Political Animal


October 29, 2014 3:46 PM Fundamentally, Some Candidates Suck

Earlier this week Jonathan Bernstein helped take the air out of one argument you hear in the cold war between journalists and political scientists (with “datajournalists” being more or less their allies, except for Sam Wang), and at the same time demystifying one of the practices of the former tribe:

It’s a good time to discuss how the quality of individual candidates and campaigns — as opposed to the party balance of the electorate and national forces — might affect the midterm election results.
Dave Weigel of Bloomberg Politics, on Twitter this morning, tweaked projection models for one big miss: early forecasts that Republican Terri Lynn Land would be a solid candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat in Michigan. She’s been awful. National Republicans have pulled out, and she appears to have scant chance to win. Weigel, singling out FiveThirtyEight, said that “datajournalists who judged Land to be a good candidate should have done reporting.”
It’s correct that good political reporting can, in the right circumstances, beat early forecasts from Nate Silver (or the Monkey Cage, or anyone else using objective indicators). But that hardly discredits what these modelers do or how they do it. Remember, too, that even good reporters can and do get it wrong sometimes; after all, there’s a whole army of spin artists out there doing their best to confuse the picture…..
[I]t’s certainly not the case that political scientists always dismiss the importance of individual candidates. What matters is the context. In presidential general elections, candidates aren’t often important because anyone who survives the nomination process is going to be solid, and campaigns aren’t too important because both sides are going to have ample resources and talent available. Those conditions don’t hold in races below that level.
The North Carolina Senate race provides another illustration of how tricky objective candidate assessments can be. Republican challenger Thom Tillis is speaker of the North Carolina House, but whether that means he’s a good candidate (because he has serious political experience) or a weak one (because his post isn’t a statewide elected office) isn’t clear. Given how few Senate elections there are with similar candidates, it isn’t always possible to figure out how to treat any specific qualifications, and modelers may disagree, leading to differing early projections. That’s fine; as long as the forecasters are transparent, we consumers of forecasts can learn from their differences just as we can learn from how they reach consensus.

Okay, so it seems “fundamentalists” do take candidate quality into account, but rely on “objective” measurements of same, such as degree and level of experience. I assume that’s based on some empirical data on the kind of candidates that typically do and don’t succeed. But still, there’s room for reporting and that vastly underrated quality I try to exemplify in the absence of databases or travel budgets, analysis. Don’t want to brag here, but months ago I identified Joni Ernst and David Perdue as “gaffe-prone” Senate candidates who might have problems with undisciplined utterances. That wasn’t based on my own original reporting or on any kind of data collection, but simply careful observation of what was in the news. But it was spot-on.

I see no reason why datajournalists or political scientists could not put a thumb on the scales of the fundamentals now and then if their rational observations so warrant. And it’s the very essence of being a good reporter to know when a “moment” in a campaign does and doesn’t indicate a big problem in candidate quality that’s likely to become apparent over time. I don’t, BTW, agree with Jonathan that the quirks and records and rhetorical habits of presidential candidates are entirely bleached out by the “fundamentals,” either. You can’t tell me any old Democrat (say, Mike Dukakis) would have done as well as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, or that the combination of Mitt Romney’s background and his “47 percent” gaffe didn’t matter at all. That doesn’t mean the game can always “change” at the drop of a hat, but it does keep a bit of mystery in the process if only at the margins.

UPDATE: Yes, commenters, I realize Joni Ernst and David Perdue could both very well win. But both of them were cruising towards very comfortable, maybe even landslide wins, until their opponents began hammering them for their off-message utterances. So my argument stands that candidate quality mattered in both races, and particularly since both candidates made their qualities central to their successful primary campaigns.

October 29, 2014 1:57 PM Lunch Buffet

My big morning news flash was that the NCAA has extended Georgia Bulldogs football star Todd Gurley’s suspension until November 15, meaning he misses two more games but will be back for the big game with Auburn. The University of Georgia is appealing and asking for the 2-game suspension (already served) they assumed.

Here are some less personally urgent midday news/views treats:

* Maine Indie gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler holds news conference to announce—he’s not withdrawing from the race. Good news for Paul LePage.

* The Upshot publishes some useful charts on who has benefited so far from the Affordable Care Act.

* Cyberattack on White House computer system—allegedly by hirelings of Russia—wreaked havoc on routine operations but did not, reportedly, involve significant security breach.

* At TNR Jason Zengerle argues that Martha Coakley isn’t “blowing” MA gubernatorial race, even though Charlie Baker could very well win.

* At the Prospect, Paul Waldman suggests the bigger winner in a Senate GOP victory could be John Boehner, who will experience a lot less heat.

And in sorta non-political news:

* Former Panamanian jefe Manuel Noriega loses California lawsuit against videogame maker who used his likeness in “Call of Duty” games.

As we break for lunch, here’s Lazy Lester performing “Blues Stop Knocking At My Door” with Jimmy Vaughan and John Nicholas in Austin.

October 29, 2014 1:01 PM The “American Jihad” Against Americans

I don’t want to lend too much significance to the opinions of random Fox News “personalities”—in this case a psychiatrist—but on the other hand, Dr. Keith Ablow’s call for an “American Jihad” is a good example of where American Exceptionalism in the hands of conservative ideologues can lead.

Let’s understand at the outset that Ablow is not using “jihad” to mean nothing more or less than a military “holy war,” though he’s not ruling that out, either, suggesting the term means a “war or struggle against unbelievers” or “a crusade for a principle or belief.” On the other hand, he’s certainly not referring to the broadest meaning of “jihad,” which is an internal struggle to identify the truth. Ablow appears to consider any kind of self-doubt among Americans about the absolute and eternal superiority of our system (as defined by the Constitution, as defined by people like Ablow, of course) a heinous crime.

But while most people hailing or mocking Ablow have focused on his statement that his American Jihad would “spread around the world our love of individual freedom and insist on its reflection in every government,” what struck me was his attitude towards America’s present constitutional leaders:

An American jihad would turn back and topple the terrible self-loathing in our citizens set in motion by President Obama, beginning with his “apology tour” — a psychological plague. It would make American pride not only acceptable, but celebrated, again. And, remember, American pride is nothing more than being proud to support truths that are self-evident, irreducible, elemental and inevitable.

So Americans, even and perhaps especially those who are democratically elected, must believe in and without a moment of self-reflection proclaim Ablow’s ideas of truths that are “self-evident” but somehow not obvious to said leaders or to the nefarious foreigners, either. I’m guessing this involves some mixture of laissez-faire capitalism and theocracy, to be imposed by force of law, it would appear:

An American jihad would make every tax dollar a tithing and the squandering of those dollars a sin. An American jihad would make every hour spent working in an American company — or founding one — an offering. An American jihad would make every teacher of American history not only a public servant, but a servant of the Truth.

Wow. Maybe he’s talking about a theocracy of the Golden Calf, wherein the wage-earner would literally be a spiritual as well as a physical slave of the live-giving Corporation.

In any event, it should be pretty obvious that like most super-patriots, Ablow has an exalted view of America but doesn’t care much for Americans—or at least those (very very likely a large majority) who don’t agree with his view of what America is “really” about. This is, as I’ve tried with mixed success to make clear on multiple occasions, the key to understanding Constitutional Conservatism, the ascending ideological framework on the Right: it uses that document as a charter for eternally enshrining a very particular governing model against that no popular majority should ever, ever have the power to change. For some that mainly means absolute private property rights or the “sovereign” rights of states; for others it’s about the rights of zygotes to be carried to term or of patriarchs to govern families. I don’t know exactly how specific Ablow’s own understanding of the Constitution is. But it’s clear all this brave bold trumpeting of Americanism to the world must in his view begin with the suppression of internal dissent—in the name, of course, of Constitutional liberty!

October 29, 2014 12:17 PM Early Voting Numbers: Hard To Know Who’s “Winning”

With an estimated 7-8 million votes having already been cast by last weekend, all sorts of guesstimates are being made of what it all tells us about the shape of the midterm electorate and who’s likely to win very close races. A lot of attention is being paid to Iowa, where mail ballot voting has been underway for weeks with very regular reports being issued. And the headline there has been that Republicans are doing better than usual, briefly even taking the lead over Democrats in the number of mail ballots that have been returned by their registered voters.

Molly Ball of The Atlantic reinforces the impression of Republicans winning the early voting war in Iowa with a piece that relies heavily on an interview with an individual veteran Democratic canvasser who seems to be having a harder time than usual getting people to talk to her (and who has probably now been chewed out for talking so much to Ball).

Ball reports but clearly does not buy two plausible Democratic counterarguments about the early voting numbers: (a) the “no party” mail voters are actually overwhelmingly Democratic leaners, and (b) Democrats are disproportionately reaching voters who didn’t participate in 2010, thus expanding the electorate instead of just banking votes from people who would otherwise vote on November 3. There’s a third data point Ball doesn’t mention that could cut either way: Democrats have been registering a lower return rate for requested mail ballots, which could either mean poor “enthusiasm” or a reservoir of last-minute votes that could give Democrats the kind of advantage in early voting they’ve usually shown in Iowa.

Personally, I think it’s still too early to make big judgments about early voting in Iowa, but in any event, I’d trust the data and analysis of the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald, long the guru of early voting, on the trends more than the kind of anecdotal material supplemented by he-said-she-said partisan opinions that Ball is mainly relying on. And what impresses McDonald most about Iowa is how high the numbers are for early voting all around, which could mean a surprisingly high turnout or alternatively that one or both parties is simply banking votes early that they would have eventually obtained. He also figures Iowa Democrats may be about to conduct a return-your-ballot push that might restore their traditional advantage.

The picture isn’t a whole lot clearer for two other big early voting states with significant reporting, as analyzed by McDonald. In North Carolina, he thinks Democrats are doing a good job of compensating for reduced in-person early voting days, but Republicans maintain an advantage in mail ballots. The same is true in Florida (where mail ballots significantly outweigh in-person early votes), but Democrats seem to be rapidly reducing the traditional GOP margins. And in Georgia, the lack of party registration makes it difficult to figure out who’s “winning” early voting, but Democrats are encouraged by the fact that 35% of early voters so far are nonwhite.

It’s often impossible to judge early voting until “late voting”—last-minute mail ballots and of course November 4 voting—is competed. That’s probably the case this year as well, no matter what that canvasser told Molly Ball.

UPDATE: As Nate Cohn reported at The Upshot, African-Americans dominated in-person early voting in Georgia and North Carolina last Sunday, representing over half of the total vote. The success of black-church-based “souls to the polls” drives on Sundays near Election Day explains why Republicans almost everywhere have tried to restrict or ban Sunday voting.

October 29, 2014 10:49 AM Edwin Edwards’ Last Moment in the Sun

When things get dull on Election Night next Tuesday, you can expect to hear a colorful report on 87-year-old former governor and federal prison inmate Ed Edwards running first in the Sixth Congressional District of Louisiana. He’s not going to win the majority required for election, of course, and his first-place standing will be largely attributable to a large GOP field in a reliably GOP district. But it will be great fun to watch the old reprobate greet his troops with a “victory” statement.

In a look at the race for the Times-Pic, Emily Lane tries pretty hard to get observers to say Edwards will actually have a chance in the December 3 runoff. And even that most cautiously calculating of observers, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, suggests that if a particular Republican, far-right state Rep. Lenar Whitney (described by Wasserman in a July WaPo article as the “most frightening” congressional candidate he had interviewed in his seven years as a Cookie) were to make the runoff, Edwards would be “fairly competitive.”

In any event, you have to figure Edwards is enjoying the attention. And his runoff campaign, running alongside what will probably be a desperate survival effort by Sen. Mary Landrieu, could actually drive up public interest and turnout, especially if he’s opposite a raving wingnut like Whitney. And I suppose the improbable could happen in that case. Maybe Edwards should bring back that great bumper sticker slogan from his 1991 gubernatorial victory over David Duke: “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”

October 29, 2014 10:22 AM “We Work Hard At Being Last:” Obamacare in Mississippi

If you want to understand how the intersection of ideology, intergovernmental relations, and a complex health care system have in so many places stymied the Affordable Care Act, do not let the sun set on you tonight without reading the piece on Mississippi by Kaiser Health News’ Sarah Varney, published by Politico Magazine.

Varney’s story is in every respect a tragedy. Mississippi was actually well-positioned to implement Obamacare thanks to a decision by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to set up a state-based insurance purchasing exchange (before ACA was enacted) on the advice of the Heritage Foundation. And Lord knows Mississippi needed every element of Obamacare, given the horrific health needs of its population and an existing Medicaid program that was among the most restrictive in the country (in no small part thanks to Barbour).

But then the Supreme Court made ACA’s Medicaid expansion optional, and Barbour’s successor, the Tea Party champion Phil Bryant, decided not only to reject the expansion but to kill the existing state purchasing exchange before it could become a vehicle for Obamacare. And so the state that most needed health reform was caught very flatfooted when the ACA fully arrived, with its initially screwed-up federal exchange and its cuts in non-ACA funding for hospitals serving the poor. For a good while it looked like insurance would not be available at all in big parts of the state, and even when an insurer stepped up to cover all counties, it did so with the assurance of no competition in many.

But underlying the whole fiasco was the rejection of the Medicaid expansion, as Varney explains:

The state’s low standard of living means many people earn less than the federal poverty limit but too much for Medicaid; under the health law, they can’t buy insurance on the exchange, leaving 138,000 Mississippians who fall into what has come to be known as the Medicaid gap…. The Medicaid gap also fueled a negative feedback loop about the law. As [ACA Navigator Minnie] Wilkinson describes it, people felt deceived: “They were under the impression that the less money you made, you get insurance for free.” It killed momentum even for those who could have bought heavily subsidized coverage on the exchange. Word spread quickly: This Obamacare is a waste of time, and Obama was to blame.

The quote that really sums up the whole piece, and the highly unfortunate reliance of the Obama administration for ACA implementation on states whose leaders have been devoted to sabotaging health reform, is from Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program: “We work hard at being last.”

Read Varney’s account, and remember it next time you hear someone rhapsodize about the glories of “devolution” or “federalism” in health care policy. It’s a killer.

October 29, 2014 9:25 AM Nationalized, Localized, Whatever

An election-season cliche that’s not as overused or as inaccurate as “momentum” but that still causes confusion is discussion of midterms as “nationalized” or “localized.” In some respects it’s just another name for the ancient argument between those who think elections are determined by “fundamentals” and those who stress internal campaign dynamics; where the confusion really comes in is in connection with the notion that this or that midterm cycle has been “nationalized” (or not), as though it’s an entirely external phenomenon like El Nino.

In any event, my weekly column at TPMCafe dwells on how individual candidates push for “nationalized” or “localized” comparisons, and stress personality and biography (more conducive to “localized” elections) or issue contrasts (encouraging partisan and ideological choices that don’t have much to do with individual campaigns). Fortunately, the campaigns of Joni Ernst of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia provide a classic illustration of the two strategies, and their practical convergence, with both candidates trying to get across the finish line before the distorted image of themselves they’ve presented gets twisted back into recognition by voters.

October 29, 2014 9:11 AM GOP Triumphalism and the “Big Mo” Illusion

Those of you who tire of my periodic whinging about the spinning frenzy engaged in by GOP partisans shortly before every election must forgive me: it’s getting really, really bad right now. Just looking at RealClearPolitics’ front page at the moment, there’s “Things Are Better For Republicans Than They Dreamed” by Ed Rogers; “How Reid Doomed Democratic Senators” by Jonah Goldberg; “Republicans Begin To Pull Away” by Joseph Curl; and “Desperate Dems Turn to Racial Attacks” by Ellen Carmichael. I’ve never understood why conservatives think predicting total victory in all states has value; maybe they really do think “enthusiasm” is what politics is all about, and some of them clearly don’t worry about their future credibility.

It’s not just stone partisans, however. Some MSM types are really getting into the “wave” and “Big Mo” talk. There’s Politico’s Alex Isenstadt with “House Democrats Fret Debilitating Losses” and Balz and Craighill’s big poll-driven WaPo piece from yesterday, “Midterm Momentum Belongs To GOP.”

That last piece clearly aroused Nate Silver and Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight to reprise their warnings about the frequently illusory character of “momentum” in politics:

You might be hearing that Democrats or Republicans have “momentum” heading into the final week of the 2014 campaign. On Tuesday, for example, a Washington Post headline asserted “Midterm momentum belongs to GOP.” That was based on a generic ballot poll showing a 6 percentage point Republican lead. But later in the day, a Fox News generic ballot poll came out showing Democrats up by 1 point instead — Fox had previously shown Republicans ahead.
This pattern — or rather, this lack of a pattern — has been typical throughout this election cycle. Whenever one party seems to be gaining an advantage, the other party has countered it with some good news of their own.
Republicans have maintained a narrow overall edge in their quest for a Senate majority, but the magnitude of their advantage hasn’t changed much throughout the campaign. When the FiveThirtyEight model launched Sept. 2, it gave Republicans a 64 percent chance of winning Senate control. In our latest forecast, their chances are 62 percent. They’ve never been higher than 66 percent or lower than 53 percent.
We’ve critiqued the media’s use of the term “momentum” before. It’s one of those clich├ęs that’s easy to misapply.
In many elections — unlike this one — the polls have consistently drifted toward one party for some extended period of time. Their was a sharp break toward Democrats in Senate polls throughout September and early October 2012, for example.
Even in these cases, however, the m-word should be applied carefully. When used in a more technical sense, momentum implies positive serial correlation. What the heck does that mean? It means you’re predicting the trend will continue in the same direction. If you say that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has “momentum” because it has risen from 16,000 to 17,000 points, you’re suggesting it will continue to go up.
The stock market doesn’t behave like this; it’s much closer to being a random walk, meaning it’s equally likely to go up or down on any given day. Nor does it matter in which direction the movement has been in the past. If the stock market rises from 16,000 to 17,000 points, it’s roughly as likely to revert back to 16,000 as to continue rising to 18,000.
For the most part, polling is the same way. There are some exceptions to this…mostly involving primary elections and cases where the polling is out of step with the “fundamentals” of the race. But to a first approximation, you should assume there isn’t any momentum in the polls.

We’re all susceptible to the “momentum” illusion; it’s overused incessantly in sports, for example. And there are certain elections (e.g., 1980 and 2012 Senate races) that reinforce the hope or fear that close contests will all break in the same direction thanks to one party’s “momentum.” But for the most part, it’s the imagination taking over from the brain and supplying missing evidence for what we want to transpire.

October 29, 2014 8:21 AM Daylight Video

Stumbled on this video last night featuring blues harmonica legend Lazy Lester, performing “They Call Me Lazy” a few months ago in Lafayette, Louisiana with the L’il Buck Sinegal Band. I just love these old-school Loosiana musicians who look like they were cleaning catfish an hour earlier.

Watching this video, don’t you just want to be there?

October 28, 2014 6:34 PM Day’s End and Night Watch

Wow, it’s just a week until Election Day. Time to mail in my own California ballot, which means understanding all the local ballot initiatives that my neighbors here in NIMBY-land will vote down.

Here are some remains of the day:

* State judge in Georgia rejects petition to force Secretary of State to show what it did with tens of thousands of allegedly missing voter registration applications.

* Mitch McConnell continues to play Obamacare both ways, admitting there’s no way a Republican Senate will be able to repeal it.

* Paul Waldman points out that many of the GOP constituency groups thought to be choosing favorites for ‘16 are heavily overlapping.

* At Ten Miles Square, Julia Azari looks closely at comparisons of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in terms of the obstacles both did and did not overcome.

* At College Guide, Daniel Luzer argues that education policy is not playing a big role in the 2014 elections—or really any elections.

And in non-political news:

* Could be a snowy Halloween in parts of the Northeast. Boooo-brrrrr.

That’s it for Tuesday. We’ll close with one more Graham Bond song: “I Put My Magick On You.”


October 28, 2014 6:01 PM Yes, It’s Tough To Be More Catholic Than the Pope

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat is an artful enough of a controversialist to frame his reaction to the course Pope Francis seems to have embarked on with respect to Church doctrine on family and sexual matters as an expression of concern, not a freakout. But Andrew Sullivan is persuasive in exposing the thinly veiled counter-revolutionary (and possibly even schismatic) threats Douthat is at least toying with, and it foreshadows the big fight that is likely to break out once the various Catholic factions completely look through the cosmetic efforts at the recent synod on family issues to disguise its implications:

[I]n Ross’s column, there is a clear assumption that his side of the debate owns the church, that any contrary views to his are an outrageous, treasonous and unprecedented attack on the institution itself, that any accommodation of mercy for those caught in the cross-hairs of the teachings on sex and marriage and family is somehow a “betrayal” of the core faith. Not a misguided idea - but a betrayal.
This is nonsense and panic, but it is a useful insight into the theo-conservative psyche. Notice the language used to describe a civil, rare and open debate of issues that the church is grappling with. This process - in which the theocons won on their core issues - is “a kind of chaos,” it’s “medieval” and “dangerous,” it sows “confusion.” It is as if these questions cannot even be debated (which was, of course, the view of John Paul II and Benedict XVI), as if faith itself is so fragile and so rooted in unquestioning blind obedience to a body of teaching that makes no distinction between central and more marginal issues, that any Pope that actually seeks to have a conversation about these questions is a threat to the church itself.

As a Protestant, all I’d add is that a reading of Douthat’s impressively erudite book Bad Religion shows how important it is to him that Roman Catholics along with their conservative evangelical allies remain immovable on matters of family and sexuality as a token of orthodox resistance to the “accomodationist” attitudes that have, in his view, ruined mainline Protestantism. I can imagine he fears hearing his own words of contempt hurled at his own faith community—you know, the one that infallibly absorbs pressure for change without itself ever changing. Ross understands, of course, that most Catholics, especially in this country, don’t particularly think of the Church as a cultural (much less counter-cultural) construct at all. And so it’s especially scary when the hierarchy—yea the Pope—fails to counteract the weak laity’s desire for social peace and moral self-determination.

October 28, 2014 4:03 PM Medicaid Expansion For Me, Not For Thee

I’ve been reasonably outspoken over the two-years-and-change since the Supreme Court made the Medicaid expansion feature of the Affordable Care Act optional that acceptance of the provision by individual Republican governors and state legislative leaders would not be inevitable. And more recently, I’ve argued that even individual state GOP leaders who accepted the expansion on prudential grounds as a matter of taking free money from the feds wouldn’t necessarily support or (or indicate the inevitability of) a national policy of accepting the expansion.

If you want a good example of this second dynamic, check out the position of the Libertarian candidate for governor of Georgia, Andrew Hunt, as explained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein:

The national Libertarian party has put its opposition to the Affordable Care Act at the center of its platform for more limited government. Andrew Hunt, the party’s local candidate for governor, takes a different tack.
Hunt has raised eyebrows by joining Democrat Jason Carter in advocating for Medicaid expansion, a position that strikes a contrast with the national party’s platform. That support has become a point of contention between Hunt and Gov. Nathan Deal, who questions how he can reconcile his stance with the party’s views. On Tuesday, Hunt explained his stance on Medicaid expansion to AJC colleague Nicholas Fouriezos.
“Georgia is a net negative on receiving money back from what it pays into the federal government,” Hunt said. “That hurts our economy. Until we can end Obamacare - because we shouldn’t have such federal programs - we need to get our money back.”

Hunt goes on to suggest that if he were governor of Georgia, he’d try to get him one of those nice waivers that have allowed GOP governors to mess with the basic Medicaid program in a conservative direction in exchange for allowing an expansion. And so he articulates both of the arguments that have been made it possible for hardline opponents of godless socialistic health care to expand Medicaid in their own states—but not as a matter of general principle applicable elsewhere.

If a Libertarian can pull of this position, Lord knows any Republican can. But as with Libertarians, the ideological pressure to swear off any complicity with the evil of Obamacare is a greater inhibition than logic or consistency.

October 28, 2014 3:26 PM In Campaign Ads, A Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

Joni Ernst is a fascinating political candidate not only because she’s spent most of the general election campaign denying her own record and past utterances. More interesting for those who don’t really give a damn about her stands for Personhood or against Agenda 21 is that her entire candidacy is based on a series of political ads that walk (to use the important distinction made in the film This Is Spinal Tap) the fine line between stupid and clever.

The great cynic Mark Liebovich meditated a fair amount on Our Joni in a piece entitled “The Bumpkinification of the Midterm Elections.”

Joni Ernst, the Iowa state senator and Iraq War veteran, was standing in a barn in a purple flannel shirt and an unzipped vest. Beside her, various swine burrowed in the hog lot; two small pigs spooned; there was copious squealing. When Ernst, who grew up on a farm castrating hogs, opened her mouth to speak, she drew the inevitable connection between her upbringing and her current role as a Republican candidate for the United States Senate. “When I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst said, smiling. Title cards reinforced her credentials. (“Joni Ernst: Mother. Soldier. Conservative.”) “I’m Joni Ernst, and I approve this message because Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.”
The 30-second spot, titled “Squeal,” was part of a trilogy of ads for the candidate released earlier this year. In another, Ernst, enrobed in a biker jacket, rides a Harley-Davidson to a gun range. (“Joni Ernst: Set Sights on Obamacare”). In a third, titled “Biscuits,” the camera focuses on a man’s hands as they add butter to flour and use molds to cut circles. “When I was working fast food, I learned the key to a great biscuit is lots of fat,” Ernst tells the camera. “Problem is, Washington thinks the same thing about our budget.”

Now such ads are clever insofar as they link biography to agenda (however vaguely) in a mildly humorous—and more importantly memorable—way. And of course they are deeply stupid, because (just to cite the most obvious thing) working on a farm or riding Harleys or packing heat or baking biscuits has about as much relevance to the decisions being made (or evaded) in Washington as hog-calling has to high oratory. In Ernst’s case, the ads are doubly stupid because she’s not going to be casting votes based on her own homespun farm-bred judgment, but will instead do whatever Mitch McConnell and/or the right-wing activists of Iowa tell her to do.

But still, there’s evidence these ads were responsible for lifting Ernst to a relatively easy primary victory, and have helped make the general election the “dumbest Senate race in America.”

Liebovich thinks there’s a certain shadow-show quality to campaigns waged on such low ground:

Candidates themselves don’t deserve all the blame for their bumpkinizing. Much of that rests with the blizzards of money being blown from wealthy donors and super PACs to a growing oligarchy of media consultants, who typically live on the coasts and work for multiple candidates at once. In a D.C. twist, those bumpkins we see on our screens are often not even real bumpkins so much as some rich guy’s idea of what a bumpkin should be. One telltale signal is how familiar the props are — the livestock, the guns, the motorcycles, the dogs and, of course, the flannel. An ad for Rob Maness, a Louisiana Republican running for the Senate, features a trifecta: a gun, an airboat and an alligator.

Unless you’re in one of the partisan or ideological or interest groups one of these aggressively stupid candidates actually serves, you have to hope they achieve overkill and self-destruct. After all, four years ago Meg Whitman did just that with ads that weren’t half as droolingly mindless as those deployed by Joni Ernst. It almost makes you wonder if Republicans are waging their very own stealth “war on women” as represented by their own candidates.

October 28, 2014 2:47 PM Not Much Precedent For Post-Election GOP Productivity

In one of those “what will happen if Republicans win the Senate” pieces, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball poses a very good question:

In Kansas recently, Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who’s in a tough race for reelection, made a statement that left me puzzled. “A vote for me is a vote to change the Senate back to a Republican majority, and we’ll get things done,” he said. “And it means a stop to the Obama agenda.”
Wait a minute, I thought. Which is it—ending the status quo of Washington gridlock? Or ratcheting up the gridlock by obstructing President Obama? You can’t “get things done” in Washington without the president’s signature, and no matter what happens in this year’s elections, he’s not going anywhere for another two years.

I’d say the answer is pretty obvious. But Ball draws on her “listen to both sides” journalism training and actually ends the piece actively entertaining the idea that a post-midterm-victory GOP is going to behave itself to give its presidential candidate an easier path, and might find common ground with Barack Obama, the poor sap who cannot say no to a “bipartisan” deal (except when he does).

Well, miracles are always possible. And there is the occasional 1996-97 welfare-reform-balanced-budget-agreement precedent for a divided government coming together to do things that happen to be in the (perceived, at least) self-interest of people who hate each other.

But putting aside Obama’s attitude, the idea of congressional Republicans “moderating” themselves to help their presidential candidate has a pretty recent counter-example: the very last cycle, when poor old Mitt had to meet ideological litmus test after litmus test while trying to convince swing voters he really wanted to throw his crazy cousins in Congress into the nearest mental health facility. And you know what? Even if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell want to play it that way, does anyone think they can snap their finger and convince their conferences to spend the next two years burnishing Barack Obama’s legacy?

So getting back to Ball’s question, I’d go for answer number two: gridlock and obstruction. It is, after all, what many GOP members of Congress have been elected to produce until such time as they enjoy total power and can finally act on an agenda of restoring the Constitution as it stood before FDR’s socialist tyranny.

October 28, 2014 12:44 PM Lunch Buffet

Doing Lunch Buffet a bit early because I have an actual Brunch appointment in a few minutes.

Here’s what is one the steam table:

* Cuomo and Christie not exactly distinguishing themselves in their handling of the Ebola scare.

* SD DEM SEN candidate Rick Weiland accuses DSCC of running negative ads against Mike Rounds in order to drive votes to indie Larry Pressler. Not a real good sign of Democratic unity.

* Protesters occupy GA Republican Secretary of State’s offices demanding accounting of voter registration applications that have allegedly disappeared.

*The Nation runs excerpt of Katha Pollitt’s book making the case for a “no apologies” defense of abortion rights.

* Sean Trende recaps his case against “realignment” theory and its bearing on the 2014 elections.

And in non-political news:

* At the New Yorker, Michael Specter reviews the case for going non-gluten.

As we break for lunch (or brunch, as the case may be), here’s the Graham Bond Organization performing “Long Tall Shorty.”

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