Monday, November 17, 2008

"Core Principles" vs. Results

This time, a real headline kvetch. My suggestion was above, but the editor's choice ("Dems focus on results while GOP ponders ideology") makes me sound more certain than I am (after all, I am a Democrat) that the new administration and Congress actually will do the right things. And, you could have fixed it without changing a word just by adding, as I've done below, a colon after "Dems" and capitalizing "Focus." That way it's more of an exhortation than a prediction. And then, lo and behold, after I filed the column, Stan Greenberg and Robert Borosage bring the data in support of the thesis that moderates actually want government to get stuff done. (H/t: Matthew Yglesias) Data and op-ed argument, together at last! I love their line that Obama and the Congress have to produce: "Failure does have consequences, as George Bush proved."

Anyway, on to this week's column:

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 16, 2008

I feel the GOP's post-election pain. I became chair of the Arizona Democratic Party after the 1994 Republican sweep, when Newt Gingrich seemed as fresh, exciting, and intellectual as, say, Barack Obama. A Sunday talk show could have only Republican guests, and our only statewide Democratic officeholder was Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings, who made me seem terse.

There's a similar quality to Democrats' plaintive laments fourteen years ago and the GOP's today. Just as we hearkened back to the New Deal or Great Society for current justification, the Republicans are in thrall to the ghost of Ronald Reagan, who is about as relevant today as FDR and LBJ were in 1994. "We gave you Medicare, and you turned on us!" said the D's, just as Republicans today say, "We're the Party of Reagan, and now that means nothing to you?" Well, yes.

We Democrats went through the same "they like our ideas but they don't like us, what's with that?" phase that Republicans are going through. There's a difference, though. When Democrats talk about ideas, what we really mean are things like health insurance, jobs, and education. When Republicans talk about idea, what they really mean is ideology -- cut taxes, and cut spending that doesn't affect me.

And that's the difference, because most people aren't that ideological. Oh, there are some consistent ideological philosophers who resent reality for not conforming to their theories. Some teenage boys, too old for dinosaur toys while still too nerdy for girls, are wonderful libertarians. There may be some leftists who still believe in government programs for their own sake, in the dystopian vision of "equality" in the Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." But I frequent most places in Arizona where lefties hang out, and if those folks still exist, I'm just not seeing them.

But I hear all the time from 'wingers convinced that conservatism hasn't failed, it (after eight years of Bush-Cheney!) just hasn't been tried yet. As Ed Kilgore noted last week, liberals tempered their ideology to support Barack Obama, and cut him slack during the election -- while 'wingers made John McCain demonstrate his fidelity to conservative dogma all the way to Election Day. And Democrats know that we'll be judged in 2010 and '12 on whether the economy turns around and the Iraq war ends, not on whether we complied with an abstract governing philosophy.

It's easy to convince people that they should pay less in taxes, but it's not nearly as easy to make them demand less from government. George W. Bush is getting a raw deal from Republicans these days, because the supposedly bad "big government" stuff -- Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the farm bill, the steel tariff, the big increases in domestic spending -- all happened during the first term, and Bush was triumphantly reelected in 2004. During the second term, Bush laid on the conservatism, with far more restrictive budgets and attempting to privatize Social Security, and voters turned on him in record numbers. After governing more conservatively, he's about as popular as Nixon when he resigned, but then again, we're a less forgiving people than we were 30 years ago.

Even if they don't like government in general, people do expect things from Washington. They mock government agencies, but expect that FEMA won't collapse during a Katrina and leave Americans suffering in Fourth World conditions. They detest earmarks in general, but support funding for breast cancer studies, children's hospitals, and highways -- and don't dare touch foreign aid for Israel, another earmark. People support across-the-board spending freezes, but also want new spending for veterans' health, space exploration, and medical research.

All those things involve taxing everybody to pay for things that don't necessarily benefit everybody. Republicans now call that socialism. And Republicans are welcome to make a priority of cutting capital gains taxes, if they think the most important thing is helping people who still have any net capital gains to tax. The GOP is welcome to talk about core principles among themselves, but the new Democratic administration and the Congress? Their job is to get stuff done. Fast.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Early Analysis (Too Early for the Facts)

It's not like any of the pundits worried about facts before the election.

The Tribune dropped the Perspective section this week; the columns now appear at the back of the tabloid-format news section on Sunday. I just don't think my stuff looks as good in a tabloid format, I'm more of a broadsheet kind of guy, but it's a "transforming" industry. Hey, at least newspapers are more profitable than the banks.

Results still aren't final in AZ, and won't be for another week. Turnout should creep up, but there's no way it'll get to pre-election estimates and I strongly doubt it'll reach 2004 levels. The third Corporation Commission seat is still undetermined; the Democrat in third place had it Friday afternoon, but additional votes over the weekend switched to the Republican formerly in fourth place. The margins are now about 3,000 votes out of 5.2 million (800,000 per position) cast, above the mandatory recount threshold.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 9, 2008

It's still too early for election punditry, because Arizona now has a six-week election "day." Early ballots are mailed a month before, and counting the votes takes an additional week. So fine distinctions (turnout was down from 2004 -- but by how much?) wait until next week.

Maricopa County election officials estimated that 113,000 early ballots were dropped off at polling places on election day (which must be checked before being counted) and another 80,000 to 100,000 voters cast provisional ballots (which have to be checked more thoroughly, and up to 40 percent may not be counted). We have to wait to start the real number-crunching, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

First, we know that (except for Arizona and Alaska) polling works. And with statistical sampling validated by the voters, the next time my doctor orders a blood test, I can get by with that little smear, I don't have to make her take it all.

The biggest innovation for political junkies this cycle was the polling aggregation websites that crunched numerous polls into models and graphical trendlines. You even have your choice: left (, right (, and wonky ( As a 5 percent margin of error means that even a perfectly-designed and executed poll will be wrong once every 20 times, I've become a believer in putting multiple polls together to get a better overall result.

We now know that the 2008 presidential election was easy to predict. Only seven (seven!) states were closer than 5 percentage points; only 15 were closer than 10 percent. Those are notable decreases from 2004 (10 and 21) and 2000 (12 and 22). If margins are that large, it's easier to predict the winner. Still, pollsters are having a difficult time figuring out whether and how to call cellphones; turnout models need to be tweaked for every election. So despite all these graphs and aggregations, nothing stopped me from being very, very nervous until the networks called Ohio for Obama.

Second, I guessed completely wrong on Arizona turnout. Our GOP Secretary of State also thought we'd set a record, based on registration and early ballot requests; instead, turnout was around 65 percent, a bit above the 2006 off-year gubernatorial election (61 percent) but well below the 2004 presidential election (77 percent).

The other state with turnout well under 2004 levels? Alaska, where turnout appears to be well beneath 2004's 66 percent and possibly lower than 2000's 60 percent. So if you think too many people vote, or that ballot-counters need less work, there's a simple solution: Put somebody from your state on the national GOP ticket.

Nationally, turnout soared; (preliminary) national turnout of 64 percent is the highest in more than 40 years, and a considerable leap from 2004's 55 percent and 2000's 51 percent. In Arizona, Democrats assumed that Arizona turnout would rise, and concentrated on urging low-efficacy voters to complete the entire ballot. Instead, with Arizona never really "in play" until the last minute, voter enthusiasm here (and Alaska) never matched what we saw in the rest of the country. New Arizona state slogan: "We found the 2008 election less interesting than Bush vs. Kerry."

Low turnout yielded the most anomalous result, at least for somebody who cut their political teeth here during the 1980's. I grew up seeing national and statewide Democrats get creamed, while local candidates could survive and thrive. Instead, last week national and statewide Democratic candidates did fabulously well -- for Congress, Harry Mitchell wins by 10 points, Ann Kirkpatrick and Gabrielle Giffords by even more, and Democrats sweep the three Corporation Commission races (subject to a potential recount on the third seat) and take control in one fell swoop -- while D's also lost a state Senate seat and two to four state House seats.

Maybe it's just the "native son" effect, which here depresses turnout. Or maybe we have more in common with Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho (where McCain got over 60 percent) than we do with Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. You bet I'll want to look at the numbers -- when we finally get them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

In Which I Interrupt A Political Discussion So A Proud Father Can Brag About His Daughter

From Tuesday's Horizon broadcast: Analysis of Rep. Harry Mitchell's easy re-election begins at 20:00 but you want to go to 21:30 for the real scoop. If the embed doesn't work, try this link.

Monday, November 03, 2008

For Change. Real Change

I had thought that we weren’t supposed to do election stuff beginning this weekend, but my opposite number did a piece entitled “Democratic victory can only bring danger” (no exclamation points, but you could feel they were supposed to be there), which you can see here. I then wrote a counterpart (newspaper version here) so both could be packaged together. My suggested headline was above but that wasn’t upset enough to match up properly with the other side. Sometimes it’s just so tiring to be the angry left.

Again, I’m the D talking head on Horizon (PBS Channel 8 Tempe) Tuesday night, 10 – 11 pm, doing local and AZ election punditry, then again on the McMahon Group, which will air Sunday 11/9 at 4 pm on KTAR radio.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 2, 2008

I’m getting slightly woozy over which McCain argument I’m supposed to rebut this weekend. First, the Republicans argue that we should elect the Arizona Republican because he’ll be real change -- from the incumbent Republican. We need change!

Then they argue that we can’t elect Obama because then the Democratic Congress will have a free reign to do things. We must stop the Democrats from giving us change!

Change! No, stop change from happening! Remember when politicians were supposed to stay “on message” with just one message? The good old days, when you needed two candidates, not just one, to have a debate?

You wonder where these “we need gridlock!” Republicans were the past 3 presidential elections. With the GOP firmly in control of Congress, shouldn’t they have supported Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, to provide a much-needed check on the partisan excesses of Trent Lott and Tom Delay? Oh, wait.

There’s also a weird quality to GOP demands that Democrats must work “across the partisan divide,” that only bipartisan solutions can solve our problems. McCain is supposedly a better choice because of his past record of working with Democrats -- so we should elect him Tuesday so he can become president and refuse to work with Democrats.

These are rather politically-oriented arguments from those who claim to be rising “above politics.” I’m not much of a believer in the deeply-held American myth that politics and government are best populated by amateurs. “I’m not a politician,” cry people running for elective office, the very definition of a politician. Or that you’re not a “career politician,” because unlike every other form of human endeavor, in politics having experience apparently makes you less competent.

I’m also not big on anti-partisanship, the belief that there are somewhere-in-the-middle solutions around which we all can coalesce if only both sides’ extremists would let us. So what exactly are these incredibly obvious compromises, that the Iraq war would have been wise and popular if we had invaded with 65,000 troops instead of 130,000? That gay marriage would be resolved if gays could marry but then had to get divorced after 5 years?

Then when both parties do reject their extremists and come together at a time of a national crisis, the same anti-partisans reject these “expert” solutions of those back-scratching “Washington insiders.” McCain found out how well an immigration compromise played with GOP primary voters, and didn’t everybody just absolutely love the bank bailout?

But even if you believe that politics is beneath you and that ideologically-consistent political parties -- rather than making voting generally clearer, and allowing like-minded people to organize for greater impact -- are bad, the closing days of this campaign, at least on the GOP side, aren’t going well for this faux bipartisanship.

I’ve learned that because (like John McCain, or at least the 2000 version) I support a graduated income tax, and support taking money from one group (taxpayers) and giving to another (teachers and schools), I’m a socialist. So which one of us is the extremist?

It’s no big deal to call me a redistributionist; it makes me nostalgic for my brief political career. And I don’t take it that seriously when McCain or Palin talk about the “real America” that clearly excludes me.

But as Matthew Yglesias wrote last week, there are lots of Americans who might take this “real America” business differently. You might think differently about whether the Constitution was “perfect” if your ancestors were legally not “real” and got counted as 3/5ths of a person. Lots of pundits talk about crucial voting demographics as if the only votes that “really” count are white, blue-collar males. There are Arizonans who happen to be Hispanic whose families have lived here for dozens of generations getting lectured on what it means to be a “real” American by recent transplants from the Midwest.

I don’t think America has much to fear from Tuesday’s election. At least not the America that includes us all, not just GOP-approved “real” Americans.