Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cuomo, Baseball, and Politics

Jon Keller sent me this snippet from WNYC on Mario Cuomo's love for baseball and how it squared with his philosophy on government. Beautiful.

For those who don't know, it was Branch Rickey (the same man who brought Jackie Robinson to the majors with the Dodgers) that signed Mario Cuomo with the Pirates for the (then) large sum of $2,000 ... about three times as much as Mickey Mantle was paid the same year to sign with the Yankees.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Remembering Mario

I have to start this post the same way I started the last ... I haven't written for a LONG time ... too long in a lot of ways.

Sadness is one of those things that gets me writing and Mario Cuomo's passing is surely very, very sad for me. He was a brilliant and eloquent and good man. All three of those things are why he was so important to me. I looked up to him in all three dimensions.

Much is being written about Cuomo's life today and, to me, the most fulsome piece is from the New York Times and can be found here.

He was also a complicated man whose legacy is being debated today and that's what brings me to my post.

This morning, I read Andrei Cherny's discussion of Cuomo's Keynote Address for the Democratic National Convention and I just couldn't disagree more with Cherny's read of it (disagreement is another one of those things that gets me writing).

Cherny argues that, while the speech was well-crafted aesthetically, it sent the wrong message to Democrats and that the lasting memory of the speech has "contributed to the troubles of today’s Democratic party. Rather than a clarion call, it should be seen as a siren’s song — luring progressives into a course which crashes them against the rocks." The specific charge that Cherny levels is that the speech does not offer any forward-looking progressive proposals for action. Instead, he argues, Cuomo just offers a backward-looking vision of the great things the party did in the past; that it offers no vision for how the party needs to change.

Cherny is just wrong on several levels. The first and least important way in which he's wrong is that he's completely ignored or forgotten the context. This was a keynote speech and Cuomo was not (and never would be) the candidate. This was 1984 America in which Reagan conservatism was ascendant, even dominant. The job of the keynote speaker was to rally liberals and Democrats and remind them of their identity and philosophy and explain why, even when it seems like the majority of the country has a different view, liberals are right. Liberalism was at its nadir at this point, a point that Cuomo said in his speech was partly due to "the failure by some to separate the salesman from the product." He argued we needed a platform (see below why this is important) that unites the party. He said, "We need a platform we can all agree to so that we can sing out the truth for the nation to hear, in chorus, its logic so clear and commanding that no slick Madison Avenue commercial, no amount of geniality, no martial music will be able to muffle the sound of the truth." Cuomo's point was to get people to look past the charm and the smile and the charisma and to remind liberals that the they were selling the right product even if the other side temporarily had better packaging. And that brings me to my next point.

A more important way in which Cherny is wrong is that he complains that Cuomo does not offer anything forward-looking. This is a gross misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what Cuomo says in his speech. As Cherny himself points out, Cuomo ended the speech by imploring his audience to "Please, make this nation remember how futures are built." But Cherny interprets this as simply a wistful and longing nod to the good old days. To emphasize this point, Cherny relates the following anecdote:
After Cuomo’s triumph at the 1984 convention, Arkansas’ young governor Bill Clinton ran into his counterpart from Colorado, Dick Lamm. What did you think of Cuomo’s speech?” Clinton asked.

“Terrific,” Lamm replied. “It galvanized the crowd.”

“C’mon,” Clinton said. “What did it really say about the issues we’re trying to raise?”

“Nothing,” admitted Lamm. “Cuomo. Jesse Jackson. Teddy Kennedy. Same speech,” Lamm would say later. “Passionate statements of what used to be. We weren’t ready to face the issues of the future … so we celebrated the past."
I'm not sure who the "we" is in Bill Clinton's question about "the issue 'we're' trying to raise." He probably meant liberals though he could have meant the DLC. Either way, Bill Clinton, Dick Lamm, and Andrei Cherny are just wrong. Cuomo had plenty to say in that speech about the future and the policy agenda for liberals. There are many ways to lay out an agenda and one of the worst ways to do that is to provide all kinds of specific policy proposals - a lesson Bill Clinton never seemed to have learned as he subsequently gave one of the worst-conceived Convention speeches of all-time in 1988 and gave a series of truly awful and painfully-specific State of the Union addresses throughout his presidency.

My point is not to attack Bill Clinton (or Andrei Cherny for that matter) but simply to point out that, while the policy-prescription mode of campaigning for liberalism sure seems like a great idea among the intelligentsia of the Democratic Party, it is not what has ever or will ever actually connect average voters to liberalism. We can see this same argument playing out in recent years with regard to President Obama's Affordable Care Act and with his economic program. Some argue that President Obama has done a bad job of messaging on the health care law and on his economic performance generally because voters seem to have rejected these things in both 2010 and 2014. The problem with this argument (aside from ignoring what happened in 2012) is that no policy-specific speech ever interests voters. Ever. Full stop. It excites policy wonks and conservatives and liberals who read The Nation and the Economist and the National Review. If Ezra Klein is your audience, by all means, go with Clinton's speech writers. But the long-term prescription for the Democratic Party's success and for the success of a liberal, progressive policy agenda is to be true to the values of liberalism and to act (as President Obama has done with the Affordable Care Act, for instance) to put those values into action. That is what Cuomo's forward-looking prescription was in 1984. Measure us by what we do, not the slick packaging we use.

In short, the best response to Andrei Cherny's critique that Cuomo's 1984 speech had no forward-looking vision of how to adapt liberalism to the future is to ... quote Cuomo in his 1984 speech (my emphasis):
Now for 50 years -- for 50 years we Democrats created a better future for our children, using traditional Democratic principles as a fixed beacon, giving us direction and purpose, but constantly innovating, adapting to new realities: Roosevelt's alphabet programs; Truman's NATO and the GI Bill of Rights; Kennedy's intelligent tax incentives and the Alliance for Progress; Johnson's civil rights; Carter's human rights and the nearly miraculous Camp David Peace Accord.

Democrats did it -- Democrats did it and Democrats can do it again.
Summary: Stick to your values but adapt them to the new context you're in.

Mario Cuomo's speech (you can read or hear the whole thing here) is rightly remembered today as a galvanizing definition of what it means to be a liberal in America. More can be done to solve the Democratic Party's "troubles" today (such as they are) by re-listening to Cuomo's 1984 speech and by re-committing to those values than by some vague "clarion call" for a "new" Democratic Party.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Redistricting ... Again!

I've not been blogging for a LONG time. I've just been too busy and I'm not sure I had anything particularly insightful to say. But gross mischaracterizations of what is happening in the political universe always tend to get me writing again. So ... thank you Chris Cillizza!

Cillizza posted some great charts on ideological polarization put together by the National Journal Vote Ratings.

Chris Cillizza argues that redistricting “plays a major role” in explaining this and implies this is the most important reason but then (grudgingly) says that “Self-sorting -- the growing tendency of people to live around like-minded people -- is also a major factor in the disappearance of the ideological middle in the House.”

Of course, then he shows the data from the Senate, where there is no redistricting, and the exact same thing has happened ... and the reason is “unknown.” That’s some pretty poor social science!

What he calls “self-sorting” is absolutely a big part of the story here though people not only move to where others like them live (remember, people are more mobile than they used to be) but people are more likely to think like others around them over time. In other words, we don’t just move; we tend to take on the ideological viewpoints of those near us over time.

But there are other reasons. The rise of 24-hour cable news and the rise of the internet have made compromise and deal-making more difficult. More speed and “sunshine” means less deliberation and wiggle-room for dealmakers. Changes to campaign finance rules (rise of soft money in the 80s followed by Super-PACs, etc.) and campaign finance practice (direct mail, rapid response, internet fundraising “moneybombs”) have also eroded the power of party leaders to shield members of Congress from primary challenges by more ideologically extreme members of their own party. At the same time, party leaders within the Congress (especially in the House but also in the Senate) have been given more power by their caucuses. This means more carrots and sticks these party leaders can use to punish members who defect on key votes.

Finally, liberal Republicans (particularly in the Northeast) found it harder and harder to win so as they retired or lost, they were replaced by liberal Democrats. Similarly, conservative Democrats (particularly in the South) also found it harder and harder to win so as they retired or lost (or, in a few cases, switched parties), they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Political scientists refer to this process as “replacement” as opposed to the argument that sitting members have become more conservative or more liberal over time because of the factors I discuss above (this is called “conversion”).

All of that is to say that Cillizza is just over-simplifying and lazy in his analysis on this at best and really just wrong at worst. Whether you believe this process has been caused more by conversion or replacement, redistricting is really just not a big part of this story.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Go Out and Win an Election

President Obama just made remarks on the end (for now) of the showdown with Republicans on the debt limit and the budget.

For the most part, he took the high road talking about what kinds of things the two sides have in common and can work on right now. But buried in the remarks, the President said that, if Republicans disagree with him, they should make that argument, they should negotiate, and they should "go out and win an election." That last clause was the one sharp elbow Obama was willing to throw today.

There is much hopeful talk from some quarters today about the possibility of a "grand bargain" on the budget coming out of this. I don't see that happening. For one, Democrats on the President's left are not in a negotiating mood. They are (wrongly) emboldened by what they perceive as their victory on the showdown. They are likely to point to the "scoreboard" and scream that Republicans lost so they need to give in now. When the President comes to Democrats and argues for modest cuts in Social Security, for instance, they are going to balk. More importantly, Republicans will not be willing to give on taxes. The President will not make a deal that doesn't include tax increases and Republicans just won't go for it.

So, that is the way in which the President's remark that Republicans should "go out and win an election" is more than just a sharp elbow. For Obama, it is the only endgame here ... the only way he moves forward. He is going to spend the next year arguing that we need a change in the House of Representatives and the series of government funding and debt limit showdowns to come are going to be the evidence he uses to convince voters to make that change.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) insisted today that the Republicans are not going to back down in the shutdown/debt limit impasse. According to Roll Call:
Gingrey said Republicans were “absolutely” prepared to lose the House to extract concessions on the CR and the debt limit, and he said the White House is “missing the determination of the Republican Party.”

“I mean, they seem to think that we will miss this opportunity for a ‘Braveheart’ moment to do the right thing for the American people and that we’ll back down for fear of losing the House and not gaining control of the Senate,” Gingrey said.
I haven't seen Braveheart in a long time but ... isn't Scotland still part of the U.K.? Also, Wallace gets tortured and beheaded in that one, right? The thing about martyrs is they're all dead.

If I'm in the Republican Conference, I'm hoping for a Plan B.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Shutdown and the 2014 Election

I've gone dark on the blog for a long while but I'm back. It turns out politics continued to happen.

I saw a Quinnipiac poll this morning that gave Democrats a 9-point lead on the generic ballot for the 2014 election. Before Democrats get too giddy about this, let me throw (A LOT of) water on the idea that Democrats are somehow likely at this point to win a House majority in 2014.

The short version is ... no, they're not.

The longer version is this:

1) We're more than a year away from the election. Sure, voters are angry and they're going to be increasingly angry as this moves on. And sure, more voters blame Republicans and this will continue to be the case as long as the shutdown and the debt crisis (see "coming attractions") roll on. But a year is a LONG time in politics. The most likely long-term effect of the current crisis is that it reinforces views that most voters already have about Washington and the views that most Democrats already have of Republicans. That doesn't lead to significant shifts in the 2014 election landscape. Unless this drags on for a very long time and there is much more pain on the street-level than I think there is going to be, the long-term impact of this particular crisis is likely to be minimal. If it drags on for a long time or if we default on the debt in a significant way ... that could start to be a different story.

2) A 9-point lead in the generic ballot sounds like a lot. Perhaps it is. But that's probably about what the Democrats would need to see in polling in order to win a slim majority in the House in 2014. Because of the way voters are distributed (this is mostly not because of gerrymandering so don't blame that) and because of turnout patterns in midterm elections, Democrats need a significant lead in general polling in order to actually win the House back.

3) Beware of funky polling questions. There is no doubt Republicans are getting more of the blame from the public here. But the Quinnipiac poll asked voters "Do you support or oppose Congress shutting down major activities of the federal government as a way to stop the health care law from being put into place?" There are many headlines touting the fact that 72% of voters say they oppose this tactic. But that's a bit of a leading question. The same poll asked (just a few questions earlier) "Who do you blame for gridlock in Washington, Democrats, Republicans, or both equally?" 58% of voters said "both equally." Among those who picked one side or the other, more blamed Republicans than Democrats but the vast majority see this as a problem of the political system being broken, not as a Republican problem. In fact, there are more registered Democrats in the poll than there are people who blame Republicans more.

The bottom line is that Republicans can get hurt in the 2014 elections by this crisis ... but not by what's happened to this point. It will take the current crisis dragging on a lot longer and it would take some reinforcing events over the next year (especially next year) to make it stick. We're still a long way from a Democratic takeover of the House.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Republicans Are Right to Worry About Hillary

I've long held the view that demographics drive elections - and especially presidential elections - more than the campaigns do. So, heading into the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans are in a bit of trouble as the demographic trends continue to move against them. Indeed, an argument could be made that the climb for Republicans will get even steeper as a new Harvard study finds that race probably cost President Obama about 4 points in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Even discounting that study (and there are good reasons to that I won't bother covering here), the Republican Party has well-documented problems with various demographic groups from African-Americans to Latinos to women to young people and so on. Indeed, the base of the Republican Party is well ... old, white guys. And there aren't enough of them for Republicans to win.

Republicans should be worried about Hillary because she's strong in demographic groups where Obama isn't/wasn't. Hillary isn't going to beat any Republican among old, white guys. But she's a very good bet to run a little bit stronger than Obama among them. She's a sure-fire bet to run better among women - a group Obama won but not as handily as a generic Democrat might have. Finally, for those voters who worried about Obama's lack of foreign policy credentials in 2008, Hillary's credentials are unrivaled among all candidates in the field, Republican or Democratic.

If the 2016 election were held today, a generic Democrat would handily beat a generic Republican. But actual Republican candidates have good reason to worry about Hillary as they're even further behind her right now.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Obama Caught on Open Mic ...

... dissing Congress.

David Hawkings is aghast:
If overseas travel is a sort of elixir of truth for the president, then this “in vino veritas” moment couldn’t have come at a less opportune time. Republicans are wondering openly whether they should take as for real, or only for show, this month’s ballyhooed Obama “charm offensive” of senatorial dinners and House caucus meetings. Rank-and-file Democrats, too, are wondering if the president’s visits to them will lead to their becoming more regular legislative collaborators or if they’ll still be mostly taken for granted.
Yeah, because the Republicans were thinking about coming to the table and getting serious but then President Obama joked to Netanyahu that he enjoyed getting a break from Congress and the Republicans were offended.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Vilsack Not Running, Propaganda Aplenty

Tom Vilsack announced he's not running for the Iowa Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin. This immediately had the intended effect. The NRSC and the DSCC issued dueling statements worthy of any Soviet-era propaganda minister.

From the NRSC:
The [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] tried and failed to prevent Sen. Harkin's hand-chosen candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, from a clear path to the nomination because they know his brand of liberalism is too far outside the mainstream for most Iowans. Now Democrats are stuck [with] a slick former head of the trial lawyers association and one of the most partisan members of Congress as their candidate, Bruce Braley.
From the DSCC:
In an attempt to distract from their waning influence within their own party, the NRSC has released a false and incomprehensible statement about Congressman Braley that only adds to the committee's embarrassment. Perhaps they should be more concerned about a field of candidates out of touch with mainstream Americans and a potential primary that will push the eventual nominee even further to the right.
Is there any point to this? Is it some kind of useful signaling game? Are there voters who donors or activists who find any of this useful?

No. This is pure nonsense that achieves nothing. Enter the political scientist. I think there's actually an interesting political science question here. Both committees employ people to write this stuff and send it out there. The AP or Reuters or whoever scoops it up and runs with it. Why do these various political actors waste time on this? There's something interesting in the (at least seemingly) wasted resources (time, money, etc.).


Wednesday, February 13, 2013