Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Finally, a good film about the presidency

I saw "Lincoln" the other night. This is a very good and very rich film -- it contains a great deal of detail, both in the script and on the screen -- and I'd like to see it again soon to look for things I missed the first time around. Much has already been written on the film (I'm particularly enjoying Ta-Nehisi Coates' and Susan Schulten's perspectives, and David Brooks makes some interesting observations), but I wanted to mention a particular point: this is probably the best film on the American presidency ever made.

The premise of the film is that Lincoln has an agenda item (the thirteenth amendment) he wants to push through Congress. He's recently been reelected -- after very publicly supporting emancipation -- and believes he has a mandate to see this agenda through. But he faces numerous obstacles. First, a Confederate peace envoy is offering to cease hostilities if slavery can be retained in some form; news of this will likely erode support for the proposed amendment. Second, his party, while maintaining large majorities in Congress, doesn't command two-thirds of the House, and members of the minority Democrats must be won over if the amendment is to pass. Third, his party is hardly united on the amendment; conservatives think it goes to far, radicals think it doesn't go far enough, and none of them like him forcing this on a lame duck Congress. Fourth, Lincoln's own views on slavery and the war have evolved over his first term, and many in Congress and in his own cabinet distrust him as a result.

These struggles are the essence of the American presidency. And the film nicely portrays both the powers and the limitations of the president. It makes the point that should be so obvious but is so rarely portrayed in political films: the president has no direct power over Congress. He is not a member of it, he cannot author bills, he cannot force Congress to consider a bill, and he cannot (despite what the creators of "The Contender" would have you think) demand a roll call vote. The president runs and is elected on an agenda but is largely dependent on Congress to see it through. The film also notes that the president can't dictate to his party: Preston Blair, one of the founders of the Republican Party, makes far more demands on Lincoln than the other way around, and Lincoln basically begs Thaddeus Stevens and the Radicals for their support. And in terms of the president's legal powers, Lincoln himself is shown wrestling with whether his Emancipation Proclamation was actually constitutional or whether it would have any authority in peacetime. He well knew that he was exploring uncharted and potentially dangerous areas of the law and was unclear about his power to do so.

But the president does have other powers, notably the power to make patronage appointments and control the military. He can influence media coverage but can't control it. And while we do see a few examples of the president attempting to personally persuade some members of Congress, it's not clear how effective that is, and this isn't remotely treated as his most important power. (A lesser film would likely have shown the president using his bully pulpit powers, but that would have been both ahistorical and stupid here.)

I'm open to suggestions here, but I have a hard time coming up with another film about the presidency that gets at these core issues of executive limitations and powers. "The Contender" was a joke in this regard. "All the President's Men" is great but is basically about the media. "The American President" is pretty much a romantic comedy. It does show the president struggling with pushing bills through Congress, but largely resorts to magical bully pulpit powers in the end. "Dave" is lighthearted comedy. "Seven Days in May" addresses some of these issues but almost completely ignores Congress. The one film that handles these issues seriously, I think, is "Advise and Consent," which chronicles a president's difficult nomination of a new secretary of state, although much of that film's focus is on the blackmailing of a particular senator rather than on the president, who disappears for much of the film. "West Wing" actually addresses a number of these issues in a serious way, although scattered across many different television episodes.

So I plan to use "Lincoln" in my film class, and I'm grateful for a film that finally deals with the executive branch in all its glory and shortcomings.

[Cross-posted from Mischiefs of Faction]

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Superman II: Kal-El is Horny

In my ongoing efforts to visit the sins of the father on my children, I recently watched "Superman II" with them. While "Superman I" holds up quite well, the second one really doesn't.

For one thing, the effects in "Superman I" were actually quite good. Chris Reeve really does look like he's flying -- it looks effortless and quite natural, with little evidence of green screens or wires or anything else. The effects just weren't as believable in the sequel. But beyond that, the dialogue in the second one is pretty miserable. While Lois once sounded like an ambitious cynic, she now sounds like a naive, lovelorn putz; it's hard to imagine why she's so highly valued as a reporter. Clark/Superman is laden with some pretty cruddy dialogue, as well. Either Terence Stamp and Gene Hackman had better writers, or they just had the acting skills to pull off some pretty silly lines and recognize them for the camp they were.

But one of the things that struck me as particularly weak was Superman's big decision: giving up his super powers for a chance to hook up with Lois. After they confess their love for each other, Superman goes off and has a conversation with a holographic image of his mother, asking her how he can consummate his love with Lois. (Someone's got issues.) She tells him that to be with a mortal, he has to become one, and that this move is irreversible. And he's all, "Where do I sign up?" I mean, I guess this is hardly the first guy to make an important and rash decision just for a chance to get laid, and there's no reason Kryptonian men should be any different from Earth men in this regard, but you'd think he'd have given this just a tad more thought. His powers and responsibilities are pretty important to who he is. I mean, he couldn't have saved Lois' life in the first movie (multiple times!) if not for those super powers. On a more practical level, how the hell do they get out of the North Pole if neither of them can fly? And what the hell are they going to eat?

But he ignores all this, enters the molecule chamber, and has his super powers stripped. He then emerges as a regular human, wearing a clean white shirt and lacking the hair gel. He and Lois hug, and then, literally five seconds later...
Boom. How convenient that he has a king-sized bed in his fortress of solitude. Those crystals are amazing, and surprisingly comfortable. This is a pretty impressive quid pro quo. Clark actually motions toward the bed while still hugging Lois, with the look of a guy who just bought an expensive meal or got a vasectomy and is hankering for some gratitude booty.

Clark also becomes hardly the first guy to pay an extraordinary price for sex and quickly regret it, as the very first human being he meets after they return to society beats the crap out of him. Then the TV shows the president surrendering to General Zod and exhorting Superman to save the world. So the honeymoon ends rather abruptly. And then, most disappointingly, Clark finds that he can still get his superpowers back by building a new fortress. Huh? So could any human do that? And how did he get back there anyway? (Note: this would be even harder today, given the receding polar ice.)

So it ends up being a kind of cheap "Last Temptation of Christ" story, with Superman being offered a chance for worldly pleasures in exchange for his job as savior. Only, unlike Christ, he actually gets the worldly pleasures (for a few minutes, anyway), and then gets to give them up and take his old job back. He gives up his chance for Lois only after he already slept with her. Typical guy.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Don't blame me; it was just my unrestrained id that tried to rape you

If you want to understand American gender relations in the 1960s, skip "Mad Men" and tune into classic "Star Trek." I recently re-watched "The Enemy Within" with the kids and it was an eye-opener.

A brief synopsis: due to a transporter malfunction, Kirk is split into two identical beings, a "good" Kirk who has the original's intellect and moral code, and an "evil" Kirk who has the original's lust and strength. On the surface, the episode is a nice discourse on leadership; good Kirk appears to be the ideal captain, but he can't make any command decisions without his evil half. And it's also a great example of William Shatner's genius as an actor. He makes the most of his evil side using just eyeliner and a few camera zooms.

But damn, the gender dynamics! Evil Kirk has a fascinating trip through the Enterprise. He first visits Dr. McCoy's office and demands brandy. (Why is the ship's doctor the source of liquor?) Then, good and boozed up, he pays a visit to the quarters of Yeoman Rand, whom he tries to rape. While she scratches his face, the rape is only really averted when Crewman Fisher walks by, sees what's going on, and tries to summon help. Evil Kirk disables Fisher and escapes the scene.

Later, good Kirk visits Rand and pleads his innocence, but Rand sticks to her story. To his credit, Crewman Fisher stops in and backs up Rand's story, knowing full well that he's accusing the captain of rape and doing so at risk to his own career.

Eventually, Scotty and Spock are able to repair the transporter and re-merge the two Kirks into the moral-but-decisive leader they all know and love. So then Kirk has to face Yeoman Rand, who has occasional business on the bridge. This should theoretically cause considerable discomfort to both of them, as she has to work with her would-be rapist and he can now see his past actions through the eyes of someone with a conscience. But the only discomfort appears to be from Rand, who seems to apologize to Kirk in the final scene, and he dismisses her with a simple smiling "thank you." Then Spock, out of nowhere, says with a smirk, "The imposter had some interesting qualities. Wouldn't you say, Yeoman?" Because apparently Vulcans have no emotions other than contempt for victims of sexual violence.

And keep in mind that "Star Trek" was one of the more socially liberal programs of its day, although one could probably judge from the uniforms that women's equality didn't have much of place in the creators' hearts just yet. Still, the whole I-only-raped-you-when-I-didn't-have-a-conscience-but-now-that-I-do-bygones! argument is pretty impressive.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Debate

I'm inside the media filing center at the University of Denver for the presidential debate today and live-tweeting as much as possible. I hope to have a detailed post up tonight or tomorrow, but for now, my Twitter feed will have to do. (Hashtag: #debatedenver)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Desperately seeking trends

Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell's latest piece of advice to Obama suggests that his campaign is in trouble and needs a sudden change. As evidence of Obama's recent troubles, they cherry-pick from a number of polls, noting that Obama is trailing Romney badly in the "battleground" state of Missouri (which isn't actually a battleground this year) and that Romney has closed the gap with Obama nationwide since May. Then they do this:
President Obama now leads by just one point in the latest PPP Florida poll (48%-47%)—down from a four-point lead (50%-46%) in an Aug. 22-26 CNN poll.
Look, I'm no pollster, but isn't comparing results across different polling firms and calling it a trend one of the cardinal sins of polling interpretation? And, given those polls' margins of error, aren't those two results statistically indistinguishable from one another?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to criticize Obama without making crap up

I tweeted the other day that the GOP convention had thus far offered an excellent critique of things Obama hasn't actually said or done. Paul Ryan seemed to double down on that strategy last night, saying numerous things that were, at best, highly misleading. Poor Jonathan Bernstein blew a fuse when Ryan criticized Obama for opposing the debt commission recommendations that Ryan himself had voted against, and then later offered this explanation. Even Fox News called Ryan's speech "deceiving" and "distracting" (if also "dazzling").

But all this seems to be part of a convention strategy of attacking an alternate reality Obama rather than the one who currently resides in the White House. A national convention is a rare opportunity to get your message out to voters unfiltered, and when you spend nearly all of it criticizing the government takeover of health care that didn't happen, the apology tour that didn't happen, the war on religion that didn't happen, etc., and then make the entire convention's theme ("We built it") a response to an out-of-context quote that only works as a gaffe when you selectively edit the president's speech, and when it seems the media is finally willing to call bullshit on this stuff, it makes you look bad. It makes it look like the real Obama must be a brilliant, flawless president -- otherwise, why would you have to make stuff up about him?

Now, even the most ardent Obama fan (even Obama himself, I'll bet) would admit to some flaws over the past 3 1/2 years. Can Republican speechwriters not come up with any? Let me just offer a few suggestions for those still working on some speeches for tonight:
  • The economy is still not great! Would it be so hard to say something like, "Yes, Obama inherited a lot of challenges in 2008, but so did Reagan in 1980. By 1984, we had 7% economic growth. Where's the Obama recovery?" I mean, tinker with the wording or whatever, but that's actually true. Is that not enough?
  • Solyndra! Yes, it's small potatoes -- just the narrowest sliver of stimulus spending, which overall was well-spent and actually saw good results. But at least with Solyndra, the president took a gamble with taxpayer money and gambled wrong. There must be at least a handful of similar cases out there. Find them.
  • Federal judges. I know this is generally a left-wing critique of Obama, and most Republicans are thrilled that there are fewer Obama judges on the bench. But the fact that he hasn't nominated more judges actually is a bit of a scandal. You can spin that to make it look irresponsible, can't you?
  • You could attack ACA for what it actually does. It requires people to purchase something they might not have purchased. Yes, it's constitutional, but it seems like you could frame it as inconsistent with the current conservative vision of liberty without blowing it up into some Marxist caricature. 
I just have to think there's enough factual material out there to fill a 30-minute speech. The viewers on Fox (the primary audience for this event) might be content with the fantasy world attacks, but if you want to speak to a larger audience, a bit more might be demanded of you.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Colorado: It's not just a ski resort that burns down each summer

The University of Denver and the Glover Park consulting group conducted a press conference last Monday in Washington, DC, to discuss Colorado politics, the presidential debates, and the 2012 election. I was one of four DU faculty members in attendance, along with DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil and former Colorado Republican Party Chair Dick Wadhams. Dee Dee Myers hosted. You can see all the action here on C-SPAN.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Explaining Olympic medals, a follow-up

Two weeks ago, I posted some stats on the nations that were winning the most Olympic medals in the first week of the games. I thought I'd follow up with some additional charts now that the games have concluded. These are for the top 21 medal-earning nations, rather than every country, so please forgive the incomplete dataset.

I should also mention a little regression analysis I did showing that overwhelmingly the best predictor of how many medals a country won was how many athletes they sent to the games. The more you play, the more you win. Not shocking, I know, but still a better predictor than wealth. However, GDP turns out to be the best predictor of how many athletes a nation will send. So national wealth is important, but somewhat indirectly.

Anyway, charts are below the jump. North Korea, while having a great first week, fell quite a bit in most rankings. The big story now is Jamaica, a small and relatively poor country that won a ton of medals.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Links for following the 2012 elections

[Reposted from Mischiefs of Faction]

I recently did a talk for an Election Watchdog Workshop run by Investigative Reporters and Editors, during which I provided a list of recommended resources for following the fall campaigns. I figured I'd reproduce the list below. Please feel free to suggest any other good ones.

Campaign Resources
Voter Identification Laws
Economic Indicators
Election Forecasts

(h/t to John Sides and Lynn Vavreck for some helpful suggestions)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Medals per athlete, 2012 Olympics

I'm not surprised this statistic hasn't gotten a lot of attention so far, even though it's probably the fairest way to compare across countries.

Update: I'm not sure if this is a fairer measure, but here's medals won per million citizens. North Korea is still looking pretty solid, but Hungary's stomping the world.

Oh, and what the hell, here's the number of medals divided by nominal GDP, as reported in the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Vacation tip: Minuteman Missile, South Dakota

We recently came back from a visit to western South Dakota, which was fantastic and surprising in many respects. I'd never been to the state, and the image I'd conjured in my mind was really nothing like what I saw. We were surrounded by bison in Custer State Park, we saw an active mammoth dig site in Hot Springs, we were mesmerized by the Badlands, we learned a lot about the Wounded Knee massacre in a tiny museum in Wall, and more. 

Not a big workspace.
But what I wanted to mention was our visit to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Much to their credit, the Park Service decided to maintain a Cold War-era launch control facility and silo. We toured the launch control facility -- it was free, but you need to obtain tickets in advance. The facility is basically a small base on the ground level, where roughly 10 people were stationed starting in the mid-1960s. They provided security, maintained communications, and cooked food for the two-person crew stationed thirty feet below in the launch control center.

The underground center is basically a capsule with 3-foot thick concrete walls, held to the surrounding earth by giant shock absorbers. It was built to withstand a nuclear detonation as close as a mile away. The two chairs inside it have seat belts so that the officers wouldn't be thrown around the chamber in the event of a blast.

The Park Ranger leading our tour gave us a good impression of the lives of the people stationed in this facility. They worked in 24-hour shifts but only had roughly 1-2 hours of work during that time. Beyond that, they just sat and waited for the order to kill millions of people. It's a serious head trip. Officers picked for this job were usually under the age of 25, making them more likely to follow orders and less likely to have families. 

Here's me about to turn my key to start World War III:

And here's some interesting gallows humor painted on the center's concrete door:

Anyway, it's a fascinating piece of history and very much worth the visit.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A reason to celebrate

(Reposted from Mischiefs of Faction)

Want a reason to celebrate this Independence Day? Try this: elections. Yes, elections can be annoying, and if you live in a swing state, you are undoubtedly already being hammered with mind-numbing attack ads, with Republicans claiming that everything that Democrats do is craven or evil and vice versa.

But what's the alternative? I've spent far too much of my leisure time in the last year listening to the History of Rome podcast and watching "Game of Thrones," and one thing those tales drive home is the challenge of succession. Many (perhaps most?) of the battles fought by soldiers of the Roman Empire were fought against other Roman soldiers, either putting town a rebellion or taking the throne from a usurper. Passing power along by bloodline can help -- at least it's some sort of system -- but it can create just as many problems when an heir proves incompetent or there are multiple legitimate claimants. One of the reasons for the successes of the Roman emperors of the 2nd century AD was that most of them did not have male children -- they were able to choose qualified successors and groom them for leadership. Marcus Aurelius, of course, did produce a male heir, and he turned out to be an insane Joaquin Phoenix, ending the empire's century of competence.

I find this important because the Roman Empire was pretty much the most advanced civilization the world had ever seen. It had sophisticated systems of currency and trade, an advanced legal system, a functional bureaucracy, not to mention its amazing military capabilities. But they were never able to resolve the problem of succession of power.

And yet this is something we take for granted today. Elections are fought fiercely, but they end. The results are rarely disputed, and basically never with violence. We do not fear for our lives if we pick the wrong presidential candidate, and we do not waste blood and treasure putting down rebellions and ousting usurpers.

No, we're not the only nation to figure this out, but it's nonetheless something to be proud of, especially since so many advanced societies before us failed on this point. So this Independence Day, let's celebrate by volunteering for a candidate, donating money to a campaign, or just watching an attack ad.

Happy Fourth.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Not "scientifically valid"

Sounds like some of the folks at the Douglas County (Colorado) School District could use a statistics refresher course. Writes the Denver Post:
The Douglas County School District has deemed its spring survey of parents "inconclusive" — a poll in which a majority of responding parents saw the district's suspended voucher program as "unfavorable" and expressed unhappiness with the district's overall direction.
District officials contend that not enough parents participated in the survey to make it a valid representation. As a result, they stamped every page of survey results posted on the district's website in red letters saying: "Inconclusive due to insufficient response rate."
More than 4,900 parents completed the survey. There are approximately 76,500 parents whose children attend Douglas County schools. 
District spokesman Randy Barber said the approximately 6 percent of parents who responded to the survey this spring was significantly under the 30 percent the district wanted to make it "scientifically valid."
Yes, people usually have more confidence in a survey if it has a higher response rate. But that doesn't mean that the results of this survey aren't valid, and there's nothing magic or "scientific" about the 30 percent threshold. We can conduct very accurate national surveys based on just 1,000 responses -- roughly a fifth of what they managed in this parent survey. More important than overall numbers is representativeness. That is, does the sample of parents who responded to the survey look roughly like the overall population within the school district? This can probably be figured out using demographic questions (although the only one I can find in the survey is just a race question. Area of residence, income, family size, ideology, etc., would be really helpful here.) 

Of course, maybe the reason that the district rejected the results as "inconclusive" has less to do with sample size than it does with the results, which were less than flattering for the district. If they really want to know what district parents think, they could conduct a survey of a representative (and probably smaller) sample and get solid results. But if they just want certain results, then by all means they should just keep doing surveys until they get the answers they want.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The foie gras lobby

On July 1st, the production and sale of foie gras will become illegal in California, a result of a state law passed back in 2004. Ed Leibowitz at The Atlantic has an entertaining story about some of the lobbying surrounding this new law. According to the article, over 100 chefs are now lobbying for the reversal of the law, and they have some effective talking points:
“Foie gras is low-hanging fruit,” [Chef Josiah] Citrin* says, in the resigned tone of someone explaining the obvious. “You think the foie gras industry has money to fight, like the beef industry?” He points out that a class barrier also keeps voters from rallying in defense of foie. “You go out in the street and ask 25 people ‘What do you think about fattened duck liver?’ and they’ll say ‘Ooh, I don’t like that.’ You don’t have to take a poll.”
Citrin has joined a coalition of more than 100 chefs lobbying for the reversal or suspension of the foie gras ban. (The coalition, which insists that it does not oppose animal rights, says it favors the humane treatment of all livestock, waterfowl included.) In a few days, many of the chefs will travel to Sacramento to lobby on foie’s behalf, and in the weeks ahead, high-end restaurants will hold foie-filled dinners to raise funds for their quixotic fight.
On the other side of the issue is the ever-quotable John Burton, the one-time lion of the state legislature and now chair of the state Democratic party:
The chefs’ coalition has warned about the ban’s potential impact on California’s high-end restaurants in a bad economy, and the state’s diminished standing in the world of haute cuisine. “California will no longer be a food destination?,” Burton said. “In other words, a guy’s sitting around and says ‘Let’s go to California. They’ve got these beautiful views. They’ve got Yosemite, the bridges, Universal City, the redwoods. Oh, shit! They don’t have foie gras! Let’s go to South Dakota.’”
Nor did he buy the argument that a restaurant could go broke without foie gras, unless that restaurant’s specialty was incredibly narrow. “If you had the House of Foie Gras, you’d be fucked,” he said.
Anyway, a great story that manages to humanize both sides of a lobbying battle, over an issue on which the vast majority of people probably don't have strong opinions and will never be affected.

*Disclosure: Citrin is a family friend.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Light posting here this week, as I'm attending the Political Networks conference in Boulder. You can follow all the action at the Political Networks Twitter feed, or on the hashtag #polnet2012.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Zombie fundraising meme

Last week, Politico Buzzfeed ran a story claiming that Obama is having fundraising problems, noting that many of his 2008 donors haven't given him any money this year. (Here was my response to that.) Today, it followed up with an analysis of where Obama's fundraising shortfall relative to 2008 has been greatest. For the record, I was actually interviewed for this story, and I explained to the reporter (Rebecca Elliott) that I didn't think there was any there there. That is, Obama hasn't received donations this year from a lot of his 2008 donors for one main reason: he didn't face a primary challenger this year, while he was in one of the most competitive presidential nomination races in modern history four years ago. We had a good chat about this, but nothing along these lines made its way into the article.

The new article, meanwhile, starts from the premise that Obama is suffering, and tries to explain why his fundraising shortfall relative to 2008 has been greater in some states than in others. But again, I just don't think there's much here. As Elliott reports, 88% of Obama's 2008 donors nationwide have yet to contribute to him this year, and when you break those figures down by state, the highest shortfall is in Oregon at 91%. Now, if the mean is 88% and the highest value is 91%, it just doesn't sound like we're talking about a whole lot of variation here. The political scientists quoted in the story do a valiant job coming up with some reasons why Western state donors would experience higher dropoff, but it just doesn't sound like there's much of a phenomenon to explain here.

I understand the desire to run stories about how Obama is having a harder time this year than he did in 2008, and that is certainly true in many measurable ways. And who knows -- maybe we'll ultimately find that he did have a hard time raising money. But drawing these comparisons between a campaign with a well-funded opponent and a campaign with no opponent is misleading, and terribly, terribly frustrating.

Update: I inaccurately claimed that the above stories were from Politico. Rather, they were from Buzzfeed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What the President needs is a good bleeding

I so love 19th century medicine.
The first doctor to reach President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot in a Washington theater rushed to his ceremonial box and found him paralyzed, comatose and leaning against his wife. Dr. Charles Leale ordered brandy and water to be brought immediately.
Brandy -- good for what ails ya! Like massive head trauma!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Farewell to Ed Quillen

The Denver Post's Ed Quillen has passed away at the age of 61. I must admit I was rather a fan of his columns. He came off as kind of a lefty mountain crank, but his columns were cogent, well-written, and well thought out. Note this one, in which he compares modern day Republicans with the Confederates of 1860. I don't necessarily subscribe to everything he wrote, but it's a nice observation about the persistence of ideology, even if party labels may jump around a bit.

Rest in peace, Ed.

Research: It's so important that someone else should pay for it

If you're interested in the ongoing saga over NSF funding for political science, please do not miss Charles Lane's op/ed in yesterday's Washington Post. Lane starts by taking on Christopher Zorn's post at the Monkey Cage, in which Zorn raised concerns about the politicization of NSF funding decisions. Then Lane goes on to make some odd economic claims, such as:
The relevant question... is whether society could have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money — and how unreasonable it would be to ask the political scientists to rely on non-federal support. [...] 
If this research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it.
That last sentence is pretty astounding. Swap out the words "this research" for "the study of cancer" or "national defense" just to get a sense of it. Just because something is important does not automatically mean it is popular or well-funded. Strangely, Lane seems to concede as much just two paragraphs later:
The private sector chronically underinvests in basic scientific research; the costs and risks are relatively high, and the benefits relatively hard to commercialize. Government support compensates for this “market failure,” enabling society to reap “positive externalities” — economic, environmental or military.
Um, yeah! That's just what I was saying! But Lane thinks this logic only applies to the "hard" sciences, not the social sciences:
Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.
Wow. Okay, last point first: Of course we can use experiments to test claims about society! Political psychologists, among others, do this all the time. Political scientists also use natural experiments all the time. Here's one: Nebraska and Kansas have very similar populations but different institutional rules for their state legislatures, and this has important effects on legislative partisanship. Yes, society can be a laboratory.

Now, as for Lane's other points in there, let's just pretend for a moment that those who study the hard sciences are not influenced by value judgments, such as desires to cure cancer, to make fusion energy cheaply available, to prove or disprove human-made climate change, etc. Are social scientists influenced by value judgments? Well, I suppose we'd need to define the word "influenced." Their political beliefs probably cause them to find certain questions interesting and to spend time researching them as opposed to other questions. So I suppose that's a form of influence. But that's probably not what Lane is saying. Rather, he seems to be suggesting that our political judgments cloud our results.

So here's a challenge for Lane: Please browse through the most recent edition of the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, or any of the other major political science journals and show me where scholarship has been compromised by the scholar's ideological judgments. If you don't have access to these articles, just let me know and I'll send them to you. Hell, you can find most of my publications here: show me where my findings have been influenced by my value judgments.

The question of whether society should be subsidizing research about politics is an interesting one, and while I certainly have my opinions, I welcome debate on the topic. But the idea that social scientists can't do research without being clouded by political judgments and that this makes our research inferior to that of the other sciences is, frankly, offensive.

(Cross-posted from Mischiefs of Faction)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Obama's suffering because Hillary Clinton didn't challenge him in the primaries

I think that's what Politico is arguing here. It's hard to tell. Ben Smith and Rebecca Elliott have written another in the long line of articles alleging that Obama's slow fundraising pace in 2012 relative to the pace in 2008 is evidence of a serious problem for Obama. And like the other articles, it fails to note that Obama didn't face a primary challenger in 2012. It just offers a whole bunch of other possible narratives -- donors are hurting financially, Obama's big supporters from four years ago are disappointed in him, the thrill is gone, etc. And while all of this may be true, it doesn't change the biggest difference, which I guess I'll italicize yet again: Obama didn't face a primary challenger in 2012. The major reason Obama hasn't raised the kind of money in the spring of 2012 that he raised in 2008 is because he hasn't needed it.

(via Jamelle Bouie)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Queen's got a long way to go

The new Queen meets with
President Harry Truman
I'm not sure whether it would be appropriate for me, as an American, to bow to Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her 60th anniversary jubilee, but I'll at least tip my hat to her. Sixty years in office... that has to be some kind of record, right?

Actually, if you check out Wikipedia's list of longest reigning monarchs, she doesn't even crack the top fifty, and that's just the list of verifiable ones. Sobhuza II of Swaziland served 82 years. The Egyptian pharaoh Pepi II allegedly served 94 years. Now, obviously it helps to have taken the throne as a child, and Elizabeth was already 25 when she became queen. That'll make it tough to crack the top tier without resorting to cryogenics.

Friday, June 1, 2012

New Media and the 2012 Presidential Campaign

On May 11th, the University of Denver hosted a panel on new media and its effects on the 2012 presidential election. The panelists were Brent Blackaby (Trilogy Consulting), Jay Newton-Small (Time), Dorian Warren (Columbia University), and Dave Weigel (Slate/MSNBC). Professors Nancy Wadsworth, Peter Hanson, and I moderated.

The discussion was wide-ranging, covering the use of social media sites by campaigns as well as the impact of such media on journalism, voters, and candidates. I found the discussion fascinating, but don't just take my word for it. You can watch the video here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Did the Party Decide?

(Cross-posted from Mischiefs of Faction)

The book The Party Decides (of which my co-blogger Hans Noel is a co-author) depicts modern presidential nominations as being largely under the control of party elites. That is, networks of party officials, officeholders, major donors, activists, and others coordinate on a nominee long before voters ever enter a polling booth or a caucus location. They pick a candidate who's credible enough on issues of importance to the party elites and they make sure that candidate has the resources necessary to prevail in the primaries and caucuses.

This book was published in 2008. How well does it describe the events of 2012? The authors -- Marty Cohen, David Karol, John Zaller, and Hans -- will be gathering this Friday, June 1st, at the University of Denver to address this very issue. (More details here.) If you're anywhere near Denver, you're welcome to attend. If you can't make it, there should be a live feed available here starting at 2PM MDT, and I hope to post a recording of the event when it becomes available.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why the Republicans had to nominate a flip-flopper

(Cross-posted from the Mischiefs of Faction)

With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how Santorum, Gingrich, or anyone else ever had a chance at the Republican nomination this year. But let's not forget -- people were absolutely freaking out about those possibilities just a few months ago. Romney was the troubled front-runner who had a 30% ceiling and was just barely defeating candidates he was outspending 10 to 1. He was also the candidate who allegedly could not be nominated because of his dalliances with moderation or because of his recent flip-flops.

David Karol has an interesting post at the Monkey Cage in which he argues that Romney's "very inconsistency was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for his success in capturing his party’s presidential nomination this year." But I think it goes further than Karol suggests. It's not just that Romney had to switch his positions to be a credible potential nominee. I would argue that any Republican presidential nominee today would have to be a serious flip-flopper.

One reason Romney's nomination was relatively predictable was that he was running against the sort of people who are simply never nominated for the presidency by the major parties. Gingrich had a notably unsuccessful and short term as Speaker and hadn't held public office in over a decade. Santorum's initial election to the Senate was somewhat of a fluke and his 2006 drubbing in a swing state did not bode well for him. Bachmann was a member of the House. Cain was an eccentric businessman. Parties almost invariably nominate current or recent senators or governors, and of the prospective field, only Pawlenty, Daniels, Christie, Palin, Perry, and Romney fit the bill. Three of those (Daniels, Christie, and Palin) seemed hesitant to fully jump into the contest, and among the three that jumped in enthusiastically, two of them (Pawlenty and Perry) had serious campaigning problems. Once the two of them had functionally dropped, it was hard to see anyone but Romney getting it, unless it was going to be a Really Unusual Year. And of course you never know whether or not you're in a Really Unusual Year until it's over, but by definition, they're really unusual, so the safe bet is that things are happening as usual.

But here's the key point about that: No one taking the stances Romney needed to take to win this year could have had the sort of résumé needed to be a typical major party nominee. The Republican Party has been moving to the right very quickly in recent years. Almost no one taking the stances that Romney is taking now could have been elected as a senator or a governor from most states just a few years ago. So, if you were consistently conservative (like, say, Bachmann or Santorum), you were either doomed to service in the House or to being kicked out of the Senate. If you had a presidential résumé, conversely, it was probably because your views were pretty moderate a few years ago. Arguably, the only person who can get nominated in the current Republican Party is someone who has pivoted to the right rapidly in the past decade. Rapid polarization makes flip-flopping a necessity.

My next blogging venture

I am pleased to announce the birth of a new blog: The Mischiefs of Faction. This is a collaborative venture, founded by Greg Koger, Hans Noel, and me. It went live at 9AM EDT this morning.

You can read all the details in our inaugural post, but basically, we've been talking for a while about doing something that focuses on political parties, broadly defined. We'll be posting material this week on Madison's views of parties, the nature of flip-floppers in modern presidential campaigns, the constraints parties place on presidents, some innovations by parties in state elections, and many other things. I hope you'll check it out and offer your comments.

I'm not yet sure about the future of Enik Rising. I'll be cross-posting for a while, but I'll be thinking about whether to maintain this blog. I welcome your suggestions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Monday, May 21, 2012

Unsupervised legislators

A few years ago, Michael Gormley wrote a piece for USA Today mainly focusing on the Eliot Spitzer scandal but also mentioning that inappropriate behavior by state governing officials was far from unusual, especially when the capital was far from population centers. As Gormley wrote:
It is an open secret that there is a lot of fooling around going on at the statehouse. And at other statehouses, too.... In truth, the phenomenon is not new, and it's not confined to Albany. By all accounts, the same thing goes on at other state capitals, particularly where the statehouse is far from the main population centers and lawmakers stay overnight several times a week.
It is a curious feature of many states that the center of government is far from the center of commerce and population. (I had once heard that this was by design, to keep the government from becoming deaf to the concerns of the provinces. But I don't know how true that is or how much thought went into these decisions as a whole.) Could it be true that distance from population centers creates more irresponsible behavior by government?

A new paper by Filipe R. Campante and Quoc-Anh Do suggests this may just be the case. They find that a state capital's isolation corresponds with greater corruption, higher campaign spending, and lower voter turnout. Here's their abstract:
We show that isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption across US states. In particular, this is the case when we use the variation induced by the exogenous location of a state’s centroid to instrument for the concentration of population around the capital city. We then show that different mechanisms for holding state politicians accountable are also affected by the spatial distribution of population: newspapers provide greater coverage of state politics when their audiences are more concentrated around the capital, and voter turnout in state elections is greater in places that are closer to the capital. Consistent with lower accountability, there is also evidence that there is more money in state-level political campaigns in those states with isolated capitals. We find that the role of media accountability helps explain the connection between isolated capitals and corruption. In addition, we provide some evidence that this pattern is also associated with lower levels of public good spending and outcomes.
(h/t John Sides)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

When lawmakers just want to go home

I was sitting in on a caucus meeting of Colorado Senate Democrats the other day during the last day of the state's special legislative session. (Yes, legislative party caucus meetings in Colorado are, by law, open to the public.) Everyone had expected the session to wrap up that morning, but word had come from an absent senator that she could return the following day if someone would move to reconsider a marijuana DUI bill that had failed by a single vote the day before.

The reactions were quite interesting. Both party caucuses appeared already split on this issue, but the bill seemed to be losing support. Members had tried to pass the thing and fallen short, and they were not interested in prolonging their special session to address it yet again. This is a part-time legislature, and they had jobs, families, vacations, and lives to get back to.

But they couldn't state it quite like that. So one senator blasted the absentee senator for her irresponsibility, noting the "sacrifices" the rest of them had made to be present that week. Another suggested that they'd promised the people of Colorado that the special session would only be three days long, and to extend it to a fourth day would be breaking faith with their constituents.

Let me just say that I fully sympathize with part-time legislators being eager to end an already-extended legislative session. And while there might be good reasons to extend a session further, it wasn't obvious that this bill would pass, and it wasn't obvious that this bill was even necessary. (Can't the police already arrest someone driving dangerously regardless of the content of their blood? And isn't the main problem with stoned drivers the fact that they're driving really, really slowly around town looking for stores that sell Doritos after 2AM?)

But I found the language being used to dress up this legislative decision as a tad silly. The number of Coloradans outside the statehouse who are okay with a three-day special session but irate over a four-day one can probably be counted on two hands.

In general, there seemed to be a huge disconnect between what the legislators were saying and what I imagine most people outside the chamber were thinking. I wasn't sure if this was a case of legislators having no idea what non-political people think about, or if this was a case of trying to say "Can we go home yet?" in the most diplomatic possible language.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Some Americans Elect epitaphs

Don’t confuse the good intentions of Tom Friedman with an idea that makes sense.
Ed Kilgore:
Assuming AE is unlikely to just call the whole thing off, I’d suggest they cut to the chase and nominate their most prominent backer, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, as the nominee. Under AE’s elaborate rules, he’d presumably have to disclose a party affiliation and then choose a running-mate from a different party. But he could certainly self-identify as a member of the Friedman Party, and then choose a running-mate from the Party of Richard Cohen or the Party of Robert Samuelson or the Party of David Brooks. It would be a Very Serious Ticket.
 Ross Douthat:
[D]isaffected Americans have very good reasons to be suspicious when their elites promotes bipartisanship as an end unto itself. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was approved with significant bipartisan support, after all. The policies that inflated the housing bubble were bipartisan as well – and so was the hated Wall Street bailout that the bubble’s consequences required. Even America’s deficits are a monument to bipartisanship: to the many Republicans who have defended and expanded entitlements created by Democrats and to the many Democrats who have gone along with Republicans and ruled middle-class tax increases out of bounds.
Why, then, would Americans fed up with the two party system entrust their loyalties to a nascent movement that promises that this time, this time, a high-minded, bipartisan elite will get things right?
I wouldn't completely count out Americans Elect. Any party on the ballot in 26 states has the potential for some kind of mischief, intentional or otherwise. But yes, this was an easily predicted failure.

NSF: An invitation for Jeff Flake

I'm one of the host co-chairs of the fifth annual Political Networks conference, being held next month in Boulder. Since this conference and the APSA section organizing it have received substantial support from NSF's Political Science program over the past five years, I thought it would make sense to invite Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to the conference. Rep. Flake, of course, recently authored an amendment to a House spending bill that would defund the Political Science program, and this bill recently passed the House. 

I know this is already beyond the House, but Flake currently seems to be the main purveyor of the argument that political science is unworthy of federal support. And in fairness, as Ezra Klein points out, political science is deserving of some criticism for using public money for our research and then hiding the results of that research behind paywalls and obscure jargon. So we invited Flake to the conference, in all sincerity and in the interests of transparency, so he could see what NSF funding has helped to produce. The text of our letter appears after the jump.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Vampires and politicians

A student recently interviewed me for a paper she was writing about the similarities and differences between vampires and politicians. I kind of enjoyed doing the interview, so with the student's permission, I am reposting it here.

How do you think immortality would influence a vampire’s political platform or view on issues?
This would have to have a huge effect, since immortality makes irrelevant so many of the major policy issues we deal with, from health care to Social Security to war. Even if a vampire were sympathetic to mortals' concerns over these issues, it would be hard for him to convince many people that he shares their interests.
The vampire is described as different, similar to humans but stronger, prettier, and paler than humans. These differences make him different and stand apart. Do you think looks factor into our decision for president?
Looks aren't completely irrelevant to politics, but they're likely very overrated. We've had overweight presidents (Taft, Clinton), ugly presidents (Lyndon Johnson), slight presidents (Coolidge), etc. The chances that a vampire candidate were so much more attractive than his human opponent as to affect the vote strike me as pretty remote. The paleness probably wouldn't help -- it may have hurt Richard Nixon when he ran against a tanned JFK in 1960.
The top traits that a young voting demographic associated with vampires and politicians was power-hungry, narcissistic, and selfish – what do you think that tells us about our trust and belief of our political candidates?
It's hard to know from your question -- people may apply these traits to many people in positions of authority, including CEOs, athletes, celebrities, etc. But more generally, I think it's important to distinguish between how a politician would use power and how a vampire would. If we elect a politician to advance a set of issues we care about, his/her desire for power probably helps to achieve these goals. The more he/she advances that agenda, the more powerful he/she becomes, the better able he/she is to advance the agenda further. It's hard to see how a vampire's power helps anyone other than the vampire.
Is the vampire a Democrat or Republican? Why?
Republicans describe Democrats as sucking the life out of capitalism. Democrats describe Republicans as sucking the life from the working class. So either could probably be said to have some vampire-like qualities. However, given that vampires tend to be older, paler, and wealthier than most mortals, I would tend to think that he's a Republican.
Would you vote Cullen/Dracula 2012?
I haven't seen or read any of the "Twilight" series, so I couldn't adequately comment on Cullen's candidacy. Also, the issue of immortality makes the vice presidency somehow less important than it already is. Finally, there are a lot of Dracula depictions out there. If we're talking about Gary Oldman's Dracula, there's a lot I like about him, but I'd really need to see his birth certificate before I could consider voting for him.

Monday, May 14, 2012

New campaign finance reporting -- now with less context!

Over at Mother Jones, Andy Kroll reports that Priorities USA Action, an Obama-aligned super PAC, is underperforming relative to its Republican counterparts:
As the leading Obama-affiliated super-PAC, it was supposed to provide a counterbalance to big Republican outside-spending groups. But the super-PAC has so far raked in just $9 million for the 2012 election cycle. By comparison, the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future has raised $52 million, and the pro-Gingrich super-PAC Winning Our Future pulled in $24 million before Gingrich dropped out of the race. Priorities isn't just struggling to compete with its Republican counterparts—it's not playing in the same league.
Kroll then provides four reasons why the Obama super PAC isn't raising much money. Strangely, none of those reasons is that Obama didn't face any primary challengers. Romney needed money to defeat his party rivals. Obama didn't.

From what I've heard from some campaign staffers, the Obama folks expect Romney's super PACs to raise more money than the Obama super PACs, although they think the Obama campaign itself will out-raise the Romney campaign. This may all be true, and we'll know better this summer and fall, when we see fundraising patterns for the general election. But comparing them at a time when one candidate had opponents and the other didn't is just silly.

(h/t John Sides)

Friday, May 11, 2012

The effect of social media on presidential elections

I'm co-hosting a panel today at my university on the effects of social media on journalism, politics, and the current presidential election. The panelists are Dave Weigel (Slate/MSNBC), Jay Newton-Small (Time), Dorian Warren (Columbia), and Brent Blackaby (Trilogy Consulting). You can watch it live from 2-4pm Mountain time here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides comments on the House of Representatives' recent vote to defund the Political Science program at the National Science Foundation, explaining the usefulness of his own recent NSF-funded research. While I am certainly not thrilled about this vote, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing for scientists receiving government funds to occasionally explain to the public just what they're doing and why it might be valuable.

I should mention that I (along with Michael Heaney, Joanne Miller, and Dara Strolovitch) received a relatively small NSF grant (about $30,000) a few years ago to conduct a survey of activists and delegates at the 2008 Republican and Democratic national conventions. The bulk of that money went toward hiring a few dozen undergraduate and graduate students in Denver and Minneapolis to conduct the survey and training them in how to do survey research. I still hear back from some of those students, who tell me how valuable the training was and how memorable the whole experience was.

The research itself, meanwhile, has yielded one published paper, one that's under review, and another that's still being written. We've found, among other things, some cultural distinctions between the two parties in how they work with interest groups, some interesting evidence about how the Democratic party managed its divisions after the Clinton/Obama primary battle, and some notable differences in the evaluation of female candidates across both major parties. The research covers two main areas -- differences between the major parties and the use of convention caucuses -- which haven't received a lot of attention in previous research. While focused on parties, the research isn't advancing any agenda for one party or another; it's simply trying to better understand how they function and how people and groups interact with them. I don't know that this work is "transformative" (which apparently is a new standard for meriting government support), but it is interesting and useful, and it tells us some things we didn't know before. And the evidence was gathered by struggling students who ended up with some useful training and some extra spending money in their wallets.

I might also mention a small NSF grant ($12,000) I received in grad school, which allowed me and Jeff Lewis to compile a complete roll call vote record for the California Assembly going back to 1849. (You can download the resulting ideal points here at the bottom of the page.) This research was essential to my book and an AJPS article, and it has been used by several other scholars in related research.

Now, these aren't large grants by any means. But for a scholar located at a liberal arts school in a small department with no graduate students and paltry research funds, they make an enormous difference. It's the difference between conducting research and, well, not. Assuming the federal government has an interest in promoting research (I believe the Constitution mentions something about promoting the "progress of science and useful arts"), this strikes me as a very good investment.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Legislative Leviathan (R - Highlands Ranch, CO)

Legislators and reporters gather around
Speaker McNulty late last night to
ask about bringing the chamber
out of recess.
If you weren't watching the proceedings of the Colorado House of Representatives last night, you missed quite a show. The Republican-controlled House is set to adjourn today, and a number of bills still remained on the calendar last night, one of which was a bill that would have allowed civil unions for same sex couples. The bill had already passed the Democratic-controlled Senate, and it had passed several Republican-controlled House committees with the help of some defecting Republicans. The governor had said he'd sign the bill. Whip counts showed that there were enough votes for it to pass the House.

So at around 9:30PM last night, Democrats moved to consider the bill on the House floor. Republican Speaker McNulty immediately moved the chamber into recess, preventing the consideration of any further legislative business. Despite lobbying by Governor Hickenlooper and Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, McNulty kept the chamber in recess, effectively killing not only the civil unions bill but another 30 or so bills that were awaiting a floor vote. Spectators booed the Speaker, and the gallery was cleared after one shouted "I hope you all f-ing die!"

So, yeah, this is what legislative hardball looks like. And this is one of the down sides of investing a lot of power in a single chamber leader. There are plenty of advantages, of course -- a leaderless chamber would probably pass almost no legislation, and there's no guarantee that anything that passed would come close to reflecting public opinion. And strong leaders allow parties to be responsible; that is, they can better deliver on what they promise in their platforms and in campaigns. But here we see the costs: one strong leader can prevent a vote on a bill that would otherwise pass and become law, even one with strong public support. (Notably, in a chamber with even stronger legislative leaders, this bill might have never even made it to the floor. Colorado's GAVEL amendment guarantees that any bill that passes committee come to the floor.)

This is quickly becoming a rallying point for liberal activists in the state. Nonetheless, one might consider things from the Speaker's perspective: should he have allowed a vote on which he knew his side would lose? One is surely tempted to say yes, sure, that's democracy! But let's imagine a counterfactual for a second. Let's say that you were the Speaker and a bill was coming before you that would, I don't know, reinstate slavery, and you knew it would pass if it got a vote. Would you allow the vote in the name of democracy? Or would you use (even abuse) your powers as Speaker to prevent something evil from occurring?

I'm certainly not likening civil unions to slavery. I'm just suggesting that when a leader is invested with agenda controlling powers, it's hard not to use them when the stakes are high.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Was "Mad Men" the first TV show to play a Beatles song?

As though she weren't delightful enough already, Megan Draper, Don Draper's second wife on "Mad Men," won a special place in my heart this last week by introducing her husband to the Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows." Appropriately, the 40-year old Don pulled the needle off the record halfway through the song, which he surely found incomprehensible. According to the New York Times, this was a Major Moment in television history:
Aside from songs that have been played in the occasional commercial or the Beatles cartoon series that was shown on ABC in the 1960s, the use of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on “Mad Men” is probably one of the only times that a Beatles track has been used in a TV show, music and advertising executives say.
Jeff Jones, the head of Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company, wrote in an e-mail on Monday that it was the first such license in the five years he has been with the group, although he said he could not be sure about earlier uses that predate his time at the company. Mr. Weiner said he was told that it was the only time a Beatles song has been in a television show, other than the band’s live performances.
I have a strong memory of hearing a few seconds of a Beatles song, possibly "I Want to Hold your Hand," playing on Col. Raynor Sarnac's clock radio on an episode of "Call to Glory." I have no idea if this was historically accurate -- whether clock radios existed at the time that could wake people up to music, whether a middle-aged Air Force colonel would be listening to a station that played the Beatles in 1963, etc. -- but I'm pretty sure it happened on TV, nearly 30 years ago. Can anyone back me up on this?
Yeah, that's Elisabeth Shue.
Update: Good point in comments from Matt Glassman: "Life Goes On" used the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" in the opening credits every damned episode!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Leon Links

Super PACs: The antidote to corruption?

The Denver Post has an interesting story today about the motives of some of those who are donating to super PACs this year. In particular, note this section:
"I wish we could be more honest about it," said Paul Zecchi, a CEO of an oil-and-gas company who donated $25,000 to Romney's PAC in March. "Super PACs are just another way to give money to Mitt Romney or Obama or whatever. I wish there was a way to just do it out in the open and give to the candidate."
Zecchi has given to his candidate's campaign. But federal election law allows individuals to donate a maximum of $2,500 per election cycle, which means donors can give $2,500 in a primary and another $2,500 for the general election. Individuals can also give $30,800 to a national party committee.
For the donation, Zecchi joked that it would be great to get an invite to the inauguration. But he says what he really wants is a future President Romney's ear.
"We certainly would like to be able to sit down with him on a one-on-one basis and tell him our feelings about what's going on in our business and the economy," he said. "If you're just listening to bureaucrats all day long, you're not going to be hearing from any one person. But me and my friends could relay to him what we see."
So here's a person who donates precisely because he wants a quid pro quo; he wants to give Romney a ton of money and he wants Romney to remember where the money came from so he can ask a favor later. But limits on direct donations make that hard, so he's donating to a super PAC. That's still helpful for Zecchi's purposes, but because his donations are being pooled with so many others, he'll get less credit for the donation. Zecchi can still help his chosen candidate, but he's less likely to be rewarded for the effort.

I'm not going to champion super PACs as the cure for campaign finance corruption, but this is a perspective we don't often hear.

Game Change: The Movie

I finally saw HBO's "Game Change" last week. I'd have to say that it was a very nice (if obviously very selective) adaptation of the book, which I also rather enjoyed. The performances are very good and the casting was inspired. As with the book, if you were paying attention to politics in 2008, there's not a huge amount of new information here, but what is new is quite fascinating.

The Palin we see in "Game Change" is at different times sympathetic, pitiful, and horrifying. We see her thrown into a high stakes game for which she was terribly unprepared. We could fault her for that, but how many of us would refuse the offer she was given? Imagine being told, "There's an American hero running for president, and we think you could help him win, and if you don't, a terrible person will end up getting elected." Even without all the fame and fortune being implicitly offered, that's still a tough thing to walk away from. But then we see her come very close to (or perhaps even have) a mental break. The film is somewhat voyeuristic in this way. No, politics ain't beanbag, but it's uncomfortable seeing it destroy a person. The campaign and Palin's family seem to help her through the rough spots, but to the point of overcompensation; by the film's end, she's an overconfident monster who believes that the rules and history do not apply to her.

Although we don't know exactly who provided the background information for the book and film, it seems highly informed by consultants with a strong loyalty to John McCain. While Julianne Moore's Palin is a reckless diva, Ed Harris' McCain is a potty-mouthed saint. He grows uncomfortable with the "dark side" of populism and often steers the campaign away from less savory tactics. He wants to win, but to do so responsibly.

And that's where the film became troubling for me. It goes out of its way to depict McCain as a principled man who would rather lose with dignity than win ugly, but if that's the case, how did he end up picking Palin? For a septuagenarian with a history of cancer to pick a grotesquely underqualified vice presidential candidate is manifestly irresponsible, and he did it for the sole reason of increasing his chances of victory. Arguably, that's a lot worse than running a race-baiting ad for a few days.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The End of History

For nearly a year now, I have been furiously listening to the History of Rome Podcast, trying to catch up to its most current postings. Now, just a few episodes short of my goal, I find out that the podcast's prolific author, Mike Duncan, is calling it quits. His wife is having a baby, right around the same time that Romulus Augustulus is being exiled in 476 AD, so he figured this was a good time to end it. I guess you've got to end it somewhere (unless you follow the theory that the Roman Empire never actually ended), so this is as good as any, but man, I'm going to miss these recordings.

I grew up receiving what I consider a pretty solid education, largely paid for by California taxpayers, but I somehow missed gaining (or retaining, anyway) any substantive knowledge about Rome. A disturbingly high percentage of the information I knew about ancient Rome up until last year was derived from the film "Gladiator" and one episode of "I, Claudius" a high school literature teacher decided to show us for reasons that now escape me. A year ago, I could maybe have named four Roman emperors, and one of them was Joaquin Phoenix. The History of Rome Podcast provided me with the education that I'd somehow missed.

I don't know too much about what Duncan does when he's not podcasting, but he's provided a real service to the world here and has created an impressive body of historical work. His approach is quite judicious, acknowledging disagreements among historians but not getting bogged down in arcane arguments, and managing to provide an impressive sense of narrative in each of his episodes. As I'd imagine he'd concede, the podcast is often a history of Roman emperors rather than of Rome; such is, I'm sure, a reflection of the available historical information. Duncan attempted to remedy this with a few outstanding episodes, such as his depiction of the daily life of a typical Roman in the 2nd century AD or  the wonderful Q&A session or the description of Diocletian's economic reforms and how they impacted tradesman for centuries to come.

I consider myself fundamentally improved thanks to the jogs and drives I spent listening to Mike's podcast, and I hope he'll be able to take on more of this in the future. I'll listen.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Edwards and the Clinton experience

Ryan Lizza tweets:
I don't really understand the over-the-top contempt/hatred for John Edwards from same people who defended/have forgiven B. Clinton for same.
Jonathan Bernstein suggests that there are important differences based on the concept of representation. Clinton was known to be a philanderer and basically just promised to put that aside during his presidency. Edwards, conversely, made family and loyalty to his ill wife a central part of his campaign. His betrayal of Elizabeth was a betrayal of the whole purpose of his campaign.

Let me suggest another important distinction: In 2008, Democrats had the experience of 1998 to reflect upon; in 1998, they did not.

In terms of martial problems, Clinton's nomination and election in 1992 were highly unusual. Certainly, we'd had philandering presidents and presidential candidates previously, but rarely had it been such an open issue in the middle of a contentious nomination battle, and almost never had the purported philanderer not only not dropped out of the race (a la Gary Hart 1988), but actually won the nomination. Having dealt with the issue in the winter probably, as Jon suggests, helped to inoculate Clinton for the fall campaign. And yes, there was an implicit deal that active Democrats would not make a big deal out of this issue and that Clinton, in turn, would keep his pants zipped while in the White House.

Now, when Lewinsky's name became public, yes, Democrats ultimately defended Clinton. The Republicans made that easy by determining that oral sex was an impeachable offense. (Yeah, perjury, sure.) But before the impeachment hearings started ramping up, Democrats, particularly the active Clinton loyalists, were hugely pissed at him. He had broken the contract. They'd taken a chance on him but he'd betrayed their trust. Everything they'd worked for for six years was now in jeopardy, and now they'd have to jump into the breach again, not to elect him or his successor, not to fight for health reform or economic justice, not to protect a legacy, but to save his horny ass. Of course, they did it, and Republican overreach, combined with the fact that Clinton's presidency overall ended up looking pretty successful, made it easy for Democratic activists to ultimately defend him, maybe even to forgive him... but not to forget what happened.

So then 2008 comes around and John Edwards draws the exact wrong lesson from history. He figures that if Clinton could get away with it, so could he. But Democratic activists did not want to go through that again, not if they didn't have to. So they dropped him like a hot potato.

Now, there are some other key differences, as well. Edwards' dalliances became public after he'd already dropped out of the presidential race. No one had to defend him. He was of no value to the Democratic coalition. Yes, when your president is under attack, you defend him, even if you find his behavior disgusting. But when a failed presidential candidate is under attack? Who cares?

Related to this, Clinton already had five relatively successful years as president to point to when Lewinsky's name surfaced. Activists could rationalize, "Okay, he's a dog, but he knows how to govern." With Edwards it was more like, "Okay, he's a dog."