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Phony Costs, Phony Benefits

[ 12 ] May 8, 2008 |

On the question of whether Clinton should drop out, my position continues to be one of indifference. It’s her decision, and I doubt that it matters much either way. I suppose I would prefer that she not attack Obama using GOP talking points now that the nomination has been effectively decided, but even there as Dilan says the effects of this kind of thing are greatly overstated. (Barring a major change in fundamentals, if the election is close enough something so minor could turn the election, I’ve seriously overestimated Obama as a candidate.) I also object to assumptions that Clinton is trying to tear the party apart or sabotage Obama or whatever. I have no doubt that she will strongly support Obama as soon as she concedes. And I think one has to have some empathy here; it can’t be easy to run a race you reasonably expected to win, assemble a very strong coalition of supporters, and fall just short. I can’t really blame her for not quite wanting to concede the inevitable just yet. If staying in is “selfish,” it is only in the sense that anyone running for that kind of office is going to be.

On the other hand, claims that she’s serving some kind of noble ideal by staying in are no more plausible. I’ve seen in some quarters claims that it would undermine democracy or some such to state that Clinton should leave. The thing is, candidates drop out of races they can no longer win all the time without anyone claiming that it undermines democracy. Democracy means that Clinton can stay in until the convention if she chooses, and it also means that anybody can suggest that her staying in is bad for the party, decide to stop giving money to a lost cause, come out for Obama as a superdelegate, etc. McGovern is no more doing anything undemocratic than Clinton is. (Obviously, the argument becomes farcical when anyone who suggests that advising Clinton to drop out violates democratic values also sees nothing objectionable about counting the results of “primaries” that wouldn’t meet Vladimir Putin’s standards of legitimacy.)

In another common move, Ambinder says that it “may well be that Clinton refuses to officially drop out until she is satisfied that the voices of Florida and Michigan are heard.” The thing is, though, that the voices of Florida in Michigan will not be heard in any meaningful way no matter what happens. A fair contest is not going to be held for their delegates. Michigan Democrats do not suddenly become enfranchised if you declare ex post facto that a one-major-candidate straw poll was an ordinary primary. If “hearing their voices” just means seating them at the convention after it’s clear that they won’t be used to try to reverse the outcome of the nomination, then Clinton staying in the race prevents the issue from being resolved.

In essence, this is a trivial issue. Clinton is neither doing significant damage to the party nor acting as some sort of crusader for democracy by staying in although she’s drawing dead.


Still Over

[ 17 ] May 7, 2008 |

As Sam said, tonight conveyed no new information. Clinton had pretty much no chance before tonight, and she still doesn’t. They have the same coalitions they’ve had for most of the race, and Obama’s is somewhat but decisively bigger. Clinton was never going to be able to use the vote totals from North Korea Michigan to go over the top unless you think the superdelegates are mostly complete idiots; after tonight, it’s just that Clinton can’t win even under her campaign’s own silly ad hoc metrics.

What it does seem to change is that the media may give up any pretense that Clinton could win the nomination. And given Clinton’s cancellation of appearances, you have to wonder if she’s finally going to concede the inevitable.

this seems to confirm my speculation about the media.

Just A Break From Primary Coverage…

[ 0 ] May 7, 2008 |

I’m guessing Moises Alou isn’t the oldest player ever to steal home (Carew? Cobb?), but I suspect he may have the oldest back and knees…

I continue to regret the fact that my Moises-signed softball glove was lost forever on the swampy University of Washington softball fields.

The Least Powerful Branch

[ 0 ] May 6, 2008 |

Like Josh Patashnik, I’m puzzled by Anna Quindlen’s claim that the judiciary is the most powerful branch of the federal government. Patashnik notes the relatively narrow scope of the recent decisions Quindlen cites, which is terms of their impact are obviously dwarfed by, say, the Iraq War or Bush’s series of budget-busting upper-class tax cuts, both areas in which the courts have virtually no influence. In addition, many of Qundlen’s examples are hardly example of the unilateral power of the courts. The decision to uphold Indiana’s voter ID law was, in my judgment, a bad one — but it also would have been beside the point had the legislature not passed the bad law in the first place. Similarly, Ledbetter was bad, but the Court has been able to establish a new status quo because 1)the President vetoed corrective legislation, 2)a Republican minority in the Senate the filibustered, and 3)the Equal Pay Act didn’t allow for punitive damages in the first place, making the statute of limitations provisions of Title VII relevant in the first place. The court certainly matters, but in most cases its shaping of the policy generated by the other branches is marginal. And even where the progressive impact of the court is arguably the most important — abortion rights — such rights have substantial support among both the public and among elected officials, and indeed Roe could not have survived even in its current watered-down form if this wasn’t the case.

An additional point is that — as I think I’ve said before — Quindlen’s claim that “[h]istory tells us that virtually all presidents get blindsided by their court choices” is also not really true. Almost all alleged “surprises” were either selected for reasons other than ideology (Warren, Brennan, O’Connor, Souter) or were third choices reflecting the constraints of the Senate (Blackmun, Kennedy.) And even the extent to which Blackmun crossed Nixon has been overstated; there’s very little reason to believe that Nixon cared about abortion when making Supreme Court appointments. On the stuff that Nixon actually cared about, even Blackmun was pretty reliable vote for his first decade. All four Nixon appointees joined the 5-4 decisions that effectively gutted Brown by permitting states to maintain schools that were both de facto segregated and unequal as long as this was done by through district boundaries and funding rather than direct pupil assignment, for example. And no Nixon appointee ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional until is was again well-established. In general, voters are actually perfectly rational in assuming that a President they otherwise support will appoint judges with more congenial constitutional views and using presidential ideology as a proxy.

None of this is to say that the public wouldn’t benefit from knowing more about the courts and what they do, but you can say that about almost any aspect of government. Regulatory decisions are also an extremely important part of modern government and will tend to be very different depending on who occupies the White House, but they attract if anything less public attention.

Remember Forrest Gump Winning Best Picture?

[ 0 ] May 6, 2008 |

Ugh. I guess MoDo’s Pulizter is the better analogy…

Loving and Constitutional Traditionalism

[ 16 ] May 5, 2008 |

In light of the passing of Mildred Loving, it’s useful to return to standard set out by Antonin Scalia to apply the equal protection clause in cases that don’t involve installing a political ally in the White House:

I have no problem with a system of abstract tests such as rational basis, intermediate, and strict scrutiny (though I think we can do better than applying strict scrutiny and intermediate scrutiny whenever we feel like it). Such formulas are essential to evaluating whether the new restrictions that a changing society constantly imposes upon private conduct comport with that “equal protection” our society has always accorded in the past [sic]. But in my view the function of this Court is to preserve our society’s values regarding (among other things) equal protection, not to revise them.

Under this standard, I think Loving is clearly wrongly decided. Bans on interracial marriage are not unambiguously prohibited by the Constitution, and there was an unbroken tradition of such bans in 1967. With Brown, at least, the traditionalist (while on exceedingly shaky ground) might be able to claim that apartheid was a minority, sectional tradition rather than a truly national one. But bans on interracial marriage existed in many states North and South, and in Gallup surveys taken in the 50s were supported by huge national majorities. If traditionalism is the right way of interpreting ambiguous constitutional traditions, Loving is wrong.

The point here, of course, if not that there’s any chance that Scalia would vote to uphold such a ban today, but rather that the idea that traditions of discrimination are self-justifying is a singularly unappealing way of reading the Constitution. The idea that we can’t consider inviduous gender distinctions (for example) an equal protection problem because they weren’t considered problematic in 1865 is unpersuasive in the extreme.

Fighting For What?

[ 0 ] May 5, 2008 |


Clinton is presently making a big deal about the fact that she is “a fighter”. After this primary season, I don’t think there can be any doubt about her willingness to fight. What Clinton’s gas tax proposal tells me is what she’s willing to fight for. She is not willing to fight for what she thinks is right in the face of public pressure. She’s not even willing to restrict her compromises to cases in which public pressure to do something stupid already exists. She will sacrifice principle and the public good when it’s expedient for her to do so.

I guess that has always been one of my two major problems with Clinton’s candidacy. Even if we concede that she’s a “fighter,” whether or not these fighting skills will be consistently used on behalf of progressive values is another question entirely. (There was a better argument to be made about this in terms of electability, but the result of the primary despite her large inherent advantages, her reliance on Mark Penn, etc. speaks for itself. Primaries, in this sense, do provide important information.) Having said that, I would find the gas tax stupidity considerably less objectionable if she had a non-trivial chance of winning the nomination. Given that Obama is nearly certain to actually be the candidate, agreeing with John McCain to not only endorse a bad policy bit reinforce GOP frames about the party’s nominee is pretty odious.

With respect to my other major objection, Hilzoy cites Clinton’s vote authorizing the Iraq War as another example. I’m actually not so sure; I think it’s entirely possible (indeed, I think, more likely) that Clinton thought her vote on the war was right on the merits. In terms of evaluating her as a potential president, though, I think this is worse.

Projections of Puddle-Deep Minds

[ 0 ] May 5, 2008 |


Hillary and her posse pressed hard on their noble twin themes of emasculation and elitism.

Yes. Hillary’s theme.

"I Have A Convincing Reubttal To Your Arguments. No, I Won’t Tell You. But Trust Me, It’s Very Compelling."

[ 8 ] May 3, 2008 |

The Jeffrey Goldberg method.

It’s a rhetorical style of profound morality!

Dumbest. Spin. Ever.

[ 7 ] May 2, 2008 |

Seriously. Maybe Kerry should have tried that logic out in 2004. “Why does the media keep setting up all these hurdles in front of me? I’ve proven that I’ve won! Obviously, the relevant criterion for judging the success of my campaign should be my performance in an arbitrarily selected group of large states, not irrelevant factors like ‘electoral votes’ or even ‘the popular vote.'”

Today In Wingnut Public Policy

[ 16 ] May 2, 2008 |

Apparently, “critics of evolution are turning to a higher authority: state legislators.” In some states, this has involved private screenings of Ben Stein’s creationist wankery. Goody. I think this speaks for itself:

The academic-freedom bills now in circulation vary in detail. Some require teachers to critique evolution.

1860 and Electoral Systems

[ 0 ] May 2, 2008 |

Matt says that “I think there’s an underexplored historical counterfactual in which the United States uses a different kind of electoral system — like popular vote with a run-off — that resulted in a Stephen Douglas presidency without any change in the underlying shape of public opinion.” One of the best parts of Gerry Mackie’s brilliant demolition of public choice claims the democratic outcomes are arbitrary is an extended analysis of the 1860 election. One of the things he shows is that under any common method of counting votes more accurate than the plurality system (such as Condrocet, Borda, or approval voting), Douglas would have won.

The larger context of the argument is that the 1860 election is one of the key examples of the anti-democratic theories of Commander Riker and his disciples. Riker claims that there was a cycle in the 1860 in which any of Lincoln, Douglas or Bell could have won according to different rules and comparing pairs of candidates would lead to a tie. As Mackie points out, though, once you remove Riker’s exceptionally implausible assertion that Bell — the candidate of the more moderate South that got roughly 2% of the vote in states carried by Lincoln — was the second choice of 75% of Lincoln voters, the cycle vanishes. In fact, any reliable voting system that didn’t entirely throw out alternate choices in the absence of a majority would produce Douglas > Lincoln > Bell > Breckinridge. The 1860 election wasn’t evidence of a cycle; rather, it’s just evidence that 1)plurality-based electoral systems are less reliable than many other means of tabulating votes, and 2)institutions designed to constrain majoritarian preferences will sometimes constrain majoritarian preferences.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether this fact has created artificial support for the indefensibly anachronistic system that the U.S. uses to choose presidents. Because the country got lucky in the leader chosen against the majority of the country’s wishes in 1860 and the outcome of the Civil War the election made inevitable was relatively fortunate, what would otherwise be the best example of the electoral system going haywire is obviously not a politically useful one. But it should be remembered that given somewhat different immigration and migration patterns the system could have also given us a President Breckinridge, and the most recent example of the plurality/electoral college system producing a different winner than a more accurate system would was rather less fortunate.

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