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Election Over-reaction

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Several races today have received an inordinate amount of attention as tests of public opinion regarding the policies and effectiveness of the (still) nascent Obama administration. The Democrats will lose two of the three races being hyped, and very possibly all three.

Many will argue that this will be a setback for Obama, especially considering the political capital he has expended in NY-23, and especially in the New Jersey Gubernatorial election.

This is, largely, bunk. While special elections (NY-23) or even Gubernatorial elections can be suggestive of public opinion towards national politics (the 1991 special election for the Senator of PA is a good example here), this is relatively rare in American politics. Gubernatorial elections are about state politics, not national politics. The incumbent in New Jersey, Jon Corzine, is in a statistical draw at the moment because he’s Jon Corzine. As Silver reports at 538, Corzine has not polled higher than 44%, and 53% of likely voters have an unfavorable opinion of the incumbent. This is a race about neither the Obama administration nor the relative popularity of Republicans in a blue state; rather it’s a race about the unpopular incumbent governor facing off against a lackluster challenger and a third-party spoiler.

In Virginia, an argument that this is a referendum on national rather than state politics is more credible, but where Silver assigns a 3-1 split between national and local, I’d go no more than 50-50, and only then if I were sniffing glue. Contextual factors specific to the state matter. Deeds, the Democratic nominee, participated in a three-way primary that, while he handily won, could not have helped position him against Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee. Second, while these very two faced off for Virginia Attorney General in 2005, and McDonnell only won by something like 300-odd votes, McDonnell has spent the last four years as a state-wide elected official, while Deeds did not. I’m not suggesting that this gives McDonnell an insurmountable edge in the rematch, but it does give him a marginal (perhaps very marginal) advantage.

Finally, and most critically (for all three races), the composition of the electorate will be significantly different in November 2009 than it was in November 2008. When turnout decreases, as it does for off-year elections and especially for odd-year elections, the underlying composition of the electorate is altered at differing rates. Those with lesser levels of education, lower levels of income, lower age, and less attachment to place drop off at a much higher rate than the wealthy / educated / home owners / etc. It’s not terribly difficult to make the leap (actually, a small hop) from this to speculating (correctly) which party will benefit from the changed demographic composition of lower turnout.

As for NY-23, it’s a Republican district. Yes, there was significant ticket splitting in 2008, but it’s a strong Republican district: a Democrat wasn’t even on the ballot in 2002. Perhaps it is not a wingnut Republican district, but it looks likely that it will be represented by a credible wingnut following this election.

Indeed, as Silver points out, the Republicans in the two Gubernatorial races aren’t exactly hyping up their Republican street-cred. Granted neither are the Democrats especially so, but the Republicans are running from their label. If these were truly referenda on national politics, one would expect to see this distinction made more plain.

None of this is to suggest that Democrats still have it easy. The Republicans and right wingers are, as usual, far more adept at framing the narrative and mobilizing their support. Furthermore, the Democrats will lose seats in the House in 2010. But then aside from 1998 and 2002, the incumbent party in the White House always loses seats in the off-year Congressional elections. But, the results that I will wake up to tomorrow will not have me terribly concerned about the fate of the Obama administration, progressive (or even centrist / moderate) politics, or the fate of the free world. Furthermore, seeing how the New York Yankees can’t possibly have won the World Series by (my) tomorrow morning, it’s all good.

And all the better if Sarah Palin takes credit for any or all of these election results.

Me, I’ll be watching R-71 in Washington State and Prop 1 in Maine . . .


Israeli Missile Defenses

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

Check out this (somewhat dated) article on Israeli missile defenses. The article makes the point that Israel’s missile defenses have progressed to the point that even a concerted Iranian ballistic missile attack, fielding far more weapons that Iran is expected to have in the next twenty years, could not hope to destroy Israel’s capacity to retaliate. An Iranian attack on Israel might fail entirely, and in any case would be utterly suicidal. Also note that several Israeli officials argue that the Iranian regime is NOT suicidal. All of this kind of makes me wonder about two things:

1. Why do we continue to hear nonsense about “one bomb” being able to destroy Israel, followed quickly by nonsense about how the US would be unwilling to respond on behalf of a country that no longer exists? Neither of these points are defensible; while an advanced, massive multi-megaton Soviet nuclear warhead might be able to destroy Israel in one chunk, any Iranian weapon fielded in the next forty years is certain to have a yield measured in double digit kilotons, and thus incapable of destroying Israel in a moment. Such an attack would give Israel a really bad day/month/year/decade, but Israel would respond by giving Iran a really bad century/millenium/what’s longer than a millenium?.

2. Why does Israel need to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program? The answer would seem to be some sort of nebulous claim about how Iranian nuclear weapons would somehow immeasurably improve Iran’s negotiating position in the Middle East; Iran and its allies would suddenly become emboldened, or something. This ignores a) the reality that states balance against power and threat, and b) the reality that nuclear states very often have a bloody difficult time getting what they want from non-nuclear states. The entire argument seems based on a 1962 Paul Nitze vision of nuclear weapons, in which more nukes automatically grant extraordinary diplomatic leverage. Allowing that there’s something to the stability-instability paradox, I think it’s fair to say that nuclear weapons have, at best, proven to be blunt, unsophisticated, and not terribly useful tools of diplomacy.

The caveat is this, and it goes to the heart of problems with the strategic implications of ballistic missile defense. The tighter Israel weaves its ABM shield, the less likely that any attack by terrorists or by a suicidal (yes, I know) Iran is to be delivered by ballistic missile. The same is true for the United States; Heritage is dedicated to wasting everyone’s time by claiming that terrorists could launch a nuclear armed SCUD from an offshore barge, without ever asking why terrorists would bother to buy the SCUD when they could just sail the ship into Boston Harbor. Unlike the US, I don’t think that Israeli strategic ballistic missile defense is a waste of time; the country is small enough that a conventional ballistic missile assault could do damage, and has suffered such an attack in recent memory. But I suppose the takeaway is simply that there is no “magic bullet” that can provide complete security.

Better propaganda, please.

Plebiscitarianism run amok

[ 0 ] November 3, 2009 |

In the process of voting, I find myself pondering “King County Charter Amendment #1: Repeal of Section 350.20.30 and Portions of Article 9 – Transitory Provisions” Here’s the text in full:

Shall those no longer relevant portions of King County Charter Article 9 relating to the county’s prior transition to a home rule charter and King County Charter Section 350.20.30, relating to the county’s transition to a metropolitan form of government, be repealed, as provided in Ordinance # 16484?”

If you’re anything like me, you tried to read this several times, but kept falling asleep. Apparently, we’re being asked to vote on whether outdated language that refers to another no longer present section of the charter should be removed. I was tempted to vote no as an irrational protest vote against the madness that is the King County Charter. There’s a reasonable debate to be had about governing by plebiscite, but I can’t really figure out what a defense of copyediting by plebiscite might look like.

In other news, King County people please vote! I think we’ll win the big three (Yes to human rights and decency (71), No to disastrous state budgeting practices and Tim Eyman (1033), No to Susan “Sarah Palin II” Hutchinson) but these off year elections are somewhat unpredictable and losing any of these would drive me to drink.

Game 6 5 [Hopeful Slip!]

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

I don’t plan on watching with any attention unless the Phils are up by a significant amount, but for the Yankee fans and masochists out there. (One ray of hope: I wonder why, up 3-1, Girardi is having his last three potential starters go on short rest.)


[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

A definitive history.


[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

Yglesias, in discussing the UK’s salutary anti-texting-while-driving laws:

This trend [in reduced fatalities from accidents] is great, and we should be trying to continue it. One way to do so is to get serious about the dangers involved in cell phone use, including texting, while driving. Since these technologies are new, we know for certain that people are perfectly capable of getting along in life without using mobile phones while driving their cars. We also know that using them is very dangerous. Under the circumstances, fairly harsh, well-publicized penalties are called for. This is a situation where deterrence really ought to work extremely well.

Really, legal intervention in a case in which people substantially endanger the lives of other people for a (usually trivial) gain in convenience shouldn’t be even mildly controversial.

Grand Pedro à Montréal

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

Great stuff from Jonah Keri; it’s especially nice to revisit the hidden perfect game in San Diego. (I think the Expos had a leadoff runner on in the 9th but couldn’t get him home.) I will only add that 1)Showing the prescience for which am I justly famed I was not merely ambivalent about but strongly opposed to trading DeShields to get Pedro, and 2)while Sanders charging the mound after being hit by an 0-2 pitch 5 outs from a perfect game (I was at that one) is the best example of the “Pedro is a head-hunter” meme, I also enjoyed one post-unintentional-HBP scrum in which Pedro was extensively lectured by a cashing one-last-check Mark Davis. (Perhaps the lecture was titled “how to sign an enormous contract and immediately become the worst closer in baseball.”)

On Jeffrey Goldberg

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

Indeed. And let’s not forget that he pushed fictitious Iraq/Al Qaeda connections almost as hard as Stephen Hayes himself. And, of course:

In five years, however, I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.

Proving, once again, that apparently your prestige as a pundit can never be reduced by saying dumb and/or erroneous things, as long as they’re in favor of war.

That Electoral Repudiation Was Just A Big Mistake!

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

Shorter Col. Mustard: My meaningless cliches mean more than your actual evidence ever could! And the defeat of conservative politicians just proves the point that this is a country that completely rejects progressive politics and loves conservatives! And the fact that Obama is trying to implement the platform he ran on proves that he really put one over on the American public.

SRBMs Shifting Straits Balance Towards PRC?

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

A few years ago, a student of mine worked out the implications of a large scale Chinese SRBM (short range ballistic missile) attack on Taiwan. He argued that the attack was, based on the historic resilience of regimes to coercion by air assault, unlikely by itself to break the will of the Taiwanese government to resist. It won’t surprise readers of this blog to learn that I agreed with this conclusion. However, he didn’t really go into the implications of a conventional ballistic missile attack launched against military targets on Taiwan, in particular Taiwan’s air bases and fighter aircraft. At Foreign Policy, David Shlapak has an article based on the recent RAND study he co-authored on the likely course and outcome of a PRC-Taiwan conflict. Shlapak argues that a preparatory ballistic missile assault on Taiwan would stand a very high chance of devastating the Taiwanese air force, and of giving China air superiority in any conflict. GPS guidance has rendered SRBMs radically more accurate, improving their ability to strike air bases and other military infrastructure.

Although I haven’t read the RAND study, the argument seems pretty compelling to me. I would suggest a few caveats:

  1. It seems highly unlikely that a PRC-Taiwan war would result from a surprise Chinese attack. Rather, Taiwanese forces would probably be at high alert. This means that a larger percentage of the fighter force would be aloft at time of attack. However, if the airbases themselves are rendered unusable, this doesn’t matter very much.
  2. Shlapak suggests that US air bases would also be vulnerable to Chinese SRBM or MRBM attack. While this is technically possible, I suspect the Chinese would be deeply reluctant to escalate the conflict through attacks on US targets, including airbases in friendly countries. While we couldn’t necessarily expect to have full freedom of action from Guam or elsewhere, I doubt that US forces would fall victim to a surprise attack.

Shlapak argues that dispersing assets, hardening shelters, and increasing missile defense capabilities are the only real options that the Taiwanese have. In this context, I concur with the last point; missile defense may be nearly useless in a strategic nuclear sense, but it’s helpful against a large scale conventional ballistic missile attack. However, SRBMs are cheaper than interceptors; it seems likely that the Chinese will simply be able to overwhelm any Taiwanese system with sheer numbers.

I think that the takeaway is this; there was a long window in which Taiwan was probably capable of preventing a Chinese invasion, even assuming no US intervention. That period is closed, or closing; the balance between Taiwan and China, sans the development of Taiwanese nuclear weapons, is moving inexorably in China’s direction. This does not mean that war is inevitable, as China has lots of fabulous reasons for not launching a war of conquest. I think that it does, however, mean that China has greater leverage over Taiwan on a whole host of issues of dispute between the two states. It also means that the United States faces a more difficult choice regarding its level of engagement if the PRC-Taiwan relationship goes hot.

Deep Thought

[ 0 ] November 2, 2009 |

It takes a hitter of the caliber of Pedro Feliz to homer off the greatest pitcher athlete in Yankee known human history.

UPDATE: Clearly, Slappy Rordriguez will never be able to hit in the clutch.

…More from Neyer.

Pundit’s Fallacy of the Day

[ 0 ] November 1, 2009 |

It’s indeed true that Galston not only doesn’t seem to talk to any economists, but apparently doesn’t talk to any other political scientists, most of whom would in fact tell him that making unemployment significantly worse in order to appeal to what voters answer about an abstract and isolated poll question would be an insane political strategy.