Posts Tagged ‘FiveThirtyEight’

Explaining Republican Obstructionism: Party First

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Republicans are pushing back against the notion that they are simply obstructionists, that they are the “Party of ‘No’!” But as they do so, their obstructionism has reached new heights.

Specifically, you could look to these examples: Senator Mitch McConnell; Senator Judd Gregg; and Senator John McCain (who thought he was in favor of net neutrality before he started to raise money opposing it and calling it a “government takeover of the internet;” and on cap and trade legislation, which he was one of the major supporters of until Obama proposed it; or then changing his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)

What you think about Republican obstruction determines what you think of Obama. The almost unanimous view of the right wing opinionosphere is that Obama is the most left-wing world leader since Mao Zedong. Obama’s supposed radicalism justifies and explains the unified Republican opposition. Yet no reasonable observer can judge Obama’s policies and actions as very far from the center. He has been ambitious, but cautious. So, with that explanation found to be implausible, what other explanations are there?

Andrew Sullivan posits one which seems the typical and politicized answer – and the one I would have given before the health care debate:

The core narrative of Obama’s promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He’s struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform.

There is truth to this claim – but it is insufficient given Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. On a range of issues, Republicans supported Bush and opposed Obama (for example, compare the treatment of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid with that of failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or even deficit spending in general.) This suggests the ideological motivation is not sufficient. Ezra Klein describing Senator Mitch McConnell’s vote against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission posits an explanation that seems most compelling in understanding our current political gridlock, in predicting who will do what:

McConnell’s actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something  that makes people even more uncomfortable. We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

Simply put, for the most part, voters are not electing individuals with ideologies, but parties incentivized and empowered to obstruct to get into power. This creates the dynamic described in an email sent to James Fallows by a source who claims to have witnessed this conversation regarding the stimulus bill:

GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’

Dem member response: ‘If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?’

GOP member:  ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’

Dem member:  ‘Then why should we put it in the bill?’

Ezra Klein, citing John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, explains why this is an effective political strategy, even if it means giving up on governing:

“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”

Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren’t acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that’s often true.

In other words, most people, not having the time to figure out what is really going on as misinformation and ideology muddy the news, apply heuristic reasoning – shortcuts for guessing answers to complex problems. People don’t judge policies on the merits as there are conflicting claims, but instead on stories about the process as legislation is being debated and stories about effects after a policy is in force. Given this, its clear that Republicans are taking advantage of the dynamic described well by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com:

Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.

With the typical focus on ideology, this seems backwards. But a focus on ideology doesn’t explain the underlying facts – either the public opinion about what is happening in Washington or the uniform opposition of Republicans. At some point, this dynamic will change – because the media will need a new story and the public will grow bored and the facts will eventually seep into the public consciousness. Remember how effective the fear-mongering was after September 11? Eventually, it began to be seen as a stale political tactic – and though it may work again, for the moment, it seems to have lost its magical power. So, too, will this strategy – even if the Democrats never figure out that the effective way to counter this is to just pass the damn bills with good policy and defend them vigorously in public.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Must-Reads of the Week: Obama (mythical figure), Democratic Talking Points, Health Care Misinformation & Defenses of Reform, & Musical Predictions

Friday, January 29th, 2010

1. The greatest Obama myth. Jonathn Cohn in The New Republic asks where the Obama he voted for was – before the State of the Union:

[F]or the first time, at least in my memory, Democrats had a leader who consistently outsmarted not just his opponents but his supporters as well. Over and over again in the 2008 campaign, those of us rooting for him would panic over his strategy. Over and over again, Obama proved us wrong. He had an uncanny ability to block out the noise and confound Beltway perceptions, to ignore the ups and downs of the news cycle in order to pursue broader goals. Even for me, somebody who generally resisted the Obama kool-aid, it was something to behold.

I remember the sensation most vividly during the financial crisis of September–when John McCain suspended his campaign and suggested canceling a scheduled debate, in order to return to Washington. Suggesting that a president should be able to campaign and govern simultaneously, Obama rebuffed the proposal–a move for which, I was sure, nervous voters would punish him. Instead, the public rallied to Obama and rejected McCain. They saw a leader who was unflappable, who had his own sense of direction, and who could manage a crisis.

This cool demeanor became his trademark and, eventually, supporters took to emailing around a photoshop image every time political trouble appeared. If you’re on a progressive mailing list, chances are you saw it a few dozen times–a picture of Obama giving a speech, with the caption “Everybody Chill the F*** Out. I’ve Got This.”

Obama left me with the impression he still clearly had that demeanor and confidence – and the speech left Cohn guardedly optimistic.

2. Democratic Talking Points, 2010. Chris Good at The Atlantic posts the Democratic Senators’ 2010 national strategy memo.

3. Woefully misinformed about the health care reform bill. Nate Silver points out that the support of the various proposals within the health care bill are greater than the support for the bill itself – and that the public is seriously misinformed about the contents of it:

What we see is that most individual components of the bill are popular — in some cases, quite popular. But awareness lags behind. Only 61 percent are aware that the bill bans denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Only 42 percent know that it bans lifetime coverage limits. Only 58 percent are aware that it set up insurance exchanges. Just 44 percent know that it closes the Medicare donut hole — and so on and so forth.

“Awareness”, by the way, might be a forgiving term in this context. For the most part in Kaiser’s survey, when the respondent doesn’t affirm that the bill contains a particular provision, he actually believes that the bills don’t include that provision. 29 percent, for instance, say the bill does not contain a provision requiring insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions; 20 percent think it does not expand subsidies.

4. Pass the Damn Bill. Paul Starr, veteran of the Clinton attempt at health reform, argues for progressives embracing Obama’s health care reforms in The American Prospect:

Even with its compromises, health reform is the most ambitious effort in decades to reorganize a big part of life around principles of justice and efficiency…

5. Do you spend hours each day having fun making predictions? Jonah Lehrer on what moves us about music: the patterns in it, and our attempts to predict these patterns.

[Image by Diego Cupolo licensed under Creative Commons.]

Political Number Games

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

A more proper post coming later, but for the moment, I wanted to provide you with two graphs and one poll result.

First, from the always insightful Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, who points out that all these polls touting the fact that Americans are almost evenly split on the health care legislation before Congress, 12% of those counted against the bill are those that want it to move farther to the left:

By “left,” Silver means those who think the bill doesn’t go far enough to reform health care – though I suppose those could be people on the right as well. Either way, breaking down the data like this gives a lot more insight than the headline numbers.

Via Andrew Sullivan, an enterprising individual mapped out the “geography of the recession,” with the mounting job losses per county places on a map of the United States and animated over time.

Finally, in a rather misleading piece of analysis, Andrew Malcolm of the LA Times uses recent poll data to suggest that Sarah Palin has a shot in an electoral race against Obama. Rather than looking at head-to-head polling results, he looks at the favorability ratings of Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Dick Cheney. He points out that Obama’s are dropping and Palin’s and Cheney’s are rising. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that these last two individuals have no power and thus those favoring them are only supporting the vague promise of an individual. But – on the other hand – this does demonstrate that Palin and Cheney have become the voice of the Republican Party, and does bode well for my prediction that at least one of the two will be on the Republican ticket come 2012. Those suggesting we write them off and ignore them because they represent fringe views are engaging in wishful thinking.