The Luxury of an Undisciplined Congressional Caucus

Last night the House of Representatives passed the bill that kept us from going over the so-called “fiscal cliff.” That was a huge story, but it’s already not the hottest daily political tussle that plays out on cable and in the DC press. Last night the House Republicans chose not to pass the bill authorizing funds for the areas heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Peter King is mouthing off about leaving the Republican Party–since he doesn’t get us close to a majority, I’d rather he stay in the GOP and screw things up from the inside rather than give Dems a racist caucus member–and Chris Christie unloaded on John Boehner.

Because their party screwed them and their constituents, the few remaining Congressional Republicans in New York and New Jersey may have a tougher time in the next election. But long-term, Northeastern Republicans are suffering from the same problem facing rural and Southern Democrats: regionalization of the parties and the narrow margins in the House of Representatives.

Compared to the 1960’s through 1980’s, Congress today is a more nasty and brutish place where the careers of members in competitive districts are often short. Members of Congress, particularly Republicans, are probably more ideological today than in, say, the 1980’s. But as realignment in the South has shaken out, and the conservative/liberal axis now closely tracks partisanship, it’s not always the ideological zealotry of members from competitive districts that endangers them in general elections. The problem for most members from competitive districts is that their caucuses need the votes of almost every member, on almost every single issue.

This is from a piece I wrote a couple years ago for The Boston Review:

Democrats didn’t just control the House: they dominated it. From 1959 through the end of Democratic leadership in 1994, the Democrats, on average, held a 93-seat majority. With so many votes to spare, Democratic leaders could tolerate weak partisan discipline yet still muster the votes needed to pass their legislative priorities…

In recent elections Republican presidential voters have become more likely to vote for Republicans for Congress. Democratic Congressional candidates won only 4 more districts than Al Gore, only 22 more than John Kerry, and only 14 more than Barack Obama. This development has dramatically changed the House. Now that Congressional results largely track presidential results, there are more safe Republican seats, many of them in the South. As a result, the House now has fewer conservative Southern Democrats. Thus, compared to the era of Democratic dominance, ideology now neatly tracks partisanship in the House. Majorities have fewer opportunities to pick up votes from their ideological allies in the minority caucus, so the majority requires more partisan discipline than Democrats required during their dominance. And now a shift of 50 or so seats affects not the degree of Democratic dominance but control of the House.

The “Hastert Rule,” by which Speakers Dennis Hastert and–until last night–John Boehner would not bring to the floor any bill they couldn’t pass with only Republican votes is a more brazenly partisan practice than what prevailed under Speakers prior to Newt Gingrich. But it’s also a result of their narrower partisan margins compared to those enjoyed by Democratic Speakers from the mid-fifties through the eighties. Undisciplined majorities were a luxury for past Democratic majorities, but a threat to the legislative agendas of today’s narrow Congressional majorities (and barring a huge political shock, this will be as much a dilemma for future Democratic majorities as it is for the current Republican majority).

Northeastern Republicans may take a hit because their increasingly regional party acts mostly on regional interests and not in the national interest. Even in strongly Democratic states there are strong Republican pockets, so just as their are a handful of Southern Democrats there will probably always be a few Northeastern Republicans. But over time, what is probably more likely to lead to the defeat of Republicans in districts like thos of Michael Grimm and Peter King is their party’s continued reliance on their votes for politics and policies popular with rural, evangelical and federal government-hating voters in the South, Appalachia, the Plains and Great Basin, but that are unpopular with voters in New Jersey and New York.

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Carl Levin and Process…Again

For most of my life I was represented by Senator Carl Levin. I know of few politicians in the last few decades who’ve conducted themselves with such integrity, and on almost all substantive policy issues he’s been right, and often prescient. I was lucky to have him representing me in the Senate. But he can sometimes be obstinate on process matters, like now, when he’s joined with John McCain in trying to torpedo meaningful reform of the filibuster. Ezra Klein summed up their proposal well:

If you think the Senate is pretty much working well as is, and the biggest threat are the folks who want to change the rules, then this is the proposal for you. It lets people say they’re doing something to curb the abuse of the filibuster without actually doing anything at all. But if you think the Senate is broken, there’s nothing in here that would even plausibly fix any of its problems.

In 1999 Congress grappled with a different procedural matter: the impending expiration of the law authorizing the United States Office of Independent Counsel. The Independent Counsel had proven to be a mess:

Two broad dilemmas lie at the heart of the problems with the statute. On one hand is the question of what balance to strike between the independence and accountability of the appointed prosecutor. On the other is how to grant the attorney general the discretion to make fair and necessary appointment decisions while minimizing the potential for conflict of interest.

Currently, much criticism among members of Congress, former prosecutors, and legal experts centers on the idea that the statute is biased toward granting too much independence to the prosecutor and too little discretion to the attorney general.

Such criticism has grown with the four-year-old, $40 million Starr investigation [which began as an investigation of the Clintons’ Whitewater investment but eventually led to the Monica Lewinsky frenzy], but was also directed at earlier probes. Lawmakers “are so upset about Starr, and probably to a lesser extent about me,” says Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel during the 1986 Iran-contra investigation.

Congress let the law expire. But there were a few who had tried to keep it alive:

Today, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and a bipartisan group of colleagues are set to introduce legislation that would rework the statute they want renewed to maintain the independence of investigations into possible corruption by the highest government officials.

But that foursome — Lieberman will be joined by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. — is in a distinct minority. Most members of Congress and even the administration seem content to let the post- Watergate reform fade into history.

It’s not clear to me why Carl Levin clings to procedural inertia long after the need for change is apparent. But he often does, so his opposition to filibuster reform is not a surprise.

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Every Man His Own Militia

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed

It’s hard to come up with a fair-minded, non-ideological reading of the Second Amendment that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that it wasn’t intended to be an absolute right of every individual to own a personal arsenal for vigilantism. Rather, it was to ensure there would be sufficient numbers of appropriately armed men to serve in local militias mustered in response to invasions, Indian raids and rebellions.

Militias weren’t considered some haphazard gaggle of yokels with guns. The Militia Act of 1792 was very specific about how militia men should be outfitted:

every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack

When the Second Amendment was adopted, a “well regulated militia” was composed of men armed with muskets that in the hands of an experienced shooter could fire about three rounds per minute. Musket He was supplied with 20-24 rounds. The basic small fighting group, as described in the Militia Act of 1792, was a company, composed of 64 privates commanded by about a dozen officers and non-commissioned officers. If all were firing their weapons at an average rate, a company could fire about 225 rounds a minute, and the killing range of their muskets was about 80-100 yards.

Compare the musket’s lethal effectiveness to that of the AR-15. AR-15 The AR-15 was one of the weapons used by Aurora murderer Aurora murderer James Holmes, was the sole weapon of last week’s Oregon mall murderer Jacob Roberts. It is very similar to the Bushmaster carbine found in the car of Newtown murderer Adam Lanza and used by Beltway Snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo. The AR-15 has an effective range of over 500 yards, over five times the range of a musket. Standard clips hold 20-30 rounds (although they can be fitted with drum magazines that hold 100 rounds). Even with smaller capacity clips, like used by Holmes, they can fire a tremendous number of highly lethal bullets (far more lethal than the balls of lead flung by eighteenth century muskets). In one minute Holmes fired more than 50 rounds in to the Aurora movie theater.

When the Second Amendement was adopted, it took 16 or 17 men to fire off as many rounds in one minute as one deranged lunatic fired in to a movie theater. If those 16 or 17 men with muskets advanced toward one person with an AR-15, they would have to walk a quarter of a mile under lethal gunfire from one person with an AR-15 before they could get in range to fire a lethal shot from their musket. It they advanced across an open field against a skilled marksman, they would all be killed before they ever got close enough to fire a shot from their own weapons. And four James Holmes’–or two pairs of Muhammad/Malvo or Harris/Klebold–with weapons easily acquired today, could mow down an entire “well regulated militia” before that militia would have been in range to fire a shot.


The Second Amendment ensured that Americans could arm themselves with a musket. But the courts have repeatedly concluded that Americans aren’t entitled to arm themselves with a Browning .50 caliber machine gun. I’d like to think Scalia and his majority on the Supreme Court would stop being blockheads and acknowledge that an AR-15 or a Bushmaster is much closer to a .50 caliber machine gun than it is to the muskets of the militiamen of 1792. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Erick Erickson Demonstrates Why the GOP was Baffled By Romney’s Defeat

At Redstate, CNN commentator and major Republican party figure Erick Erickson is lecturing Republican donors on how, according to Erickson, they got ripped off by Republican consultants, and they should instead listen to him. He breaks down the numbers, with a dollop of arrogant condescension:

To understand Gravity, you rich donors need a basic primer. You may think you know this stuff, but I bet you really don’t. Let me break it down for you.

Of the 100% of Americans who exist, about 66% are eligible to vote. These are all rough estimates.

40% are actually registered to vote.

25% of the total American population will probably, actually go vote.

Therefore, a candidate needs 13% of the population to win.

But, and this is a big but, of the 25% of the population that can and does vote, 9% will vote straight Democrat usually and 8% will vote straight Republican.

That leaves 8% left.

2% of that 8% of people will be single issue voters. Of that 2%, most of the single issue voters will tilt slightly to the GOP on issues of guns or abortion, but there are also single issue pro-choice voters, single issue anti-gun voters, single issue gay rights voters, etc.

That all leaves 6% of the population. In other words, to win an election, a candidate must really get 4% of the population to support him because that is the majority of the undecided 6%. A Republican must get a bit more, but then can draw from single issue voters a bit more than Democrats.

Those percentages are the foundation of the data. But the data is more complicated than that. [Emphasis gleefully added]

There’s evidence that the GOP’s pollsters and targeting people were delusional and/or dumb. Looks like Erickson is even dumber. The US population is estimated to be 311 million. Look at his calculations:

Erickson’s Numbers Actual Results
Percentage of American Population to Vote 25% 40%
Total Vote, Erickson Figures vs Actual as of 11-26-2012 78 million 127 million
Percentage of Americans Whose Votes Are Needed to Win vs Obama’s Percentage for 3-4 point win 13% 21%
Winning vote, Erickson Figures vs Actual as of 11-26-2012 40 million 65 million

Erickson brought up voting eligible population and percentage of the VEP registered to vote. He’s pretty close in his estimate of the VEP. Could the subsequent estimates have been intended as percentages of the VEP and not total population? Sure, but that would make his estimates even more inaccurate, as the raw numbers would be calculated as a percentage of 220 million instead of 311 million.

The best part of this is Erickson telling donors “you may think you know this stuff, but I bet you really don’t.” I hope those conservative donors memorize his lessons.

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“Hello, 911, I’d Like to Report a Kid Canvassing My Neighborhood”

I’m catching up on some post-election reading, and today I came across this piece in Campaigns and Elections about the successes of SuperPAC’s that concentrated their resources and focused on state races or on a small number of downballot federal races. The article doesn’t oversell any conclusions. I think it’s a stretch to say that a conservative SuperPAC has much to do with Republicans in Republican districts–such as Kerry Bentivolio in MI-11–prevailing over Democrats who barely mounted campaigns. But it’s obvious that a few hundred thousand dollars in a $2-$3 million race where candidates are barely known, if at all, is usually a better investment than a hundred million ad campaign in a presidential race.

One of the problems for the top of the ticket races is that more TV spending in a media market leads to higher ad rates, and the less the buyer gets per dollar. Other types of spending aren’t as vulnerable to price spikes based on other campaigns. For instance, the USPS doesn’t raise rates in a state because there’s more political mail flowing in to mailboxes. But I see a problem with one part of this prediction:

If anything, Reiff says, Super PACs will refocus their efforts on the ground game in the future—funding canvassing, mailers, phone banks and other GOTV when TV becomes oversaturated.

I think Reiff is correct that SuperPAC’s will look for ways to influence elections other than TV. Mail is an obvious way, because all it requires is money and a few consultants. Phone banking can be effective, and is better targeted than TV anyway. But every election cycle, as more and more of the electorate uses land lines as nothing other than a voice mail that they never use to answer to a live call, phones become less effective. Reiff doesn’t mention online, but that’s another form of voter contact that requires little labor and no volunteers. That leaves canvassing.  While I don’t dismiss it entirely, I doubt the ability of conservative SuperPAC’s to effectively use paid canvassing operations to significantly influence Republican turnout.

Democrats have often used paid canvassing operations for GOTV in areas with high Democratic performance but low turnout. Canvassing isn’t a permanent job, it doesn’t pay all that well, and can’t be done for more than a handful of hours each weekday (thus making it harder to do as a second job, as the canvasser needs to be available in the afternoon and the evening). People who canvass mostly or entirely for financial reasons–in part because it demands more physically than do other forms of voter contact–tend to be twenty-somethings, minorities and people of modest financial means. These canvassers are sent in prime Democratic GOTV areas, which are disproportionately packed with the same kinds of people–twenty-somethings, minorities and people of modest financial means. In Democratic areas, canvassers generally look like the people they’re trying to drag out to vote.

Democrats who need cajoling to vote are generally OK answering door knocks from people who fit in to the neighborhood. Will the people Republicans need to drag out to vote respond to door knocks from people who look like the Democratic voting coalition, and thus often unlike the Republican neighborhoods? Republicans appeal to their voters in part by playing on their discomfort with people who aren’t socially conventional white heterosexual Christians. The black and Latino canvassers, the college students with tats and piercings walking up and down the block, I expect they would regularly be reported to the cops, because, you know, “what are they doing in our neighborhood? They must be up to no good.”

I think Republicans will have a hard time effectively utilizing canvassing. Much of their ideological base is motivated by a rabid hatred of Barack Obama and a whacked out anger about social, cultural and demographic changes in America. Many Republican volunteers can obviously temper their vehemence in the interest of winning. But I suspect filtering the off-putting fulminators from their volunteer canvassing operations makes it harder for Republicans to fill their canvassing slots. The Republican base is also not as well-suited to more physically demanding forms of voter contact. Republican volunteer operations may have less capacity than do Democrats’. These problems are compounded by the fact that Republicans also require more canvassers per voter than do Democrats. Democrats are more likely to be clustered in 70% or more Democratic areas with a high number of people per square mile. Republican GOTV targets are more likely to live in areas that are under 60% Republican–so they’ll have more doors to walk past than will Democratic canvassers–and suburban, exurban or rural. If they’re equal in speed and ability, the average Republican canvasser will contact fewer voters per hour than will the Democratic canvasser.

Conservatives can pay for a lot of voter persuasion and contact. But they can’t pay for volunteers, and there’s good reason to doubt their ability to pay for canvass operations that touch as many Republican voters in an effective way as do Democratic canvasses. Too often people want to believe pablum about “people power” and how if we have more people and more passion liberals can wipe out conservatives’ money advantages. That’s often not the case. But canvassing may be one form of political communication where conservative money will have a hard time matching the power of volunteer-driven Democratic canvasses.

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Conservative Entertainment Complex: Might be Better for Republicans if it Were a Cocoon

Jonathan Martin has a pretty good piece at Politico about the “GOP’s media cocoon.” The piece is worth reading–not least for his observation that Politico shares the blame in the great national tragedy that is Donald Trump’s political celebrity–but I think there are a few additional points about Republicans’ cognitive insularity.

Martin and the Republicans he quotes–campaign operatives and squishy DC/NYC-based writers–are generally right in their assessments of what for the last few years David Frum has been calling the “conservative entertainment complex.” But the problem Martin’s Republicans either don’t get or don’t want to face is that the conservative entertainment complex exists and thrives in part because the conservative base doesn’t like or trust squishes at the New York Times or consultants who caution against anything other than full frontal attacks against Democrats that use the incendiary language of conservative Joe Twelvepack yelling at his TV. The conservative entertainment complex isn’t trying to appeal to grass roots activists who want to be smart and win as much as activists who want their candidates to be tough and say what they really believe (provided they believe the same things).

The Republican base isn’t about winning, if that requires subsuming some of their more inflammatory beliefs. No, it’s about sticking it to the man and “saying what needs to be said.” Much of the GOP base thinks being tough and unafraid to speak the “truth” is how you win elections. But being tough and speaking freely (or, actually inanely and insanely) was the appeal of many of the GOP’s biggest debacles of the last 4 years, such as Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell & Richard Mourdock, or the Hermnewt Santrumpmann primary surges.

But another part of the appeal of those candidates was they were also sticking it to the party elders, the “wise men” who want to keep anger stoked but not have it flame up to incitement. But the cynics who’ve been exploiting what they almost surely think are “the rubes” have lost control of their party, or, in the case of the NYC/DC “ideas” people, they’ve lost any real connection to the decision-makers of the GOP. In fact, it’s resentment toward these people–the more sober, reality-based ideas people who get bored with diffuse outrage, and the pragmatists who want to win more than they want to maintain fealty toward some narrow ideology–that has helped fuel the Tea Party. Rand Paul didn’t win his 2010 Kentucky Senate primary over Martin-quoted Trey Grayson just on whacked-out ideas and being Ron Paul’s son. It was also because Grayson’s supposed great appeal in a Republican primary–his support from the Republican establishment, beginning with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell–was a liability with conservative entertainment complex-influenced primary voters.

Martin’s piece focuses a lot on what’s coming in to the grass roots from media and social networking.

Facebook and Twitter feeds along with email in-boxes have taken the place of the old newspaper front page, except that the consumer is now entirely in charge of what he or she sees each day and can largely shut out dissenting voices. It’s the great irony of the Internet era: People have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views.

“The Internet amplifies talk radio and cable news, and provides distribution for other sources like Newsmax,” said Trey Grayson, 40, the former Kentucky secretary of state and the current head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “Then your friends, who usually agree with you, disseminate the same stories on Facebook and Twitter. And you assume that everyone agrees with you!”


“Social media has made it easier to self-select,” added 45-year-old GOP strategist Bruce Haynes. “Who do you follow on Twitter, who do you friend on Facebook? Do they all look the same and say the same things? If so, you’ve created a universe for yourself that is wedded to its own self-fulfilling prophecies.”

But just as social media has allowed some conservatives to retreat in to a cocoon, it has also empowered conservatives to annoy the shit out of the rational people in their lives.

We’ve all experienced it. Maybe it’s on a plane, maybe its in some long line, maybe it’s at a christening or family picnic. But there’s “that guy,” the over fifty white guy who talks loud, thinks he’s funny, is just “telling the truth,” and is also a socially unaware moron, an uncensored free associator of the conservative id(iocy). That guy was a pain in the ass twenty years ago.

Now, beginning with emails forwarded to his aol account, then with Fox news, and now through online infotainment sources, he has more material, but he also sounds more and more like those another annoying guys. A few weeks ago all he talked about was Benghazi. Then the week before the election he talked about how Nate Silver was a tool of the liberal media keeping conservatives from voting. This week he may be intimating the vote totals seem fishy. Next week it will be something about Michelle Obama forcing raw broccoli down our throats or Eric Holder arming the New Black Panthers and providing them black helicopters for air cover. And he’ll be saying the same thing as all the rest of the people who’ve tethered their brains to Fox, World Net Daily and fevered email forwards.

That guy irritates a lot of people who don’t care all that much about politics. They may roll their eyes a tiny bit when they look at Facebook and see a liberal friend has posted the latest Colbert masterpiece. But those people standing askance of day-to-day politics would probably prefer getting stuck on an elevator with a Colbert lover than standing, drink in hand, at a wedding listening to an uncle, or crazy older brother or guy from work, who thinks Rush Limbaugh’s “jokes” are funny.

Prior to the Obama candidacy in 2008, every two years the RNC or some other Republican group would make a big deal about how they were supposedly reaching out to African Americans and trying to earn their votes. It was bullshit, of course. But it had an important purpose–it was intended to portray the GOP as not beholden to and benefitting from racism. The hoped-for result wasn’t picking up black voters. Rather, it was to assuage the concerns of moderate swing voters who would be apprehensive about being associated with a party that would leave on them a faint whiff of racism.

Message discipline by candidates, officials and talking heads was crucial in keeping the GOP from being seen as a bunch of deranged nutballs obsessed about race, women who work out of the house, or anyone who wasn’t white. And the crazy uncle could only bug you at family gatherings. But now, to that niece who accepted his friend request, he’s on her Facebook feed. He’s spewing stupid garbage. He’s more politically engaged when his party is out of power, because he feeds on, and spreads, outrage. And for a lot of people who don’t breath politics, that guy is the face of the Republican party.

Republicans who want to win probably wish that guy was in a cocoon.

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For the Want of a Nail, But Romney Campaign Sent Hammers

One of the more enjoyable Republican kerfuffles to watch is the fight over Orca, which was the Romney campaign’s…uh…um…

That’s the problem, I can’t figure out what the hell it for, or at least how they thought it could be effectively used for a clear objective.

The best I can figure is the Romney campaign tried to form up a kind of national posse intended to do two things: report who had voted, so the GOTV calls could drop them from the call universe and focus only on those who hadn’t yet voted, and secondly, to be a tool that polling site vigilantes would use to report voter fraud.

I started doing campaigns just before the explosion in technology that was available to volunteers and field staff. Cell phones, palm pilots for collecting and nightly reporting of canvass data, emails, web sites, online sign-ups, cyber-phone banks, social networking tools; smart phones, websites optimized for smart phones, remote access to voter file data, all have been widely adopted by campaigns over just the last 10-12 years. These technologies have revolutionized voter contact like nothing before.

But as the technology has spread, so have the tech guys and gals, and many of them have never sat in a phone bank before the age of predictive dialing and online dashboards. They don’t have an intuitive feel for how the tool will be experienced by the volunteer on the other side of the internet connection. As a result, they often push tools that create an activity, but don’t assist in achieving a goal.

The Romney campaign’s Orca project, according to the few (scathing) things I’ve read about it, failed massively at being user friendly. But it also seems Orca was, at least in part, a tool that wasn’t matched to a need. The Romney campaign didn’t need poll watchers reporting back who’d voted at any random polling sites around the country. They needed to identify the sites that were most important, and get people to those sites. Orca was passive, and surely, even if it worked, would have been an inefficient use of volunteer resources.

Again, I’m not fully informed about this program, so maybe it wasn’t as poorly planned as it appears. But as presented in what I’ve read, it seems like the equivalent of offering people hammers and saws and shovels, and sending them out willy nilly, instead of starting with a blueprint, picking a specific location, and sending the tools and people you need to that site, not based on their willingness to swing a hammer, but on your need to have nails driven.

And Mitt Romney was supposedly an expert manager.

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