I’ve been hanging out at the American Political Science Association annual meeting in Washington this week. I was a bit surprised when two people who study American politics volunteered that they believed Boehner had done an excellent job, given the constraints he has faced. The reason I was surprised wasn’t that I disagree with this assessment. To my mind, Boehner is one of only three people (with Tip O’Neill and Nancy Pelosi) who have done the job well in the modern House, since a cycle of reform ended in the 1970s. I was surprised because this isn’t something a lot of people talk about.
So I asked the next five Americanists I ran into and received a bit more confirmation: three gave solid endorsements of the speaker, one gave a lukewarm endorsement and one was much less enthusiastic.
I figure it’s worth reporting because I don’t think this largely positive view among political scientists is reflected in the speaker’s image in the media, where he comes off as ineffective, not particularly good at the job, and probably doomed.
Political scientists, on the other hand, tended to emphasize the political context of divided government and an impossible House Republican conference, all of which they treated as givens for the speaker, rather than something he created or could potentially affect.
I continue to be believe that Boehner will keep his job as long as he wants it — certainly if divided government persists and very possibly if Republicans win unified control. And I think that as long as that lasts, Republicans will achieve as much as they can, given the severe constraints of divided government and the Republican conference.
This week, Mitt Romney said there was a “one of a million” chance he’d run again for president in 2016. Political journalism being what it is, his comments were taken to mean that he was “opening the door” to another campaign.
Never mind that Romney was quoting a part of the movie “Dumb and Dumber” that is specifically about why treating a one in a million chance as real is, well, dumb.
People around Romney, on the other hand, are actually very serious about 2016. They’ve been pushing the idea of another run for months. They have various motives. Some of them want to avenge the wrong allegedly done Romney in 2012; some of them want more fees. Plenty of other Republicans are nervous because they’re used to having clear front-runners, and don’t see any in the current field.
Whatever the reasons for renewed interest in Romney, Republicans would be well advised to move on. That’s not because Romney was a weak candidate in 2012. He ran ahead of Republican Senate candidates almost everywhere, and often by a substantial amount.
But he never seemed to grasp the reasons the Republican Party has performed poorly in recent years, chief among them the public’s skepticism that Republican policies would do anything for most people. Romney seemed even to disdain the idea of showing that conservative ideas would yield tangible benefits for individuals.
I think that’s what he was getting at when he said, right after the election, that President Barack Obama had won by offering voters “gifts.” The next Republican nominee should take a more sympathetic view of voter self-interest, and try to appeal to it (by offering middle-class families real tax relief and cheaper health insurance, for starters).
Republicans in 2016 will be running for a White House that has been in the other party’s control for eight years. There will be natural “time for a change” sentiment, perhaps heightened by the likelihood that the Democratic nominee will be someone who has been at the highest level of American politics for a quarter century. That argues for a candidate who offers fresh ideas and a chance for the public to turn the page. Romney is not the most natural choice to deliver that message.
Then again, a “Dumb and Dumber” sequel is due pretty soon.
Polling turns out to be a business in which generating data that confirm the thuddingly obvious can get you both money and news media attention.
Politico tried hard to make its story on a new poll sound exciting, choosing the headline, “Exclusive: GOP poll of women: Party ‘stuck in past.’” Did we really need an exclusive, though, to find out that women in the Northeast are not especially fond of Republicans?
For that matter, did we need the poll itself to determine that Republican candidates should talk about other things after presenting their position on abortion, rather than just dwelling on it? And that women prefer candidates who profess concern about equal pay for equal work to candidates who dismiss that concern?
The Republican advocacy groups that commissioned the poll from a Republican strategy firm apparently thought so. But even the headline finding is trivial. An honest Democratic pollster, if he asked a focus group about various common criticisms of the Democratic Party, would find that a lot of people agree with some of those criticisms.
Some of the survey’s other findings are just weird. The pollsters picked 11 conservative, or conservative-ish, policy ideas and asked people whether they would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supported them. For some reason, the pollsters concluded that support for charter schools and flextime doesn’t “resonate” with women because those ideas did the worst among this set of options. Never mind that 56 percent of women still said that they would be “more likely” to vote for a candidate who wants to expand charter schools, and only 21 percent said they’d be less likely to do so.
Other polls, incidentally, have found pretty robust support for these ideas. A poll in June from a company run by the Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway found that 75 percent of women “strongly” favored flextime. It found plenty of female support for other conservative policy ideas, too.
I’m being tough on this poll, but the root problem isn’t that the pollsters or the organizations that hired them are dumb. It’s that they’re thinking about the gender gap the wrong way — and they’re not alone. The entire political world, more or less, assumes that to win more elections Republicans have to address the distinctive problem they have with women. That assumption is easy to make, but it’s wrong.
Women are slightly more liberal than men on issues of social welfare and war, and always have been. But gender influences voting much less than ideology, religiosity or marital status, as the survey itself confirms. And Republican candidates who win tend to have gender gaps about the same size as Republican candidates who lose. (George W. Bush did seven percentage points better among men than women in 2004, when he won, while John McCain’s gap was only five points in 2008, when he lost.)
Maybe, then, Republicans should stop obsessing so much about women as a group. In recent years, voters have thought Democrats had more to offer the middle class than Republicans did. If that changed, Republicans would find themselves doing better among both men and women. They’d almost certainly still have a gender gap, but they’d be more likely to win elections.
The alternative path for Republicans is to keep paying pollsters to ask the wrong questions, and to keep getting answers that don’t tell them anything useful.
By 1993, Daniel Day-Lewis had cemented his reputation as one of the foremost young British talents in cinema. The method acting for which he had acquired the interest of the critics (and the consternation of the film crew) in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot was deployed yet again in their collaboration on the film adaptation of Gerry Conlon’s autobiography Proved Innocent: The Story of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. The film that resulted, In the Name of the Father (1993), is this week’s recommendation.
The film front loads the explosive action: in the opening scenes we watch the bombing of a pub in Guildford that we later learn kills five and wounds many more; back in Belfast a few days earlier, an upstart young Gerry (played by Day-Lewis) accidentally ignites an overblown military response by the British Armed Forces in his Belfast neighborhood after he’s caught stripping roof materials with his friend Paul. To secure Gerry’s safety, his father Giuseppe (played by Pete Postlethwaite) sends Conlon the lesser to London, whereupon Gerry and Paul waste no time getting into mischief.
But it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, as Conlon actually has a rather unhappy knack for stepping into sensitive and highly threatening situations. The wider political climate, fraught with tension as the Troubles were reaching (one of) their peak(s), has just seen the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act that permits - among other things - the detention of terrorist suspects for up to seven days. Conlon becomes a suspect in the Guildford bombing and is tortured by the cops for days until they extract a fabricated confession from him that incriminates himself, his travel buddy Paul, and two other friends. In a wretched turn of events, even Gerry’s father and aunt are included in the conspiracy.
From that point forward, the drama shifts gears to a crusade for the exoneration of those convicted for the Guildford bombing - a crusade prosecuted by the resolute Giuseppe and the lawyer Gareth Pierce (played by Emma Thompson). Giuseppe and Peirce hope to recruit Gerry to the cause by rousing him from apathy before it’s too late. In a film dominated by male spaces, all of which lack either determination, a sense of justice, or competence, Peirce brings a refreshing blend of all three.
Although the physically demanding preparatory rituals Day-Lewis used in My Left Foot weren’t required for In the Name of the Father, he was no less obsessive in getting into character. He stayed awake for days and starved himself before permitting filming to proceed in the interrogation scenes, and his desperation shows through. Even the weariness of being in prison for fifteen years comes across in his appearance, right down to the facial features. It’s not Linklater’s Boyhood, but Day-Lewis looks like he’s visibly aged by the end of the film.
While there’s no question that Postlethwaite is outstanding as Conlon the elder, the added value of his character to the overall plot (beyond simply providing added grist to the suffering mill at the heart of the miscarriage of justice trope) becomes clear only as we approach the film’s conclusion. The father-son dynamic sharpens the sadness in the beginning of the film, but Giuseppe’s most significant contribution is as a foil for Gerry’s character development. At various points, Gerry spurns all three of the film’s elder male leads (Gerry’s father, the righteous Giuseppe; Gerry’s one-time idol, the self-confident IRA soldier McAndrew; and Gerry’s nemesis, the crooked cop Dixon). Eventually, Gerry has to pick what direction his embitterment will turn him toward, and it’s this complexity - combined with the impressive performances - that elevates In the Name of the Father above your garden variety miscarriage of justice movie.
Indeed, throughout the film there are fragments of more subtle imagery and nuance than the traditional ‘wrongful conviction’ genre would suggest: in prison, Conlon dulls his nerves to the indignity of his incarceration by taking acid smuggled in on pieces of a jigsaw puzzle of, you guessed it, the British Empire. As Conlon’s undeserved time in prison ticks by, the fabric of the Empire itself is gradually chipped away. The religious allegory one expects from the film’s title is mercifully never over-played, even as the themes of redemption and forgiveness permeate the story.
Watch it, and you’ll get a sense of how good a film has to be to make a soundtrack that includes Bono’s music tolerable.
I have a new paper with Duke and NIH colleagues out this week (early online) in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (full pdf:JCO-2014-Taylor) that demonstrates gaps between the stated preferences of Medicare beneficiaries with cancer and their caregivers about what Medicare should cover, and what the benefit package actually covers. The gaps we highlight show beneficiaries and caregivers allocating finite resources toward now-uncovered benefits that broadly speaking are designed to maximize quality of life:
unrestricted cash (some level chosen by 46%)
home based long term care (52% choose a level far beyond what home health would cover)
concurrent palliative care (45% chose a level beyond the current hospice benefit; such care without having to unelect curative treatments)
The numbers highlighted in yellow (from Table 3 in the paper) correspond to the text just above, and show the distribution of subjects choosing benefits not now covered by Medicare at the initial assessment in the study (subjects did multiple assessments; their selection of non covered benefits was relatively stable before and after facilitated discussions).
The kicker is that these choices were observed under the imposition of a serious resource constraint. We asked subjects, what benefits are most important to you if you couldn’t have everything? The exercise was based on actuarial estimates, so respondents choosing now-uncovered benefits were allocating resources away from expensive, curative treatments, and toward less expensive care that is focused on quality of life (including unrestricted cash that could be spent for anything). They were not just adding new benefits on top of everything else; instead they were engaging in difficult tradeoffs. Around 1 in 5 respondents picked some level of each of these 3 uncovered benefits, and allocated around 30% of their total resources toward this care that is broadly focused on improving quality of life. In exploratory analyses, the only significant predictor of choosing all three of the highlighted, non covered benefits, after controlling for other factors was African American race (around twice as likely as whites to pick all 3).
There are several limitations to this work, most notably that these were theoretical choices being expressed that did not influence actual health care coverage. However, the point of the research is to point out the gaps between what is covered by Medicare, and the preferences of some Medicare beneficiaries with cancer and caregivers (people for whom the issues underlying the discussion are not theoretical).
What might these findings this mean? First, our results suggest a possible benefit structure in Medicare in which beneficiaries could be granted flexibility in how they will receive their entitlement; our study poses the choice in cost neutral terms to Medicare. Second, our study was designed to detect Black/White differences in end of life preferences, and we did so, but we consider these findings exploratory, and they are being more fully investigated via qualitative methods. Third, patients and caregivers were able to make choices, tradeoffs and to discuss difficult topics in a reasoned fashion during this study (more background on the study).
The most difficult aspect of determining what this study means and determining how it could be used for policy making is trying to imagine how our society could have a similarly reasoned dialogue around what types of services should be covered by Medicare for persons with cancer who are near the end of life, and whether we would grant patients discretion in how they consume their benefit entitlement. Patients and family members appear to be ready for this discussion and hard decisions. I am not so sure about the rest of us.
The biggest bias in election coverage isn’t towards Republicans or Democrats or even towards conflict and sensationalism. It’s towards national elections rather than local elections. This is partly a question of resources: it’s a lot easier for a news organization to cover national politics than local politics. And part of it is that the media covers elections as the culmination of the bloodsport of American politics, and local elections don’t really count towards that.
But insofar as elections are about making and changing the laws that affect people’s lives, local (and state) elections are wildly underemphasized.
There are two ways to go with this. One is simply to recognize the importance of local politics. National politics are important, of course: They involve war and peace, the economy, federal taxes, and plenty of other issues that have very immediate effects on everyday life. (Hey, new parents: Do you enjoy those curb cuts on the sidewalk that make it easier when you’re pushing a stroller? You can thank Bob Dole and Tom Harkin at least in areas where state or local government didn’t already mandate the improved sidewalks) But people don’t realize that local politics help determine stuff such as what happens in the schools, what neighborhoods look like or the mechanics of starting a business. And taxes, too, as Klein points out.
But he’s also correct about media bias that favors national elections rather than local ones. People who have studied the question have mostly failed to find significant partisan biases within the “neutral” media (of course, there’s plenty of Republican bias at Fox News and there’s Democratic bias in MSNBC prime time talk shows, but we’re talking about the news pages of major newspapers, or network news shows). But that hardly means there’s no bias. There are all sorts of rules that the “neutral” media use to determine what stories to cover and how to cover them, and that’s a strong bias.
What makes a story worth covering? What readers and viewers want (and what editors and producers think they want) counts. Ratings matter. Incentives for individual reporters matter, too: reporters always want more prominent placement for their stories. Norms of the profession count, too. For example, once beats are established, the stories covered by those beats are going to be covered; everything else has more trouble getting noticed. Norms and training also inform decisions about what is “important.”
All of this works against coverage of state and national elections. Hey, I’m as guilty as anyone, because within political science, state and local government is a separate subfield from those involving (national) political institutions, and so it’s not something that I pay a lot of attention to, even though I believe it’s important.1
Even if they aren’t driven by partisanship, some of those biases in “neutral” press coverage can wind up having partisan or policy consequences that aren’t neutral at all. Forty or 50 years ago, for example, anyone advocating equality for gays and lesbians was regarded by the media as weird, extreme, and not to be taken serious. That gradually shifted and eventually (and very recently) completely reversed, so that now it’s those who oppose equality who are regarded as weird and extreme. Why? Because one press norm is “mainstream” bias, and anything that is perceived out of the mainstream isn’t taken seriously.
At any rate: Pay attention to state and local elections, and Nice catch!
1 Of course, there are people who study parties who also study state and local politics. It just so happens that I don’t.
Kevin Drum has written a doleful, observant pair of posts about certain argumentation tactics he observes among leftists. In the first he addresses guilt:
let’s be honest: We really do rely on guilt a lot. You should feel guilty about using plastic bags. About liking college football. About driving an SUV. About eating factory-farmed beef. About using the wrong word to refer to a transgender person. About sending your kids to a private school. And on and on and on.
We all contribute to this, even when we don’t mean to. And maybe guilt is inevitable when you’re trying to change people’s behavior. But it adds up, and over time lefties can get to seem a little unbearable. You have to be so damn careful around us!
In his second post, Kevin discusses the “brutal” intersection of shaming and social media. He quotes Freddie deBoer:
If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person.
I am grateful to Kevin for having the integrity to bring this problem up, not least because in doing so he risks being exposed to the shaming/guilt-induction tactics that he is describing. The norms under which we engage each other in debate matter enormously for the health of our democratic republic. If it’s okay for liberals to reflexively accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being insensitive/racist/sexist/a bad person etc. then it’s also okay for Sean Hannity to label everyone who disagrees with him an unpatriotic, freedom-hating terrorist stooge.
Across the political spectrum, we are capable of better than this. We can make arguments for why we believe what we believe without resorting to the non-argument that our personal opinions and moral worth are isomorphic. Accepting that truly good people can disagree with you is part of becoming a contributor to civil society. It’s also part of growing up.
I have been keeping my eye on the polls out of Kansas but I did not fully understand their implications until I read this piece by Sam Wang in The New Yorker. I have been looking for signs that the Democrat might grow strong enough in a three-way race to topple incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who is (along with Republican Governor Sam Brownback) immensely unpopular. Because the independent, Greg Orman, is polling in (a strong) third place, I hadn’t thought much about him except as a potential spoiler. But, it turns out that Greg Orman is dusting Roberts in a two-way poll.
Despite the fact that thirty per cent of voters still have not heard of him, a recent Public Policy Polling survey shows that in a one-on-one matchup, Roberts would lose by ten percentage points, forty-three to thirty-three. In contrast, Roberts would survive a one-on-one matchup with [Democrat Chad] Taylor by a margin of four points. So if you’re Roberts, you either want Taylor and Orman to split the vote, or to run against Taylor alone.
Where does Orman stand ideologically?
Orman, who comes from Olathe, a city in the eastern part of the state with about a hundred twenty-five thousand people, has been crisscrossing Kansas by bus, meeting voters and preaching a message of fiscal restraint and social tolerance. A former Democrat, he decried the gridlock and lack of action in Washington, and now declines to identify himself as a member of either major party.
Well, that doesn’t tell us much, but he isn’t a former Republican, and he is preaching social tolerance in a very socially conservative state. What if the Democratic candidate, Chad Taylor, decided to drop out of the race? Would Greg Orman be able to win the seat? Would he be willing to caucus with the Democrats?
Prof. Wang is a Princeton University neuroscientist who moonlights as a political statistician. He ran this scenario through his computer models and came up with this:
If the [independent senators] and the Democrats win exactly forty-nine seats, Orman would have it in his power to provide—or deny—the critical fiftieth vote to control the chamber. In all the outcomes simulated in my model, this event has an almost thirty per cent probability of happening. Added to the Democrats’ chances of gaining control without Orman, the total probability of combined Democratic and independent control would be eighty-five per cent—a total game-changer.
In plain English, if Orman won the Kansas seat and agreed to caucus with the Democrats, the Democrats chances of maintaining control of the Senate would go up to eighty-five percent.
However, Mr. Orman has already said that he could not support either Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell for majority leader. But could he support Dick Durbin or Chuck Schumer?
With Kansans in a mood to throw out their Christian conservative governor and their high-seniority conservative U.S. Senator, the Republican Party is certainly at a low point in the Sunflower State. However, given a choice when running for reelection in Kansas as an incumbent, most sane people wouldn’t choose to run as a Democrat, or be the one who gave the Democrats control of the Senate. So, Mr. Orman will have a powerful incentive to caucus with the Republicans.
On the other hand, as a former Democrat who is interested in social tolerance, he may be more comfortable caucusing on the left side of the aisle. Maybe Harry Reid doesn’t stand to benefit from this scenario, but if I were him I would be very involved in back channel negotiations with Orman. The same can be said about Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, who could stage a coup against Reid with the right kind of deviousness.
E.J. Dionne has a nice column pointing out that while “Obamacare” remains unpopular, most of the provisions are well-liked, and thus Democrats should run on the issue. As regular readers know, I certainly agree that the individual components of reform are far more popular than reform overall. However, the column’s headline — “Obamacare has growing support, even if its name does not” — isn’t really buttressed by the article. Actually, support for key provisions of the law, including coverage of pre-existing conditions, health-insurance exchanges offering subsidies to middle-income policy holders and Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, have always polled well.
Moreover caution is always in order with issue polling. When these kinds of polls show public opinion fractured, it’s tempting to believe that one side or the other represents voters’ “true” support. That’s the wrong way to interpret such polls. Yes, the ACA polls badly while most of its components poll well. But that doesn’t mean that the ACA is genuinely unpopular (as most opponents suggest) or that it’s genuinely popular (as most supporters contend). There is no underlying truth to be excavated from the results; the best we can do is say that public opinion is inconsistent.
Well, that’s the best we observers can do. Campaign operatives, in contrast, can counsel their candidates to stress whatever is popular. What those operatives shouldn’t do is to fall for their own spin, or let their candidates fall for it. That applies both to Republican consultants encouraging candidates to bash Obamacare, and Democratic consultants urging candidates to highlight the law’s most popular provisions.
The broader point: We can measure public opinion, but sometimes - actually, quite often - public opinion is an incoherent mess. Voters have plenty of things other than politics going on in their lives; it’s not surprising that they should find the strongest selling points from both sides quite appealing and let it go at that. For those of us who pay close attention, it may seem weird that someone could hate Obamacare while loving almost every part of it. There must be one overriding opinion hidden in there — pro or con — that good research can isolate, no? Well, no. Sometimes, incoherence in the polls simply reflects incoherence among voters. We just have to live with that.
The Eurozone remains an economic basket case, creating neither jobs nor economic growth. The Eurocracy is now abuzz with more policy proposals that will allegedly save the common currency. To this outside observer, the most remarkable aspect of each subsequent round of Europanic is how few policy insiders are willing to revisit the fundamental premise that Europe needs this floundering banknote at all.
the euro was best understood as a plot by Italian technocrats to get themselves German central bankers.
This was not, it turns out, a good idea.
I am not an economist, but my own discipline of psychology would support another fundamental critique of the Eurozone: it falsely assumes that re-arranging the consequences of and responsibilities for financial decisions would not affect subsequent financial decisions by participants (be they individuals, businesses, elected officials or bankers).
But if you talk to many Europeans policy elites and chattering class members, to even broach the possibility of ending the Euro is apostasy. Part of this reaction stems from the usual culprits when a big government program is not working: Sunk costs, inertia and insiders not wanting to lose power and face. But if you dig not far below that, you often find intense emotion that comes from the memory of Europe’s traumatic 20th century.
If I put my Euro-devoted friends’ concerns into a few sentences it would go something like this: “Never again must Europe be divided. History teaches us that ever-greater European unity is all that stands between us and the rise of right-wing populist movements and war.” The more candid ones would add “Restraining Germany’s desire to control Europe is critical for peace”.
We should learn from history, including its horrors, but this argument doesn’t hold together. First, far-right populist political parties are doing well across the Eurozone, and the Euro’s economic squeeze is part of the fuel that feeds them. Second, abandoning the Euro would still leave intact the European Union, which ties together its member states in many profound ways that increase interchange, understanding and the prospects of enduring piece. Third, Europe attained over a half century of peace before the Euro was created. Last, in terms of fear of German domination, could anyone in Italy or Spain or Greece give a speech with a straight face arguing that the Euro is lessening German influence in those countries?
I have neither sufficient knowledge nor expertise to be certain that the Euro should be abandoned. But I am quite sure that reflexive, strident refusal to even allow that option to be seriously discussed is a disservice to the continent’s interests.