Archive:

January 2010, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



King Chavez?  Is the Venezuelan leader getting delusions of the kind often associated with royalty?
"I am the people," President Hugo Chavez boomed confidently Saturday as thousands of pro- and anti-government demonstrators in Caracas sharpened their rhetoric ahead of this year's legislative elections.

Marking the anniversary of the downfall of General Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, demonstrators of all stripes turned out in force in anticipation of September legislative polls.

Chavez addressed thousands of followers in western Caracas, demanding "absolute loyalty" and telling them he embodied the heart and soul of the Venezuelan people.
Royalty, and most leftwing dictators.

(His latest claim will remind some of Louis XIV's most famous — though probably apocryphal — quotation: "L'État, c'est moi."  ("I am the State."))
- 9:19 AM, 24 January 2010   [link]


How The Citizens United Case Affects The "Mainstream" Media:   Eugene Volokh outlines three likely results from yesterday's Supreme Court decision.

News organizations like the New York Times will like the third, will hate the second, and will not even recognize the first.
- 9:59 AM, 22 January 2010   [link]


Democrat Larry Sabato Has Some Bad News For Democrats:  They might suffer big losses this November in the Senate.
In fact, it is likely that the Republicans will gain at least 3 to 5 Senate seats in November.   Even more startling, in the aftermath of the Massachusetts special election, Republicans would do even better IF the general election were being held today.  The Crystal Ball projects that the Democratic majority in the Senate would be reduced to just 52 seats if November's contests were somehow moved to January.
. . .
Among the senators who could be endangered by a new wave of Republican entries are Evan Bayh (Indiana), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Patty Murray (Washington), and Russ Feingold (Wisconsin).
If you haven't been following the Senate races closely, you may not know that, until recently, most observers thought that the Republicans would make, at best, small gains in the Senate, because so many Democratic incumbents looked safe.

But, if Bayh, Murray, and Feingold aren't safe, then no Democratic senator is safe.

(Sabato goes on to explore the slim possibility that the Republicans could gain enough sets to win control of the Senate.  The odds are still greatly against that happening, but they have gotten better.  If I had to make a wild guess, I would say that the odds had changed from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000.)
- 2:13 PM, 21 January 2010   [link]


The Supreme Court Corrects Some Mistakes:  And comes out in favor of freedom of speech.
Sweeping aside a century-old understanding and overruling two important precedents, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

The ruling was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment's most basic free speech principle — that the government has no business regulating political speech.  The dissenters said allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace will corrupt democracy.
The New York Times isn't happy about this, preferring to limit freedom of speech to news corporations, and some of their friends.  But there's that pesky phrase in the First Amendment — Congress shall make no law — and this time the court paid attention to the plain meaning of those words.

To their credit, the court did not dodge this issue; in fact, they used an obscure case to make a broad point.
When the case was first argued last March, it seemed a curiosity likely to be decided on narrow grounds.  The court could have ruled that Citizens United was not the sort of group to which the McCain-Feingold law was meant to apply, or that the law did not mean to address 90-minute documentaries, or that video-on-demand technologies were not regulated by the law.  Thursday's decision rejected those alternatives.

Instead of deciding the case in June, the court set down the case for a rare re-argument in September.  It now asked the parties to address the much more consequential question of whether the court should overrule a 1990 decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, along with part of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the 2003 decision that upheld the central provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
We owe this victory for free speech, in part, to President Bush, who nominated two First Amendment supporters, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., to the court.  That does not entirely make up for the fact that he signed McCain-Feingold, but it helps.  (I suspect that the Bush administration, like most other observers, expected the court to throw out most of McCain-Feingold.  The court did, but only on this second try.)

(I don't know whether the court's majority had this in mind, but it is good to have this decision out of the way before most of the 2010 campaign.)
- 12:58 PM, 21 January 2010   [link]


Obama Broke A Promise On Mandates:  Libertarian Steve Chapman noticed.
The nice thing about elections is that they give you a choice not only of people but of policies.   In the 2008 primaries, for instance, Hillary Clinton offered a health care plan that required everyone to get insurance, while Barack Obama's blueprint had no such mandate.  That was about the only difference in their suggested solutions.

It was a big one, to hear Obama tell it.  He aired a TV ad attacking Clinton because her scheme "forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it, and you pay a penalty if you don't."

He, by contrast, stressed that he would encourage more coverage by offering federal help in paying for it, while trusting in the ultimate wisdom of individual Americans to make their own decisions.

Voters had a clear choice, and they chose Obama and his voluntary plan over Clinton and her compulsory approach.  That settled that.

Or so we thought.  But something happened after Obama arrived in the Oval Office.  His deep faith in the free decisions of ordinary people soon evaporated.  Last summer, after the House included a mandate in its legislation, Obama suddenly had a change of heart.
To the best of my knowledge, Obama has never explained his shift, never explained why he dropped a campaign promise that he had made, again and again.

My own, rather cynical, explanation for his shift is that he made that promise, not because he believes in individual freedom, or because he had thought much about health insurance problems and concluded that a voluntary plan was the best approach, but because he wanted to contrast his position with Hillary Clinton's.  In other words, if she had opposed mandates, he probably would have favored them.

What is mildly surprising, even after all these years, is that "mainstream" journalists have shown so little interest in his change of position.  They have not grilled Obama, and asked him to explain why he changed his position on this issue.  (Similarly, few "mainstream" journalists have asked him about his change of position on taxing "Cadillac" insurance plans.  McCain proposed doing that during the campaign, and Obama attacked him fiercely for that.  Now Obama has adopted McCain's position, without ever really explaining why he changed position.)

It is good to see libertarian Chapman asking these questions.  And he seems to be a little surprised that Obama has not kept this promise.  Or many others, I would add.  But he shouldn't be.

In fact, it is a little puzzling to see a Chicago journalist put any faith in promises from an ally of the Chicago machine, and a man of the far left.  There are many examples in Chicago from the machine, and from the far left, to show why that's usually a mistake.
- 11:14 AM, 21 January 2010   [link]


Sometimes New York Times Editorials Are Unintentionally Funny:   For instance.
There are many theories about the import of Scott Brown's upset victory in the race for Edward Kennedy's former Senate seat.  To our minds, it is not remotely a verdict on Mr. Obama's presidency, nor does it amount to a national referendum on health care reform — even though it has upended the effort to pass a reform bill, which Mr. Obama made the centerpiece of his first year.
Just because Brown and Coakley campaigned on Obama's policies, and polls show that voters chose Brown because he disagreed with those policies, is no reason — if you are on the editorial board of the New York Times — to think that Brown's win has anything to do with Obama's failures.

(I suspect that the person who wrote that would flunk if asked to repeat it while connected to a lie detector.  But they will probably believe their own story in a few weeks, even if they don't believe it now.)
- 7:20 AM, 21 January 2010   [link]


More "Unexpected" Bad News On Jobs:  My sympathies to those who are looking for a job, or just hoping to keep a job.
The number of newly-laid off workers seeking jobless benefits unexpectedly rose last week, as the economy recovers at a slow and uneven pace.

Layoffs have slowed and the economy began to grow in last year's third quarter, but companies are reluctant to hire new workers.  The unemployment rate is 10 percent and many economists expect it to increase in the coming months.

The Labor Department said Thursday that initial claims for unemployment insurance rose by 36,000 to a seasonally adjusted 482,000.  Wall Street economists expected a small drop, according to Thomson Reuters.
And I can't help noting that, while Bush was president, the economic news was often "unexpectedly" good.

(The Labor Department has an explanation for part of this increase: state unemployment offices let claims pile up over the holidays.  If true, that does not reflect well on those offices.)
- 6:55 AM, 21 January 2010   [link]


Damn The Voters, Full Speed Ahead!  So say a number of prominent Democrats, most notably Speaker Pelosi.
On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats would press ahead on health care whatever the outcome in Massachusetts.

"Let's remove all doubt that we will have health care one way or another.  Back to the drawing board means a great big zero for the American people," Pelosi told reporters in California.
But after the Brown victory in Massachusetts, Pelosi may find that some of her followers have deserted her.  And, unlike Admiral Farragut, she can't court martial those who don't follow her lead.
- 1:16 PM, 20 January 2010   [link]


Why Is Robert Gibbs Press Secretary?  Last December, I jokingly suggested that he was there to make Bush's former press secretary, Scott McClellan, look good.  But, if that was his goal, Gibbs has already succeeded, and is now pushing forward toward some new goal, though what it could be, I can't imagine.
Gibbs acts as though he's playing himself in the movie version of his job.  In this imaginary film, he is the smart-alecky press secretary, offering zippy comebacks and cracking jokes to make his questioners look ridiculous.  It's no great feat to make reporters look bad, but this act also sends a televised image of a cocksure White House to ordinary Americans watching at home.
In December, I speculated that Bush had chosen McClellan partly because of his contempt for most journalists, and that Gibbs similarly shows the contempt the Obama White House has for the same journalists.

But there is this difference:  McClellan came along after Bush had mostly given on trying to get his message through to "mainstream" journalists.  But Gibbs came in at the beginning of the Obama administration, when you would think that they would want good relations with the press.   But, as the Milbank piece shows, they aren't willing to do much to have those good relations.   Why they aren't, why, for instance, Gibbs is unwilling to treat reporters with ordinary respect, is more than a bit puzzling.
- 12:53 PM, 20 January 2010   [link]


The Massachusetts Reversal:  Michael Moynihan "borrows" a couple of maps to show the extent of the Republican gains from 2008.   (Democrats are strong in western Massachusetts, not because of the appeal of their farm policies, but because the area has many prep schools, colleges, and universities.)

The New York Times produced its own interactive maps, trying to explain Brown's victory.

There isn't anything wrong with their discussion, but much of it could have been summarized more simply: Producers moved from the Democrats to the Republican, consumers did not.  The Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democrats have been so concerned over redistribution that they have forgotten that goods and services must be produced before they can be redistributed.  And the people who make things and provide services are beginning to notice.

Scott Brown captured that change perfectly when he chose to campaign in a pickup truck.  A few pickup trucks are expensive toys, but most are working vehicles.
- 7:06 AM, 20 January 2010   [link]


6.0 Percent Predicted, 4.8 Percent Actual:  Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, but by a little less than I had predicted.  The polls, collectively, were accurate but did not pick up a small Coakley surge in the last few days.   Coakley had a 47-41 percent edge among late deciders.

(If that sounds a little apologetic, it's because it is.  When I make these predictions, I am aiming to have an error less than .5 percent.  And I was 2 points off on the vote for libertarian Joe Kennedy.  I should have done better on both the margin and the vote for Kennedy.)
- 5:42 AM, 20 January 2010   [link]


Well, That Was Fun:  I spent most of today waiting for the election returns from Massachusetts and was rewarded, a little earlier in the evening than I expected.  Much more tomorrow, but for now I think I will do something wild and crazy like celebrating with a second glass of wine.
- 8:15 PM, 19 January 2010   [link]


Independents Or "Unenrolled" Voters In Massachusetts?  You've probably heard that independents outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined in Massachusetts, and if you take a quick look at registration figures, you might believe that, if you weren't careful.  (I did.)  But if you look at those registration figures you see that there are 37.0 percent Democrats, 11.6 percent Republicans, and 51.3 percent "unenrolled".

Massachusetts has party primaries and it turns out that the "unenrolled" have an advantage over Republicans and Democrats; they can vote in either party's primaries, while those who have declared a party preference can vote only in their party's primaries.   Undoubtedly, many voters who think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans choose to register as "unenrolled", just in case they want to vote in the other party's primaries.  (If the Democrats have more interesting primaries than Republicans — as I suspect they do — then that temptation would be especially strong for Republicans.)

New Jersey has similar rules, and also has a very high proportion not registered in either party (47 percent).

(There is another reason not to take those numbers too seriously.  Massachusetts, like many other states, is not very good about purging voter rolls.  Many of those still on the voter rolls have moved, or even passed on.)
- 1:39 PM, 19 January 2010   [link]


The Rich Get Richer:  If they happen to be public university presidents.

The poor economy is finally putting the brakes on the skyrocketing pay of public-university presidents, The Chronicle of Higher Education found in its annual survey of executive pay.

The Chronicle, which surveyed 185 public institutions, found the median compensation for university leaders was $436,000 last year, a 2.3 percent increase over the previous year.  That was much smaller than past increases, which ranged from 7.6 to 18.9 percent in each of the previous four years.

I don't even have to check to know that those increases have been greater than inflation.

The Chronicle does not explain exactly what is included in what they call "total compensation".   Perhaps I am too cynical, but I suspect that it does not include all of the benefits that university presidents receive, just cash and those benefits that have direct cash equivalents.

No doubt those soaring paychecks and benefit packages only reflect spectacular gains in research and teaching at those public universities.

The presidential paychecks may not be a large part of a university's budget, but they set a pattern for all the administrators underneath the presidents.  And in our modern universities, there are more than a few administrators.  (All of whom, I am sure, contribute to the public good.)

We in Washington state can be proud that we have two presidents in the top twenty.  And that University of Washington president Mark Emmert has done such a great job that he can take a half year off — at full pay.  If that doesn't show that he is an effective leader, I don't know what would.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(It is difficult to evaluate the work of a university president, especially over a period of a few years.  You can tell whether a president is a good fund raiser, but even in principle it is difficult to tell whether they are a good faculty recruiter, or whether they set a tone that encourages research and learning.)
- 10:31 AM, 19 January 2010   [link]


Weather Effects On Turnout In Massachusetts?  Probably not much, judging by the weather maps and this Accuweather forecast.  They are getting snow showers this morning, but the showers should clear up by this afternoon.

If anything, I would judge that the weather will be a very small plus for Brown, since his supporters are more motivated.
- 9:38 AM, 19 January 2010   [link]


Massachusetts Senate Predictions:  (In no particular order.)

Democratic analyst Nate Silver says the odds are 3:1 in Scott Brown's favor.   (Somewhat puzzlingly, he also says that he would take a bet on Coakley at those odds.  Shouldn't an honest odds-maker be willing to take either side of a bet?  Perhaps he is just saying that in order to keep up his credibility among his Democratic fans.)

As I write, the InTrade bettors are slightly less favorable to Brown, giving him about a 72 percent chance of winning.  (Yesterday's closing price gave him a 77 percent chance of winning, so the betting has shifted against him slightly.)

All of the recent (1/14 or later) polls at Real Clear Politics, except one done for Daily Kos, have leads for Brown, ranging from 0 to 15 points.

At Pollster.com, Charles Franklin and Mark Blumenthal have been torturing the polling data until it confesses.  Here's Franklin's latest.
Republican Scott Brown holds a lead in all 18 alternative models of the Massachusetts Senate race polls, now including all polls released through 6:00 p.m. Monday.  Our standard trend estimate puts the race at a 6.2 point Brown lead over Democrat Martha Coakley.  The less sensitive alternative linear model puts the Brown lead at 7.3 points.  Across all models, Brown leads by between 1.0 and 8.9 points.  Three quarters of the estimates have Brown ahead by 4 points or more.
And here's Blumenthal's summary.
So for me it boils down to this: I was a Democratic consultant for long enough to want to believe that Coakley can still prevail, and there is still a remote chance that the polls in this race will be as misleading as they were in New Hampshire.  However, my head is not my heart.  Barring another polling meltdown, Scott Brown is the likely winner.
A polling meltdown is not impossible, given the inherent difficulties of polling in special elections.  Turnout is always difficult to predict in such elections, because turnout can vary so much, and because almost all the enthusiasm can be on one side.  (And, just to complicate matters, there is an independent libertarian running, with a famous last name: Kennedy.)

That said, I am going to accept the verdict of the polls, not any particular poll, but the collective knowledge (I hope) of all of them.  If you make that assumption, that the pollsters know what they are doing — and you don't see any change in the trend in the last two days — then you have to predict a win for Brown.  If we guess that independent Kennedy gets 3 percent of the vote and that Brown wins by 6 percent, then the final result will be Brown, 51.5 percent and Coakley 45.5 percent.

That's my best guess, and I am sticking to it — unless some new data comes in.
- 7:17 AM, 19 January 2010
Updates:  Pollster John Zogby is predicting a very narrow Coakley win.

The InTrade bettors don't believe him and are, as I write, giving Brown a greater than 80 percent chance of winning.
- 12:50 PM, 19 January 2009   [link]


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:  And I can do no better than recycle this post on King's speeches.  Scott Johnson also recycles a post, but his, on King's prophetic voice, is more powerful than mine, if less informative.
- 1:14 PM, 18 January 2010   [link]


Scott Brown's Surge:  As seen by the bettors at InTrade.

Scott Brown's surge at InTrade

If you believe the bettors, Brown now has 2 chances in 3 of winning the Massachusetts special Senate election.

(Here's the InTrade site if you would like to make small bet on the election.)
- 7:04 AM, 18 January 2010   [link]


Can Statistics Help Catch Terrorists?  In particular, can statistical profiling help security at airports?  It can, if intelligently used.

This BBC article is a good summary of the basics, including this fundamental point:
To make sure your system is not predictable, any profiling strategy would have to be complemented by additional random checks across the whole passenger population.

"Game theory [an area of maths used, among other things, to predict and understand behaviour] shows that in response to an intelligent adversary, it often can be optimal to adopt a level of randomisation.
You don't need to have studied game theory to understand the reasoning behind that conclusion.  If there is a pattern to all your profiling, the terrorists will figure it out, and will adapt by using people who do not fit the pattern.  So, to defeat that tactic, you must check some people randomly.

Inevitably that will lead to some checks that seem silly.  The sad story of Anne-Marie Murphy shows why such checks are necessary.  She was seduced and made pregnant by a Jordanian terrorist who promised to marry her.  He sent her off to Israel with a bomb in her luggage, hoping to kill everyone on the plane, including Anne-Marie and his unborn baby.

These aren't new arguments.  The BBC is reviewing them now because, after the failed Christmas day attack, people are again considering using profiling at airports.

(You can find similar thoughts in a New York Times article I discussed last year.)
- 6:45 AM, 18 January 2010   [link]


Snippets From Game Change On Obama:  So far, the material on Obama in the book hasn't drawn much attention.

Ed Lasky thinks that it should, and has found two snippets to support his conclusion.  According to Heilemann and Halperin, Obama is both arrogant and lazy, full of himself and unwilling to do the ordinary work of a senator.

Those two snippets suggest that my worst fears about Obama are true, suggest that he doesn't have the character or intellect to be a successful president.  Caveat:  I haven't even seen the book, much less read it.
- 6:45 AM, 17 January 2010   [link]