guys’s writer. Most of his characters are men. He still does an excellent job with female characters but he never provides the kind of depth that he often does for his men. There are certainly similarities with Hemingway — especially at his best in The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. But Hemingway is notably weaker. His female characters speak of a man who only ever had much contact with women through prostitutes. And there is a great deal of insecurity in his work, as though he were trying to prove he was a real man. With Shaw, there is no such problem — men just are what they are without editorializing.

Shaw has also written a lot of plays and novels. He got his start writing for radio. I can’t speak to any of that. He had some notable popular successes as with his novel Rich Man, Poor Man. I recommend checking out his short stories.


There are a few other notable birthdays today. Peter Stone would have been 83 today. He was a playwright who also wrote some notable screenplays like Charade. Joanne Woodward is 83 today. She starred in one of my favorite movies, They Might Be Giants. And Elizabeth Taylor would have been 81 today. She was known for being Elizabeth Taylor.

Ralph Nader was born in 1934 on this day. Chelsea Clinton, 1980. Peter De Vries, himself quite a good writer, was born on this day in 1910. He wrote some fun novels.

Oh yeah: some guy named John Steinbeck was born on this day in 1902. I’ve heard that he wrote some novels or something. “Angry Grapes”? “Bitter Prunes”? Something like that.

Boehner’s Paradox of Power

What Will John Boehner Do?Jonathan Chait came out this morning and said what we all know in our hearts: John Boehner’s position on the Sequester is a teeny-tiny jobs program. Or to put it more bluntly: he doesn’t care about 700,000 jobs that will be lost if the Sequester stays the law; he only cares about one job: his own as Speaker of the House. I don’t think this is the only thing that is going on, but there is much to it. After all, a bipartisan plan could make it through the House; it is just that Boehner won’t allow the vote. And that just makes the national brand of the GOP that much worse.

This is another example of the paradox of power. Boehner has basically taken his career hostage. He now has quite a lot of power. He could cut deals with the White House that are great for the Republicans and then, with the help of House Democrats, he could get them enacted. But if he does that, he will surely lose his speakership. And thus the paradox: he has power only so long as he doesn’t use it.

Something like this goes on with every politician in the country. They make concessions for power. But they never really use the power (in the way they had wanted to when they started anyway) because they are trying to get more power. Or, as with Boehner, they are trying to hold onto their impotent power. Or, as with Obama, they’ve been so thoroughly assimilated into the system that they can’t imagine doing anything other than perpetuating it. If you think about it though, there is a whole lot of assimilation at all levels of government. If there weren’t, suicide rates among politicians would be very high because of the paradoxical position they place themselves in.

Chait thinks that Boehner will eventually accept a deal. I’m not keen to see this happen. I fear that Obama will be so eager for a deal that he will give away huge cuts in entitlement programs in exchange for rich people’s tip money. And what will be even worse will be watching liberal pundits dance in the streets, “Obama made Boehner cave!” The actual deal won’t matter. And then ten years from now, the loopholes will all be back, but the cuts will live on. So I’m almost hoping that Boehner continues to keep his power rather than use it.