Kevin Baker makes some odd claims in his Sunday New York Timespiece assessing the Democratic Party. His title claim, that demography will not save the Democrats, is certainly a fair one, but after that, he ventures into some weird territory.
For one thing, he makes the argument that the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960s was not the reason that Democrats started losing elections in the South. This is one of the central tenets for the understanding of modern American politics, so he’d better have some good evidence to show why it isn’t true. His evidence, though, is that Democrats were still winning elections in the South after 1964:
Going into the 1994 elections, Democrats still held 16 of the 30 United States Senate seats from the 15 Southern states (which I define as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia), and nearly two-thirds of the Southern seats in the House. On a state level, the figures were even more one-sided. Democrats held 12 of the 15 Southern governorships, and 29 of the 30 state legislative chambers…. It’s only in the last two decades that these numbers flipped.
Here’s the thing about that. Yes, Democrats were still holding many Southern seats until the 1990s, but only because those were held by longstanding Democratic incumbents who had first been elected back when the South was friendlier to the party. Just to look at the Senate of 1993-94, the Democratic caucus included Southern incumbents like Fritz Hollings (first elected in 1966), Sam Nunn (1972), Bennet Johnston (1972), and Dale Bumpers (1974). These people won office at a time when Republicans were still rare in the South and anyone who was advanced enough in their career to win a Senate seat would have started out in the Democratic Party prior to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. After that, Southern voters would continue to return these senators to their seats for decades, even if they’d begun voting Republican at the presidential level. Only after those incumbents’ retirements did their seats go red.
This is not a rejection of the civil rights story of party change. This is exactly what party change looks like. A dramatic shift changes the way voters make political decisions, but incumbents are usually somewhat insulated from these shifts. So the shift of the South from Democratic to Republican took the length of an incumbent’s career to complete. But it did happen, and it was sparked by the Civil Rights Act.
Baker, however, rejecting this history, is then forced to come up with some other reason why Democrats started losing the South over the past few decades. This happened, he says, because Democrats stopped championing “big things” like the New Deal, the GI Bill, etc.:
Today’s Democratic Party, with its finely calibrated, top-down fixes, does not offer anything so transformative. It seems scared of its own shadow, which is probably why it keeps reassuring itself that its triumph is inevitable. It needs instead to fully acknowledge just how devastating the recession was for working people everywhere in America, and what a generation of largely flat wages did to their aspirations even before that. It needs to take on hard fights, even against powerful forces, like pharmaceutical and insurance companies that presume to tell us the limits of what our health care can be or energy companies that would tell us what the world’s climate can endure.
Did I miss something? Isn’t that exactly what Democrats have been doing in recent years? Wasn’t the massive stimulus bill from 2009 an acknowledgment of the depths of the recession? Wasn’t health care reform a “hard fight… against powerful forces”? Wasn’t financial sector reform the same?
Moreover, there’s very good evidence that Democrats lost control of the U.S. House in 2010 because of the vote for health care reform. In other words, the Democratic Party did precisely what Baker wanted it to do by taking on a “big thing,” and not only did this not help them win elections, it actually cost them control of Congress.
We are living through an era of remarkable and unprecedented competitiveness between the major parties. Every election seems to bring a new mandate for one party and a determination that the other party will never govern again until it completely changes its ways. And yet the exact opposite happens two years later. Let’s not over-interpret the results of one election, and let’s not dismiss the dramatic and important change that happened in the South over many elections. We won’t get any better at charting out the future if we ignore the past.
Do you remember this controversial Newsweek cover of a crazy-looking Michelle Bachmann? Although it is generally agreed that media photos of real people should not be doctored (e.g., Time magazine’s darkened O.J. Simpson cover) or staged outright (e.g., The Falling Soldier), views differ on whether it is ethical to choose to publish a photo that is genuine but also makes the person look like a weirdo, clod or crook.
The photo below, first published I believe in The Independent, brought those debates to mind. Labour leader Ed Milliband looks like Godzilla, towering over humanity as he rages within sight of a strangely quiescent group of people. Like the Bachmann shot, the effect is unsettling.
I asked a professional photojournalist and a professional filmmaker why this shot looks as it does, and they came up with the same answer: shooting at a really wide angle. This stretches the central figure, Milliband, at the top and bottom into his somewhat distorted, elongated shape. The picture being taken at an upward angle furthers the illusion of enormous height — his right elbow looks farther off the ground than the odd red and white curled backing, which is clearly taller than the standing figures. The wide angle is again deceptive here in making the people and backing appear farther behind him than they really are.
The photojournalist told me that you take the shots you can get, and if there is a crowd in the room and you have to shoot from the front with them pressing in behind you, a wide angle is what lets you get the shot. Fair enough. Also, the decision to take a photograph often must be made quickly, so I would not put the responsibility there anyway. The editor had time to sort through what shot would work best, and chose this one.
I suppose one could say “So what?”. Milliband really was there and he really did make the gesture and facial expression shown in the shot, so if it looks weird that is his problem just as it was Bachmann’s problem that she looked weird on the cover of Newsweek. But I wonder if the same shot would have been chosen by an editor for a politician who engaged in exactly the same behavior but who had a reputation for being suave and measured. Milliband already was mightily mocked for maladroit bacon sandwich eating, and this photo fits that narrative, as does this more recent one of his awkward interaction with a mendicant.
What I can’t know and would like to know is what photo array was available to the editors of all these Milliband stories and why did they pick the ones they did? Maybe they all looked pretty similar and the editor’s choice was not therefore consequential. Degree of awkwardness does not seem to be among the 10 most important things for the public to know about someone who wants to lead their country, so I hope it’s not being prioritized as a criterion in photo selection by editors, particularly if the technical demands of the shot artificially accentuate it.
In his New York Timescolumn today, Nicholas Kristof gets it right about how hard it is for white folks in America to admit how the abuses of the ancestors of people who look different than we do bestowed enormous advantages on us. He is generous to mention my bookSlavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, in company of superb work by Orlando Patterson, Charles Blow and others.
As I’ve said and written thousands of times, it’s not about all of us alive today with paler complexions being made to feel guilty, or other people being given a big check. Instead, it’s about what kind of society we’d like our children and grandchildren to live in. It’s not unlike the flawed but brilliant Founders of our country, who recognized many of the failures and tyrannies of the system that nonetheless had created them and in many ways was the envy of all humanity at the time. They imagined a yet better future, confronted the failures of the status quo at great personal risk, and then invented the kind of government and institutions that they believed could achieve their visions. We have the responsibility in our time to do the same—to recognize the flaws in a system that is still the envy of the world, and be willing to imagine a future that improves upon it, and what resources and mechanisms must be in place for the most creative society in history to build that world. If there is any kind of American exceptionalism, it is our capacity to do that as a diverse and varied single nation.
In the days ahead, the news from Ferguson, Missouri and other places is going to be upsetting. People of similar minds and hearts are going to be in conflict over the decision of the grand jury there—whatever that decision is. Almost certainly, the news is going to be neither a sweeping criminal indictment of the policeman in question, nor an exoneration of the police—or of the young man whose life was lost. No one is going to be satisfied—because we have become a country where these questions cannot be sorted out in clean or satisfactory ways. How American citizens react to that conclusion is unpredictable, contradictory and worrisome.
No matter what happens, we must ask why we continue to find ourselves in this paralyzed and tortured place of uncertainty so often, and for reasons we almost always cannot untangle. We must be open to designing a future in which these things are no longer a fact of American life.
If nothing else, back to Kristoff’s column, white people must bring an end to this cross-generational behavior of denial regarding the consequences of our ancestors’ racially motivated behavior, and cease—dear god, please cease—the decades of whining whenever we are asked to face reality.
(a) a huge diplomatic breakthrough, removing the main roadblock to an agreement in Paris to cut carbon emissions and get the world on a path to sustainability in a livable climate;
(b) completely inadequate, as the actual emissions targets for 2030 to which the two committed - peaking by then “or earlier” for China, a 26% reduction from 2005 for the USA - fall far short of what is required. The EU has signed up to 40% cuts, and even that is too low for safety.
Obama has neatly snookered the GOP. They have been using the “what about China?” talking-point as an excuse for inaction. A dangerous one, as it concedes the principle that action is needed. Now they will have to switch to “China isn’t doing enough”. Which implies that there is some Chinese policy which would trigger US action, and we are in negotiation mode on overflight rights for the black helicopters. The target looks achievable on current policy, defined to include the coal regulations, so the cost argument doesn’t hold up either. It remains true that the next legislative heave will have to await 2016, and depends on a very unlikely Democratic sweep or (dream on) Damascene conversion by the GOP.
The Chinese side is more interesting. The government imposed a surprising domestic news blackout on the climate deal. (France 24 broadcast news 13/11). Why? Bleg to China experts. One possibility is a Middle Kingdom hangover: it’s embarrassing for the government to be seen negotiating important domestic policies with foreigners, even on very one-sided terms. Foreigners are for paying tribute.
Another, more likely IMHO, is that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has been too clever by half. In a traditional zero-sum IR perspective, the deal is fantastic. The Americans make all the cuts, we don’t have to make any for 15 years. Win! Later the fen drops. The Central Propaganda Department will have to explain to the Chinese people through the tame media that the plan is for air pollution to increase for another 15 years. Recriminations, pause for thought. Obama, a good negotiator of the patient and cerebral rather than the game-theory madman type, may well have seen this coming.
The joke is that the self-inflicted wound is unnecessary. The diplomats have been defending China’s policy freedom to pollute, but pointlessly. Chinese emissions will peak much earlier anyway. The conservative IEA thinks there are pathways for Chinese coal consumption to peak by 2019. In fact there is good reason to think that Chinese coal may have peaked already: here and here. Imports have nose-dived (say 你好 for us to the sharks at Bondi Beach, Tony Abbott). Deutsche Bank analysts have cut their valuations of Chinese coal companies by up to 92%.
Overall carbon should peak only a few years after coal. Emissions from cement-making and other heavy industrial uses will follow the same path of decline, driven by the structural decarbonisation of the economy. More cars and trucks would by themselves lead to an increase in gasoline and diesel burning, but fuel efficiency standards and the strong push for evs should contain the effects. The Chinese government has overwhelming domestic reasons to tighten its emissions targets.
What does the deal mean for global carbon diplomacy? It’s good news, and virtually rules out a rerun of the Copenhagen fiasco. India is now isolated as the sole major player refusing an emission cap, and it’s hard to see it blocking a deal alone. Plus, judging by long past experience, Coal India is incapable of delivering the large increase in output that Energy Minister Goyal is projecting, and he has a year to realize this.
The deal itself is morphing. The NYT report on this by Coral Davenport (international paper edition, 13/11) quotes the lead French sherpa for the UNFCC Paris session next December, Laurence Tubiana:
[She] said she did not expect the agreement to resemble a traditional top-down United Nations treaty. Instead, she anticipates it will resemble a collection of targets pledged by individual countries, along with commitments from each government to follow through with domestic action.
You read it here first. The collapse to zero (as near as dammit) of the net costs of aggressive mitigation has exorcised the free rider problem created when these were thought very large. All that is needed is a (large) coalition of the willing. If countries set up cap-and-trade domestically or regionally, the schemes can be linked; but if they prefer carbon taxes or regulation, fine.
There may still be a smaller free rider problem through merchandise trade. But generally, the holdout governments will mostly be blinkered ideologues (Australia, Canada) rather than rational calculators. The rest of us will need a stick, since the donkey won’t eat the nice carrot. How about carbon tariffs on imports from countries refusing the accord? Imagine the GOP screams if Obama’s delegates accepted this in Paris, under overwhelming pressure &c.
When movie aficionados think of Japan, their minds typically turn to Akira Kurosawa. That’s understandable, as one could make a plausible case for him being the best director in the history of cinema. But Kurosawa is far from the only brilliant filmmaker to hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. Another is writer-director Kaneto Shindô, the creative force behind this week’s film recommendation: Onibaba.
Shot in lustrous black and white under demanding conditions in 1964, Onibaba is a primal, sensual and eerie story of human beings struggling to survive. Emphasizing the mythological nature of the tale and its universal themes, the two central characters do not even have names. The older woman and her young daughter-in-law eke out a living in a swamp by murdering unfortunate soldiers who are lost or are fleeing the battles that rage across 14th century Japan. Strong, complex women characters were one of Shindô hallmarks, and he chose brilliant actors here to essay the roles: Nobuko Otowa (his real-life wife) and Jitsuko Yoshimura.
Into this small, brutal world eventually comes a disruptive force, an ex-soldier played by Kei Satô who informs the women that the link between them is gone: the older woman’s son is dead and the younger woman is therefore now a widow. The ex-soldier moves into the swamp, while keeping a lustful eye on the young woman, whose own uncontrollable sexual yearnings are memorably dramatized by her racing through the tall, undulating susuki grass (truly, the grass forest is the film’s fourth character). The older woman is consumed both by her own sexual frustration and her fear that the young woman will leave her, ending the bloody partnership that allows her to survive. So she concocts an unusual scheme to disrupt the relationship, which backfires as the movie takes a supernatural turn that will resonate with those viewers who are familiar with Buddhist folklore.
This is a raw film about how human beings’ animal nature emerges under harsh conditions. On display are unbridled lust, jealousy, greed and violence. Even the way the characters eat suggests animality. Hikaru Hayashi’s one-in-a-million score, a mix of Taiko, jazz and ghostly notes from wind instruments, is the perfect marriage of music with celluloid. Kudos are also in order for cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda for achieving technical brilliance on a hot, rainy and swampy set (It was so brutal that Shindô allegedly refused to pay the rebellious crew unless they finished the shoot). Like Saed Nikzat, Kuroda has the confidence to hold a still long shot and let the audience experience the environment and characters rather than forcibly directing our attention by moving from one quick cut to another. This is especially effective in his hypnotic, sensual images of the ever-swaying susuki grass forest.
Although the film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, Onibaba is completely original and fascinating. It’s also rather unsettling in the best artistic sense of that word. To fully enjoy this classic of Japanese cinema, try to get your hands on the gorgeous Criterion Collection re-issue.
p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.
The Boston Review have just put up a piece I wrote on Ireland’s internal Cold War, which wasn’t about politics, but religion. My generation (and Kieran’s; and Maria’s) grew up in an Ireland where the Catholic Church’s control of politics and society was visibly rotting away from inside, but still strong enough to foreclose the alternatives. It was like Brezhnevism – a dying system, but one strong enough to make it difficult to imagine what life would be like if it were gone.
One vignette from the piece, describing the moment when Bishop Eamon Casey was revealed to have had a long term relationship and child resulting from same.
The day the news broke, I met one of my professors, who had a sideline as a scrupulously evenhanded television host, wandering across campus in dazed delight. “It’s over,” he said. “They’ve lost.” He was right.
I didn’t name the professor, although I didn’t exactly make it hard to figure out who he was. He was Brian Farrell (no relation), a very well known academic, intellectual and television host and interviewer, who died a couple of days ago at the age of 85. I don’t know what he’d have made of the piece – he very carefully kept his politics to himself. This is the only moment when I ever saw him break cover. Yet I don’t think this revealed any political or religious animus on his part, so much as a small-l liberalism, a straightforward pre-political desire that people be allowed to live their lives and love whom they wanted to, without having to live in fear of social ostracism or of losing their job. It must have been very hard to be gay, or living in an unmarried relationship in Ireland in the 1970s, and it still wasn’t especially easy in the 1990s. The Eamon Casey scandal undermined the religious and social institutions which made it so very hard, so that prejudice, while it continued, mostly went underground. This, I think, is why he was so happy.
That brief conversation with Brian, beside the ugly artificial lake at the center of University College Dublin, is the moment when it became clear to me that Ireland was finally, irrevocably, changing. It’s a different memory of Brian than most people who grew up watching Irish TV will have – his public persona was as a rather formal and mildly acerbic interviewer, who regularly grilled evasive politicians. Yet in person, even if you didn’t know him particularly well (I just knew him as a student taking his MA class on Irish politics) his decency and kindness came through. He will be very much missed.
I couldn’t get past the first sentence of Josh Kraushaar’s piece on The Rise of the Republican Pragmatists without balking. It at once indicated the trouble that was coming and made me want to break out my editor’s pen.
In Washington, narratives last long past their sell-by date. One of the most common tropes is that Republicans are controlled by the far-right wing of the party and have little ability to govern.
Now, a “trope” is a figurative or metaphorical use of an expression, meaning that it is not intended to be literally true. And, while we can bicker about the precise meaning of the word “control,” there is no ambiguity about the recent record. There’s a reason that anyone who follows politics has heard the expression “John Boehner is not good at his job.” It’s not because he has exerted control over his caucus, and it’s not because he’s shown an ability to govern. Boehner and his leadership team have been repeatedly blindsided by the far-right wing of their party and been forced to abandon deals, pull bills from the floor, delay scheduled vacations, shut down the government against their better judgment, and resort to tear-filled serenity prayers. All this stuff literally happened and talking about it honestly is not the same thing as throwing around shopworn tropes.
If those days are about to be over then, as the Missourians say, “Show Me.” But don’t insult my intelligence in the first sentence by suggesting that the far-right of the Republican Party has not been exerting an out-sized amount of control.
The next bit is what amounts to hope, I guess.
This year’s congressional majorities were built on the victories of center-right candidates, not the bomb-throwers who disrupted their party’s leadership over the past two years. Of the 16 House Republicans who picked up seats for the party, 11 of them represent districts President Obama carried in 2012. And the freshman Senate class may be filled with conservatives, but ones who have expressed willingness to work across party lines.
Silly me, but I thought the “trope” about Cory Gardner was that he knew how to put a moderate sheen on an extreme anti-contraception record. He didn’t say stupid things like Sharron Angle or Ken Buck, but his left-right alignment isn’t any different. Thom Tillis presided over the most radical state legislature in North Carolina in living memory. Joni Ernst spent much of time talking about how she was going to come to Washington and start cutting the balls off the place. What these folks did was win where their radical predecessors had lost, and they gave lip service here and there to finding solutions, but all that happy talk was accompanied by completely uncompromising paranoia and lunacy regarding the president.
And then we get to the just plain stupid.
That’s not to say the new wave isn’t conservative, but there’s a huge distinction between being conservative and being uncompromising. All of these GOP senators-elect have an interest in policy, and already showcased governing aptitude. Cotton, Sullivan, and Ernst (all military veterans) could join the party’s group of foreign policy hawks, led by Sens. McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte. Sasse, a policy wonk, could team up with Sen. Mike Lee on proposing Obamacare alternatives.
Gardner, who made inroads with Hispanics in his election, could be a point person on immigration reform if the Senate tackles the issue. Shelley Moore Capito, the first Republican elected to the Senate from West Virginia since 1956, is likely to take up energy issues as part of her portfolio. These aren’t Republican nihilists at all.
How have Joni Ernst or Dan Sullivan “showcased governing aptitude”? If you haven’t noticed, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte are frothing maniacs on foreign policy. Mike Lee’s idea of an ObamaCare alternative is practical? West Virginia’s priorities on energy align with America and China’s interests in what way?
If there is any basis for optimism it is that Speaker Boehner has some vulnerable members to protect now, which also means that he might be able to rely on them to sell-out the Republican base and cut a deal on something. But, if there’s a real case to be made that the freshman class of Republicans is coming to Washington eager to sell out the base, I haven’t seen the evidence for it. In 2006, when dozens of vulnerable blue-district Republican representatives were clearly about to be defeated, they walked in lockstep over the cliff rather than break with their deranged leadership or president.
Maybe the definition of insanity isn’t doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result but watching the same thing over and over again and expecting the Republicans to become practical or moderate.
We could call 2014 a surprising unsurprising election. Republican gains proved larger than most anticipated. But there were few shockers in statewide races; instead, Republicans simply won most of the competitive contests. For all the talk of anti-incumbency, only three sitting governors lost. The bigger surprise was the number of controversial governors who won re-election: Rick Scott (R-FL), Scott Walker (R-WI), Rick Snyder (R-MI), Sam Brownback (R-KS), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Dan Malloy (D-CT). The ultimate outcome was not out of line with one would expect in a midterm election with a fairly unpopular Democratic president. (I was part of an APSA discussion where we all commented on how Democrats were outperforming the fundamentals. In the end, the fundamentals won). It was also consistent with the long-run tendency towards a nationalized and partisan politics where individual personalities and geographic quirks matter less and the (D) or (R) after a candidate’s name counts for everything.
Presidential Job Approval is the Queen of Short-Term Political Data
What does this mean for 2016? I’m not sure. I think it could be challenging for a Democratic presidential candidate to win under these circumstances, especially since the party has already controlled the White House for two terms. Could Obama’s job approval increase? The wave of good economic news suggests that it could happen; presumably, at some point, Americans will start feeling the improvements in their own lives. Perhaps the international scene will calm down as well. Maybe his approval rating will rise into the mid-40s or even the high 40s. But is it too late? All things being equal, presidents tend to see their approval ratings fall as their administrations age. And Obama’s approval rating has shown a certain imperturbability. Much like attitudes toward his most distinctive accomplishment, the public’s views of Obama may be built more on the rock of partisanship and ideology than on the sands of events.
Nobody doubts that Colorado and Iowa remain competitive states (Colorado re-elected a Democratic governor), nobody thinks that Illinois and Massachusetts and Maryland do not remain strongly Democratic states despite electing Republican governors (which all of these states had done before over the past decade or two). But after last week’s results, what ambitious Democrat will want to run statewide in the South? (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida are exceptions). Moderate, well-respected Democrats like Mark Pryor and Michelle Nunn found themselves losing to imperfect Republicans by large margins. Repeating a pattern seen in 1994 and 2010, Southern Democrats are no longer able to run significantly ahead of the national party. The long Republican march through the South is now tramping through the state houses, with the GOP in control of every state legislature in the former Confederacy. I’m not one to put much stock in arguments about a party’s “bench,” but one wonders how many ambitious young Southern politicians will want to pursue careers in the Democratic Party. It’s likely that the next Republican president will have some point when he is unpopular, allowing Democrats to make gains. But even then, the South is likely to remain heavily Republican, as long as it is the nation’s most conservative region.
Ryan Lizza has a really nice article out on some of the dangers awaiting Hillary Clinton in her efforts to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. But I must disagree with this passage:
The 2016 Presidential primaries will be the first fought by Democrats since the Supreme Court opened the door for individuals to spend unlimited sums of money on an election. In 2012, those new rules almost cost Romney the Republican nomination, when nuisance candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who in previous years would have never survived their early losses, were propped up by rich allies. Before 2012, it would have been difficult to find interest groups that might help fund someone like O’Malley, Webb, or Sanders. Now all it takes is a billionaire who cares about gun control, climate change, war, or inequality. [emphasis added]
Whether Romney was ever in real danger of losing the Republican nomination in 2012 is somewhat a matter of perspective. If you were following opinion polls, it looked like anyone’s game; pretty much every candidate was the front-runner at some point during that cycle. However, if you were following the things we know predict success in primaries — that is, insider endorsements — it was never really close. Insiders had settled on Romney early on and never abandoned him. The designation of people like Gingrich and Santorum as “zombie candidates” was an entirely apt one precisely because their candidacies were already dead. They were being reanimated by rich allies but never had a real shot at winning the Republican nomination, which is biased in favor of the living.
The 2016 cycle may well feature spending levels that make the 2012 presidential race look like an Iowa county supervisorial contest in comparison. But there’s little reason to think this money will tear apart the party system or undermine the insider candidates. Indeed, the opposite is likely true.
Although Tuesday’s election results were nothing special on the spectrum of midterm defeats (as pointed out by Seth, Hans, and Jon), Republican victories across the country present both real and symbolic challenges for Obama’s last two years. Jonathan Alter has already asked if Obama’s is the “lamest duck ever.” And Obama’s response to the midterms has already attracted criticism - for example, Ron Fournier claims that Obama is “ignoring” the wishes of the voters. Regardless of whether it was really fair to call the election a referendum on Obama, it sure looks that way to a lot of people. And the expectation in some circles seems to be that the president should admit that he’s lost and adjust course accordingly.
How should presidents react to a perceived “rebuke?” It’s not as obvious as it seems. The president leads a coequal branch of government. The Constitution gives the executive and legislative branches different functions and different constituencies.
At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the perception that midterms are referenda on presidential performance, and therefore convey messages about policy. Ideas about how the views of the mass electorate could and should inform governance have been brewing since the 1830s, and picked up steam in presidential politics during the Progressive era. In the past forty years, mandate politics has been an especially important framework. Linking elections to governance - and seeing nearly all elections as some sort of “wave” or message from the electorate - has become the norm rather than the exception.
Other modern presidents have varied widely in their responses to painful midterm elections. (What follows is mostly from press conferences, with one radio address - Reagan’s -thrown in.) There have been some efforts to play nice and cooperate. Following the 1954 midterms, in which Republicans had modest seat losses but lost control of both chambers, Eisenhower claimed that while he shared fewer beliefs with the Democrats, he enjoyed personal friendships across party lines and anticipated cooperation. Similarly, when the Democrats lost 4 Senate seats and 47 House seats in the 1966 midterms, Johnson’s remarks stressed his previous cooperative efforts, and talked about the dynamics of the “pendulum swing” back after Democratic gains in 1964. (Admittedly, the fact that the Democrats maintained substantial majorities cushioned the blow for Johnson, at least for awhile.)
Eisenhower was less conciliatory in 1958, after the Republicans lost 52 seats in the House and 12 seats in the Senate; his remarks criticized incoming Democratic members of Congress for their “big spending” ways. It’s also been common for presidents to use the press conference or speech after a midterm defeat to reassert their own policy commitments and claims to power. Before the 1966 midterms took place, LBJ suggested that he wouldn’t change his Vietnam policy based on the election results, reminding the audience that “the president is not a candidate in this election.” George W. Bush echoed these themes in his 2006 press conference, in which he announced that the administration’s policy in Iraq would not change.
Clinton’s response to the Democrats’ misfortune in 1994 emphasized cooperation and avoiding gridlock, but also ended by noting that the election didn’t change “the reason I was sent here, or that Congress was sent here.” After a less historically significant but nevertheless painful set of losses in 1982, Reagan chastised members of Congress for spending too much time campaigning and asked them to come back to Washington to complete their work. He also asserted that his own policies were working, reading a letter from from a woman who told him, “(M)y dollars are buying more. Little by little, I find I can breathe easier.” (Radio Address to the Nation on the Congressional Agenda and the Economy, November 6, 1982)
How do these responses compare with what we saw from Obama last week? His remarks about cooperation highlighted the shared responsibility to find common ground and “drama-free” solutions. He also, like Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1994, reestablished his own claim to power, noting at the end of the speech that, “I still believe what I said when I was elected six years ago ago last night… We are more than just a collection of red and blue states. We are the United States.”
Obama’s remarks after both the 2010 and 2014 midterms have also taken some responsibility for his party’s fate. Polarized political conditions change the calculus and make promises to cooperate seem that much more strained. And like his predecessors, Obama hasn’t totally renounced his claim as an independently elected politician and officer of the Constitution. In other words, his response hasn’t been much different from what we’ve seen from other modern presidents after midterm losses. One wonders why this president should be held to a different standard when it comes to asserting his political and Constitutional prerogatives.
President Obama’s political situation after the mid-term election defeat of the Democrats is the same as it was before. Kevin Drum, as so often, gets this one right. (Get well, Kevin, even slowly). Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but gridlock, gridlock. Obama’s positive agenda lies entirely within his executive prerogative. He can take action in a very few fields: immigration, the EPA coal regulation, housing finance and Keystone come to mind. He will surely act on the first two, and on past experience leave housing a mess. Keystone? Your guess is as good as mine. Going by the public option in healthcare, which enjoyed a similarly lukewarm commitment, approval is probably on the table as a bargaining chip over the budget.
The other thing he can do is have fun and set traps for the GOP and stake out positions to prepare the 2016 election. HRC can likely see off any of the available GOP candidates, so the aim is to retake the Senate and reduce the GOP hold on the House. Presidential and Senate victories can be won simply by energising the Democratic base to show up at the polls with a stock agenda. The geographical concentration of Democrats indicates that regaining the House cannot be done by this alone, and requires reversing the loss of older white working-class voters with a broad message of opportunity and progress. One wedge issue here is climate: polls show that GOP politicians are unrepresentative of their own divided base on climate change and the energy transition, apart from unpopular carbon taxes.
One prerogative of the executive is the negotiation of treaties.
The big one coming up is a climate treaty, hopefully to be approved at the Paris UN climate session in December 2015. (Technically this would be, like the Kyoto agreement, a protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This is an aspirational and procedural agreement without binding targets, but the US is a party along with everybody else.
If the US negotiating position in Paris is defined by “something that can pass the Senate”, it is empty: no climate treaty can do so. Other delegations will understand this perfectly well. The US will find itself ignored as a non-player, but US abdication will make the chance of agreement among everybody else remote.
A better tactic, emulating that of the Clinton Administration on the International Criminal Court, would be to negotiate a strong treaty in line with objective US interests as the Administration sees them. It would be designed to fail in the Senate, with votes on record, and to become an issue in the 2016 election. Paris Protocol = American cleantech jobs and energy independence! Strangled by the Kochtopus! Republicans are for hurricanes and droughts!
Suppose Paris fails to agree on a universal protocol, because of opposition from India or Saudi Arabia or Australia or Canada or * Backwoodistan. As I’ve argued here before, the startling elimination of significant net costs for an aggressive mitigation strategy has removed the free rider problem. A partial agreement is better than none. The fallback US aim could therefore be a side-agreement of a coalition of the willing, of which the core would have to include the US, China and the EU. Many others would join this in the course of time. A model for such a process is provided by the Schengen agreement of 1985 : to get round strong British opposition to a common area of free movement within the EU, five likeminded countries adopted a go-ahead treaty between themselves. Originally this was outside the EU structures, but has since been brought within them – still without the UK. If an American reader plans to travel to Europe, you will need to know about Schengen.
* The power of holdouts to block a multilateral agreement is limited. The UN operates by strict consensus in the Security Council, with vetoes; but by majority in the General Assembly. Common sense limits the power of a single small objector to hold things up. Patricia Espinosa, then Foreign Minister of Mexico, as chair of the Cancun conference in 2010 simply overrode the objections of Bolivia to the closing statement. Since the (n-1) in agreement have a sovereign Westphalian right to make any deal they like among themselves, the power of a holdout depends on realpolitik not formal status. A climate agreement without the US, China and the EU doesn’t mean much; without Bolivia, it’s entirely doable. Australia, Canada and probably Saudi Arabia could be ignored. I’m not sure about India, but it really wants that seat on the Security Council.
Now that the wintry November weekends make staying indoors for whole afternoons acceptable, you might need a long film to wile away the day. It’s a perfect opportunity to go back and watch Stanley Kubrick’s period masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), based on the Thackeray novel of a similar name.
The story unfolds in two acts. Act I sees a young Redmond Barry, played by a chisel-jawed Ryan O’Neal, being deceived by the noble English suitor to his beloved cousin. In disgrace and determined not to be outdone again by a fellow of superior birth, he departs from his life of poverty in rural mid-eighteenth century Ireland. Upon having his every penny stolen by Irish highwaymen, Redmond enlists in the British Army, and is shipped off to the continent to fight in the Seven Years’ War.
But ennoblement is hard to come by for young Redmond, so he deserts for want of a life elsewhere where he may enjoy gentlemanly recognition. His desertion is unsuccessful, however, and he is soon enlisted yet again, albeit this time in the Prussian forces. Barry’s captain assigns him the task of keeping an eye on a suspected spy by the name of the Chevalier de Balibari (played by Patrick Magee), a notorious libertine who swiftly teaches young Redmond the art of inveiglement. Barry takes to the pretense rather fondly.
Barry soon wants to have a go at this aristocracy lark for real, and cuckolds the fabulously wealthy Count Lyndon with the buxom Countess (played by Marisa Berenson). All Barry needs is to drop his Irish “Redmond,” adopt the noble English “Lyndon,” and he is well on his way to securing a future for himself. When Act II begins, however, Barry realizes he still has much yet to learn about how to be a true gentleman.
Kubrick made no secret out of the fact that one of his great ambitions in life was to produce a monumental biopic about the life of Napoleon, and Barry Lyndon certainly comes close—not only in period, but also in scope—to Abel Gance’s 1927 epic. There’s something about the film’s duration (clocking in at well over three hours), range (the plot arc spans much of Europe, and the dramatis personae includes everyone from paupers to high bourgeoisie), and style (the film is a cinematographer’s delight) that shows Kubrick is holding back even less than is his wont. Be glad that’s the case: a sweeping narrative with a variety of themes such as this wouldn’t lend itself to restrained film-making in the first place.
The sheer complexity of themes addressed in Barry Lyndon is staggering. At the same time as being pathetically superficial, Barry’s lifelong project to secure for himself a position of nobility is also profound and sympathetic. In between all his dalliances with corseted beauties and boozy card games with fellow dissolutes, Barry is always addressed as Mister Barry Lyndon - a salty reminder of his origins in destitute rural Ireland. He may be the man of the Countess Lyndon’s house, but he is far from being in control of his precarious position. The film is simultaneously an examination of class tension, colonialist legacies, the social pressures of genteel living, and mauvaise foi.
Kubrick deftly captures Thackeray’s biting satire of bourgeois pretense, and it’s no secret that many scenes look like they were story-boarded by Hogarth himself. Barry’s increasing plaintiveness at the tribulations of not being taken seriously as a nobleman is as comic as it is infuriating. There is, after all, something clearly off-track about Barry when he fails to make the connection that his gentlemanly repute isn’t as easily or swiftly purchased as he had originally intended. After more than three hours, you can’t help but want to grab Barry by his impeccable silken jacket and shout that it’s precisely because of his conniving efforts to become a gentleman that so many indignities befall him; it’s therefore not the case, as so perplexes him, that his actions ought in any sense to prevent him from falling into disrepute. He damn well deserves his ignominious fall That is, until the final scene (a departure in Kubrick’s film from the original novel), in which Barry duels the man he has most dishonored. For what seems like the very first time since his self-imposed exile at the beginning of the film, Barry does the noble thing, and it does him no good at all.
While Barry is about as oblivious as they get, our narrator (voiced by Michael Hordern, who has appeared in a surprising number of RBC reviews; see here, here, and here) is so knowledgeable that he smugly reveals plot developments well before they happen. Although the matter-of-fact delivery is well suited to the role, the narrator’s contribution serves to alter the tone of the story from one of comedy to one of immense tragedy. And the tone is meticulously constructed. For example, the soundtrack, which includes a deeply evocative set of re-interpretations of Handel’s Sarabande depending on the mood, serves to reinforce Roger Ebert’s point that “We don’t just see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on.”
It’s hard to find O’Neal’s acting noteworthy, but this isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve written before that under-stated acting by the lead can work well when the rest of the screen is filled with visual bombast (e.g., see my reviews of Manhunter and Dances with Wolves). But unlike those films, Barry’s passivity is itself an important plot device, even if it’s unclear whether it’s the product of vapidity or instead resignation in the face of his inevitably unpleasant fate.
Much more remains to be said about Barry Lyndon, but nonetheless it’s abundantly apparent that Kubrick labored over every single frame. And with attention like that, what more could you really need?
When U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst ran a 30-second TV spot touting her experience castrating pigs as evidence of her ability and determination to “cut pork” in Washington, it drew lots of attention - and not just in Iowa. Funny, succinct and oddly appealing, it quickly transformed her underdog primary campaign into a winner. And while the analogy at its core is completely false - the skills of castration are distinct from the skills of legislative negotiation and compromise - the ad resonated with many voters’ desire for a tough, practical politician who could take control in Washington. It also illustrated that, apart from money, there are still few things more powerful in American politics than a good analogy.
At its core, an analogy is a comparison that suggests parallels between two things, either explicitly or implicitly. Practically speaking, such comparisons are spring-loaded arguments that frame issues in such a way as to highlight desired similarities and obscure inconvenient differences. An analogy may not actually be “true,” but truth is often irrelevant; it is the feelings and ideas they evoke that make them so powerful.
History is replete with analogies that have made a big impact on our Republic. From Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech to Eisenhower’s Domino Theory to Reagan’s sunny Morning in America ad, analogies have framed debates, shaped opinion and changed the course of history. Those who dismiss these as mere rhetorical flourishes underestimate analogy’s determinative power.
Consider the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” ballot proposal California voters approved in 1994. The proposal was the work of Mike Reynolds, whose 18-year-old daughter Kimber had been killed two years earlier by convicted felons in an attempted robber. Politicians around the country - both Democrats and Republicans - sponsored their own three strikes legislation. As Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, put it: “In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. In dealing with violent crime, it should be: three strikes and you’re in - permanently.”
It’s easy to see the argument’s appeal. Government should lock up habitual felons, not let them go free. And the “three strikes” analogy resonated deeply with people’s sense of justice. Why? Because it tapped into deep cultural associations between baseball, rules, fairness and individual accountability. According to Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins professor and the author of The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What they See When they Do, baseball appeals to Americans’ sense of nostalgia, our celebration of individualism, and our cultural affinity for rules. Much more so than in football and basketball, baseball players are individually accountable for their actions. Reams of statistics assign credit or blame for specific successes or failures, creating what he calls a “stark moral universe.”
To most Americans, applying the same standard to criminals felt fair. At a time when the public’s appetite for serious policy debate had been reduced to little more than sound bites, “three strikes and you’re out” served as a moral call to action that both simplified and sold the idea of definitive justice. Over time, about half of all U.S. states passed “three strikes” laws. Cumulatively, they had major unforeseen consequences. Yes, mandatory sentencing laws did lead to the lengthy incarceration of more violent criminals. But the laws snagged tens of thousands of non-violent offenders, too. Soon, people were being sentenced to life in prison for third offenses that included shoplifting videotapes, passing bad checks, or breaking into a parked car to steal a handful of change from the cup-holder. The results were profound, and the nation’s prison population more than quintupled to 2.3 million people - nearly a quarter of all prisoners, globally.
Unfortunately, the analogy to “three strikes” in baseball was dangerously flawed. In baseball, a batter’s third strike is qualitatively different than the first two; foul balls that might constitute a first or second strike don’t count as a third. But “three strikes” mandatory sentencing laws didn’t account for the nature of the third offense, with costly results. More fundamentally, though, why should sentencing policy be based on the rules of baseball in the first place? Why not on football? Or basketball? The point is that games and crimes are very different, and facile analogies linking the two can produce absurd outcomes.
Question the Analogies You Encounter
It’s not surprising that most people fail to pay close attention to the many subtle analogies they encounter. In the thousands of thoughts we have every day, we just don’t have the time to unpack every analogy. And from an evolutionary standpoint, that’s positive: if we couldn’t quickly and accurately analogize to extract the essence of a situation, we’d have a hard time getting through most days, let alone a lifetime.
Physically, most people exert the smallest amount of energy necessary to complete a task, such as taking an elevator instead of climbing stairs. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a similar “general law of least effort” also applies to people’s cognitive efforts. When we avoid hard thinking, we save mental energy.
Bluntly, we’re programmed to be lazy, and are prone to take the path of least resistance - especially in politics. That’s why it is no surprise that Joni Ernst’s promise to “make ‘em squeal” in Washington appealed to a majority of Iowa’s voters, who on November 4 decided to give her that chance. As a Senator, of course, she may find that cutting deals is more productive than cutting testicles. Either way, it’s a messy business.
Apple made news recently by announcing that it will pay the costs of egg freezing for employees, thereby potentially extending fertility later in life. Brigid Schulte sees the policy as a corporate tactic to justify 90-hour work weeks, whereas Katie Benner sees value in giving workers more flexibility in their family-building options (although as Megan McArdle points out, spending your 40s and 50s chasing toddlers around is challenging, frozen eggs or no). Now that the ethics and impacts have been debated by subtler minds than my own, I step in as a bloodless behavioral scientist to say that this is a terrific opportunity to research how human beings make important decisions.
Up until now, there was no good way to study the effect of freezing eggs on child-bearing decisions because of self-selection, i.e., the women who chose to pay for the procedure were fundamentally different from those who didn’t in ways that independently affected their likelihood of becoming mothers (e.g., education, income, planfulness). But now we have an excellent instrumental variable to exploit in quasi-experimental analysis (nice explanation by Austin Frakt here): Was a woman working at Apple when the egg-freezing policy was announced or was she working at a tech company that didn’t have the same policy?
The logic here is that whether those female Apple employees freeze their eggs or not will now be determined not only by the usual self-selection factors, but also by something exogenous, namely the company’s new policy. Presuming (reasonably) that they did not know that the policy was going to be implemented before they chose to work at Apple versus a different tech company, the instrument should exert no effect on the outcome except through the policy in question.
So, what would you hypothesize? Will more egg-freezing lead to more or fewer women becoming mothers? On the one hand, one could argue that knowing that the eggs are frozen would lead more women to delay childbirth for longer, perhaps to the point where it was no longer possible. This would mean that the egg freezing option lowers the likelihood of giving birth.
But I expect the opposite, because of two countervailing forces, sunk costs and public commitment. Egg freezing involves a significant amount of work, which will be experienced as a loss if the woman never has kids. Of course, the work has been done regardless, but there is good evidence that that is not how we think about sunk costs. Rather, we want to justify them by following through. Public commitment would also work in favor of more births. We are generally more likely to make major behavioral changes when we make others aware of our plans. If you tell yourself you are dieting and leave it at that, you are less likely to lose weight than if you decline a dessert and say loudly to everyone at the table “No thanks, I am trying to lose 10 pounds”. Egg-freezing involves some public commitment to a future behavior; you don’t have to announce it to your co-workers but you will obviously tell the health care staff and perhaps people close to you as well. That in itself makes it more likely that you will follow through, even beyond the sunk costs effect.
So that’s my bet, to be evaluated empirically with an instrumental variables study: This policy will lead more, not fewer, women to become mothers.
Nov. 5, 2014: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Obama failed! It’s Red America!” Nov. 7, 2012: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Romney’s 47 percent misstep! Latino voters!” Nov. 3, 2010: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Obama overreached! Tea Party!” Nov. 5, 2008: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Palin was a joke! Realignment!” Nov. 8, 2006: “Democrats win! Republicans are doomed! Bush finally pays for failure in Iraq!” Nov. 3, 2004: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Kerry never should have let himself be videotaped windsurfing! Values voters!” Nov. 6, 2002: “Republicans win! Democrats are doomed! Voters back Bush’s tough stand on Iraq!”
Presidents tend to win re-election (2004, 2012), but they are more likely to lose the longer their party has been in power (1992, 1952, 1948). Presidents’ parties tend to lose seats in midterm elections (2006, 2010, 2014). The party that controls the White House also tends to do very poorly when the economy is bad (2008, 2010), and better when the economy is doing better (1972, 1964, 1984). If we look closer, we can see a lot of other systematic patterns, as well as revealing trends. No one election can or should be interpreted in isolation.
This is not to say that everything commentators are writing today is wrong. Midterm elections are, to a surprising degree, referenda on the president’s party. That’s why they tend to lose. If Obama had been as popular this year as Bush was one year after 9/11, Democrats might have done better this year. And Latino voters are moving away from the Republican Party, and the Tea Party probably did have an effect in 2010. And with elections as close as they have often been, myriad small things might well have made a difference.
But the thing to remember after any election is that these broad forces are always in play. And they affect the basic balance of advantage and disadvantage in the election. The 2008 election, with the economy at its lowest point in many voters’ lives, was a year for the Democrats. But this election, with most Senate elections in states where Obama lost to Romney, was the Republicans’ election to win. You don’t need to add much to explain that.