Monday, July 30, 2007

Yet More Carmona

If you want still more former Surgeon General data points, Sunday's Washington Post reported that "a Bush political appointee without any background or expertise in medicine or public health" blocked the surgeon general's 2006 report on global health issues "chiefly because the report did not promote the administration's policy accomplishments."

As Vizzini would say, "Inconceivable!" To which Inigo Montoya replied, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
People Do Feel Entitled To Their Own Facts

My friend Phil Gordon takes criticism far better than I do--but that still leaves a considerable amount of room. On the other hand, I didn't endorse Andrew Thomas for County Attorney and then support John McCain for President, so maybe, just maybe, some gentle tweaking of the Mayor might be in order. My proposed title was "With So Many Facts Available, Why Shouldn't I Just Choose My Own?" but this time the editor went more clinical and less interesting.

East Valley Tribune, July 29, 2007

This year's Hindenburg Prize for badly-timed political endorsements goes to my friend Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who endorsed John McCain for president just as McCain's campaign imploded. Gordon thus becomes the Leonardo DiCaprio of Arizona politics for portraying Jack Dawson, the lucky son-of-a-gun who won that ticket for passage on the ill-fated ship in Titanic.

High-efficacy voters in, say, the 2010 Democratic primary for governor will remember (or be reminded of) a high-profile Democratic mayor endorsing a rapidly-declining-in-popularity Republican. In Minnesota, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly endorsed George W. Bush in 2004, then in 2005 got 31 percent of the vote in his reelection campaign -- the first incumbent to lose in three decades.

Gordon will be reelected handily (with my now-disclosed financial contribution); the McCain endorsement matters only for future races. Randy Kelly was far less popular, having been elected initially by fewer than 500 votes, and Kelly's 2005 opponent, current mayor Chris Coleman, was a popular city councilman. Coleman also had Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, and John Kerry campaign for him, which happens if your opponent endorsed Bush.

Also, there's less to erstwhile Gordon opponent Jarrett Maupin than meets the eye. Maupin apparently assumed he could conjure up the 1,500 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot with happy thoughts. Once Maupin realized he couldn't get signatures merely by force of personality, his paid circulators had too little time. An election lawyer who reviewed Maupin's filing calls it the worst he's seen. It would be embarrassing, if Maupin only were capable of embarrassment.

The Democratic mayor's endorsement of the Republican senator makes sense three or four moves ahead on the political chessboard -- favorite son, won't win the GOP nomination, they're friends, gives Gordon even more bipartisan credibility. But this sort of reaching-across-the-aisle that makes pundits and people who don't pay much attention to politics alike go all weak-kneed may not have much basis with actual voters.

A new paper by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of Princeton University, "It Feels Like We're Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy," shows that voters are indeed "rational" in a very narrow sense -- their issue positions are consistent, seemingly well-informed, and correlated to ideological preferences. But the authors' review of survey data shows most voters are much less committed to issues than to political candidates or party. In short, we choose sides first, then issues and facts to fit.

Achen and Bartels see very few voters actually engaging in "policy-oriented voting," voting for the candidate whose proposals are closest to their own preferences ("John Edwards has the best health care plan, which is my most important issue.") It's much more common to see "persuasion" voters, where the voter changes opinions to match the candidate or party they prefer (once George Bush supports comprehensive immigration reform, it becomes acceptable to certain Republicans.)

Those "persuasion" voters are joined by "projection" voters, who convince themselves that their candidate or party holds the same beliefs as they do (like Republicans who "knew" Jon Kyl's position on immigration). Unfortunately, partisan bias becomes stronger as voters' political information increases; "high information" voters are more likely to change their opinions to suit their existing loyalties.

We're not dispassionate, scientific analyzers of factual information; voters are downright tribal and unwilling to engage in what Achen and Bartels call "some modicum of accuracy in perception and receptiveness to new and, perhaps, disconfirming evidence." Or what Herbert Spencer called witnessing the "tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts."

Phil Gordon endorsed John McCain, and I write these columns, in the hope that voters actually read and consider contradictory things. But if Achen and Bartels are right, there's so much information available that not only can we choose our own opinions, we also can choose our own facts -- disregarding those that don't fit.

In other words, what people say they're doing, and what they're actually doing, aren't the same. You shouldn't need Princeton professors to teach you that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

If It's All Political, Then EVERYTHING Is Political

Here's this week's column. There was more to say about Dr. Carmona after the Tribune's own editorial last week, which you can read either excerpted in this column or here. My proposed headline is above, but the editor thought better, and this week, he's right.

East Valley Tribune, July 22, 2007

It’s half a cheer for the Tribune editorial page, which last Wednesday objected to the Bush administration’s political interference with former Surgeon General Richard Carmona. The Tribune objected "to the administration’s efforts to censor scientific inquiry in order to cater to a particular worldview."

The editorial also noted the administration’s "authoritarian attitude." It’s nice to see that recognition by libertarians, who by my lights always talk philosophy but usually act for tax breaks for the well-to-do.

Noticing that the Bush administration has pushed executive power beyond anything imagined by FDR or LBJ seems appropriate, if belated. At least Roosevelt proposed a court-packing plan, then withdrew it under withering criticism. Bush doesn’t bother with proposals, he just uses "signing statements" to tell Congress and the courts he doesn’t intend to follow the law.

With Bush’s authoritarianism now duly noted, we’ll see if the Tribune ever follows through, or if, like Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, criticism of the Bush administration will go into the record but never actually surface when it might actually matter.

It’s one of life’s little mysteries. The most vociferous libertarians are at state universities, where as part of their taxpayer-supported education or employment, they learn to divorce their political philosophy from actual experience. One example, noted by Matthew Yglesias, is how libertarians pretend that the huge pile of government regulations and restrictions known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is somehow a libertarian concept.

But this being the Tribune, they couldn’t oppose the Bush administration without making some fresh howlers. The first was a false equivalence, noting that the Clinton administration fired Dr. Joycelyn Elders as Surgeon General for "controversially endorsing sexual education to the degree where she suggested schools teach youths about masturbation." Quoth the Tribune, "Her removal from office had nothing to do with science, but with politics and the embarrassment she brought to the Clinton administration."

Claiming Elders’s treatment was equivalent to Carmona’s requires you to believe that (1) it’s scientifically incontrovertible that you should (or need to) teach young people about masturbation, (2) therefore public opinion about the sex-ed curriculum is improper, and (3) a public official who says something really embarrassing to the administration shouldn’t be fired. This is, to put it charitably, a stretch.

The other huge howler is the Tribune’s assertion that any position filled by the president is "inherently political" and therefore, "we should teach ourselves to be as suspect of their motives and influences as we are of experts in the private industry. An expert’s employment by the government simply should not be considered a sign of objectivity."

Read that paragraph again, slowly. First, it shows how the Bush administration hasn’t just trashed the Justice Department; they’ve degraded the whole concept of public service. Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate. Therefore, according to the Tribune, when Petraeus issues his progress report in September, we must suspect his motives and influences and not consider him as automatically objective. We’ll see if that happens.

Second, there should be some difference between writing potboiler fiction and writing editorials, and the editorialists should leave the wildly-implausible conspiracy theories to Michael Crichton. How can government employees be simultaneously (1) lazy and inefficient, and (2) relentlessly and effectively bent on world domination?

Lastly, this argument means that the Tribune has thrown in the towel on some past editorial positions, like the endorsement of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste repository. If we should suspect every expert’s motives, especially those from the government, then why shouldn’t Nevada use every political trick available to stop that project, no matter how many studies say it’s safe? See, everybody has motives and influences, and even if the Tribune says the case is proved -- well, who knows what motives and influences are at work on the page to my left? So fight on, Nevada; your friends in the East Valley have no cause to complain.

Monday, July 16, 2007

SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Serving In The Bush Administration May Be Hazardous To Your Health

You might have caught the House hearing with the three former Surgeon Generals where Dr. Richard Carmona talked about the far-greater politicization of his office during the current administration. Some Bush loyalists have said Carmona is a whiner, or that his office should be abolished, but the Arizona sidelight is that in 2005, Carmona was going to be the Arizona GOP's great not-quite-white hope for the 2006 governor's race once Rick Romney, J. D. Hayworth, and Fife Symington all declined to run. That was, if they couldn't convince Marilyn Quayle to make the race. That's a measure of the Republicans' desperation to find a candidate in 2006; they were driven to consider a Hispanic and a woman. Of course, neither ran, but it's fun to read the reasons why nobody should take Gov. Napolitano's popularity seriously and why Arizona voters would consider replacing her in 2006.

My suggested headline is above, but the editor prefered Bush-whacked (which I thought ran before, but it wasn't; that headline was "Bush's Loyalty Is One-Way Street.") He also took out the White House Travel Office line, which I've put back in, and Sara Taylor's name, which I left out. If you don't know who Sara Taylor is, watch this.

East Valley Tribune, July 15, 2007

Arizona Republicans used to love Dr. Richard Carmona. He has an amazing resume: drops out of high school, joins the Army, serves with distinction as a Green Beret in Vietnam. Gets his GED, goes to medical school, graduates at the top of his class. Works as a paramedic, registered nurse, and physician, and as a medical director, professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and a Pima County SWAT team member.

President Bush appointed Carmona as Surgeon General in 2002, and he served for 4 years until his four-year term ended last year. He returned to Tucson, where he now works as vice chairman of the high-end Canyon Ranch "life enhancement company." And until last week, Dr. Carmona was quiet. Very quiet.

State Republicans floated Carmona’s name in 2005 and '06 as a candidate for governor based on his resume ("his life story reads like a Hollywood script," enthused the Business Journal of Phoenix) and as a resident of Tucson and a Hispanic who could make inroads into two key Napolitano constituencies. (This was in 2005, when Republicans actually courted Hispanics.) In 2006, GOP insiders also mentioned Carmona as a candidate for the seat of retiring Cong. Jim Kolbe, R-Tucson, won by Cong. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson.

Since returning to Tucson, Carmona said nothing publicly about his service in the Bush administration, which struck many observers as very odd. Prior to his appointment, Carmona had built a reputation, among both supporters and detractors, as a world-class pain in the posterior. His supporters meant that in a good way; if Carmona thought something wasn’t right, he just wouldn’t let it go until he felt it was fixed.

Carmona went public before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week only after talking with two predecessor Surgeon Generals, Drs. Everett Koop and David Satcher. They also had political battles within their administrations -- Koop in making fighting AIDS a priority for the Reagan administration, and Satcher, who lost his effort to have the federal government sponsor needle exchanges for drug users -- but nothing "as partisan, as malicious, as vindictive, as hostile" as Carmona saw.

Carmona testified he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on each page of every speech. He wasn’t allowed to speak freely with reporters. Political appointees tried to insert political slogans and GOP candidates’ names into his talks and requested that he appear in his military uniform at political events.

Carmona was instructed to follow administration policy -- instead of science -- on hot-button issues such as stem-cell research, smoking and health, global warming, sexual education, and prison health. And political appointees took Carmona to the woodshed for asking to give a speech to an organization affiliated with the Special Olympics because of its long-standing ties to the Kennedys. "Why would you want to help those people?" Carmona said he was asked. That’s the Bush administration in a nutshell. Never mind the handicapped kids; what’s the politics of the volunteers?

So Carmona becomes the latest Arizona Republican to have his reputation trashed by serving in the Bush administration. After his testimony, a White House spokeswoman said Carmona hadn’t done his job: "It’s disappointing to us if he failed to use this position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation." Carmona joins former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, fired by the Bush administration for "poor judgment," "repeated instances of defiance," and "insubordination."

Sure, we’re talking only about U.S. Attorneys and the Surgeon General, who serve at the pleasure of the president. It’s not like these are important jobs, like the White House Travel Office.

In the Bush administration, up is down, politics trumps science, and crippled kids are campaign fodder. If it’s too much even for some Arizona Republicans, for gosh sakes, what does that tell you? Appointees who remember that they swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to the President personally, get their Bush reward: having their reputations trashed. Welcome to the doghouse, Dr. Carmona.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Finally, Other People Realize What We've Known About John McCain

I feel lucky I got the McCain's-downward-spiral column into the paper Sunday; from the looks of today's stories this might be old news by this coming weekend. At least "my" newspaper didn't pay to send a reporter around full-time with the McCain campaign; talk about an investment that didn't pan out.

East Valley Tribune, July 8, 2007

Even with ‘wingers with whom I disagree about every single issue, I find that deep down, we’re united on one fundamental Arizona value: Disliking John McCain.

We’re all enjoying schadenfreude over McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. He’s bringing us together, by losing.

McCain’s campaign is failing because he’s using President Bush’s strategy for the Iraq war, and getting the same results. There was the shock-and-awe, "mission accomplished" phase, where McCain garnered numerous Bush campaign consultants and fundraisers. Armed with national name recognition and years of relentless toadying to Bush and the religious right, like his endorsement of teaching creationism, McCain claimed to be the national frontrunner.

McCain, pundits said, looked uncomfortable but was doing what was necessary to cement support by the GOP business and religious establishments. McCain then dropped out of the Iowa straw poll; candidates spend millions ferrying supporters to a state GOP fundraiser in an effort to demonstrate their ability to do something completely meaningless, which is good practice for the Iowa caucus. McCain felt he could downplay Iowa and risk angering state GOP bigwigs, because he was running nationally and could avoid a spending war with Mitt Romney on bad terrain.

But that plan was based on "faulty intelligence." Despite touching all the hardliner bases, GOP partisans never knew whether they were getting the "Establishment McCain" or the "Maverick" who had so entranced the national media. And the immigration bill certainly didn’t help; GOP voters want amnesty reserved for Scooter Libby, not illegal aliens.

At the end of March, when fundraising totals came out, McCain finished third, well behind Romney and Rudy Giuliani. But not only was he lagging in dollars raised, but his spending (his "burn rate") left him with fewer resources than his rivals.

The campaign, like the Bush administration after the 2006 elections, announced a new strategy and leadership team. Just as Bush let Rumsfeld go, McCain fired his finance director and brought in a "new" team -- to the extent that Fred Malek and Phil Gramm can be "new." They promised new accountability, new tactics, and better results.

The results were announced last week, and just as with Bush, the promises were empty. Instead of surpassing their prior dreary performance, the McCain campaign did worse despite a massive ramp-up of fundraising events, supposedly 35 in one month alone. Their "burn rate" stayed high, and they finished the quarter with only $2 million left. The campaign fired dozens of staffers, put others on reduced or no salary, and announced a new strategy. Instead of competing nationally, McCain would concentrate on three early primary states -- the campaign equivalent of "the surge."

The campaign announced that McCain will do more town halls, retail politics, being unscripted. Of course, those exact tactics also were part of the first restructuring, and talk of "refocusing the campaign to play to his strengths" leaves open the question of why the previous plans were unfocused, diffuse efforts that highlighted the candidate’s weaknesses. "New" plans drawn up by the same leaders; how much more like Bush can you get?

McCain now depends on doing well in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, a strategy that Ryan Sager of The New York Sun calls "utterly wrongheaded." McCain downplayed Iowa, and now will have to make up ground on both Romney and Giuliani and, once he gets into the race, Fred Thompson. He’s tied for second, with Giuliani, behind Romney in New Hampshire, and he’s sinking in South Carolina, where his campaign foundered in 2000 and where he could finish fourth as well.

It’s just like the surge in Iraq. It sounds OK, but only if you ignore prior history, know nothing about conditions on the ground, and assume that the same people doing the same things will somehow yield different results. Look at how far "Maverick McCain" has fallen from 2000: He’s become George W. Bush.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Stalking the Wild (White & Male) Elephant

It's another Festival of Polling Data. You might want to look at the full Fabrizio presentation. The presentation doesn't explain where the names of the GOP subgroups comes from, and my editor wanted to know who were "Dennis Miller Republicans." So I pulled the slide, and according to Fabrizio, they're 14% of self-identified Republicans, who are part of the social/cultural faction. According to the survey, the characteristics are:
  • Focused on social issues
  • Focused on illegal immigration, they strongly oppose people gaming the system to get a "free lunch"
  • Like "Hawks" they oppose timelines for the war
  • Like "Free Marketeers" they oppose expanded government to solve problems
  • More likely to be male
  • Disproportionately found in the South and West
  • They are more likely to be gun owners
It's slide 26 of the media briefing. This group breaks for Giuliani and Fred Thompson, with McCain in third place. It's not clear where Dennis Miller fits into this schematic, other than these would be the elusive (or illusory) "South Park Republicans" but instead they're focused on social issues and aren't socially liberal (or libertarian) at all. My theory is that these are the demographics of the only people left who still might think that Dennis Miller is funny.

Republicans overall also are 93% white and 2% Hispanic, but that's a story for another day. I'm grateful that the editor gave me my headline; for too long, pundits would talk about Democrats having a problem because we didn't attract enough white male voters because we could win only if we captured majorities of female and minority voters -- as if everybody else's votes than white males were somehow less valuable or meaningful.

East Valley Tribune, July 1, 2007

It’s like learning a foreign language, but I studied a detailed national poll of 2,000 self-described Republicans by GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. The survey, called "The Elephant Looks in the Mirror 10 Years Later," follows Fabrizio’s similarly large 1997 survey.

Most news reports focused on GOP attitudes toward Iraq, which are somewhat divided. A third of Republicans want to withdraw, while nearly two-thirds still strongly support the war. Fabrizio also polled the 2008 GOP presidential race, and found Rudy Giuliani leading (30 percent), followed by John McCain (17 percent) and Fred Thompson (15 percent) -- but support is very soft; 74 percent said they could change their minds.

Other stories have focused on the relative ambivalence of self-described Republicans on abortion and gay marriage. The survey was funded by four GOP groups, including the Log Cabin Republicans, which reject right-wing social issues. Not surprisingly -- but statistically -- the poll vindicates the sponsors’ attitudes; two-thirds of Republicans said they could support a candidate for president with whom they disagreed on abortion, and more Republicans support allowing gays to serve in the military than support a ban (49 percent to 42 percent).

But the most interesting findings concern ideology and demographics. Significantly more Republicans -- 71 percent, up from 55 percent 10 years ago -- describe themselves as "conservative." Most of that gain came from moderates, with some attrition from self-described liberals. There apparently are some liberal Republicans left, just not in Arizona.

This finding means that Democrats should stop wasting time describing ourselves as "progressives" to avoid being called "liberals." The way Republicans, especially in Arizona, keep moving farther and farther to the right, unless you’ve spent the past decade streaking leftward, they've made you a moderate automatically. "Moderate" is a wonderful label in general elections but it's a huge insult in Republican primaries. (Even GOP moderates call themselves conservatives these days; the usual euphemism is "common-sense conservative" to distinguish from the real crazies.)

The survey does show some ambiguity over what being a "conservative" means; more Republicans -- 33 percent to 22 percent -- said government wasn’t doing enough about global warming than those who said government was doing too much. Half said government should guarantee universal health care as a right. Apparently, self-described conservatives now approve of socialized medicine.

Republicans also have become significantly older. In 1997, 28 percent were 55 and older; this year, 41 percent are. The middle-aged (35-54) declined from 44 percent to 40 percent of Republicans, while the young (18-34) dropped from 25 percent to 17 percent. Democrats still assume elderly voters are grateful about Social Security and Medicare, but today’s geezers weren’t paying attention when those programs started, and they see no reason to show gratitude. The graying GOP also means that Bush’s failed effort to privatize Social Security could have threatened the loyalty of some GOP base voters just as much as did his failed efforts on immigration reform.

But the biggest ideological finding in the survey is the decline in GOP voters to whom economic issues are primary. The GOP social-cultural base (Fabrizio’s "Moralists," "Dennis Miller Republicans," and "Government Knows Best Republicans," all united by their belief that government should enforce certain behaviors) is now 51 percent of Republicans. Economically-oriented Republicans ("Free Marketeers" and "Heartland Republicans") have shrunk to 16 percent, with the balance represented by those for whom foreign policy is most important ("Bush Hawks" and "Fortress America Republicans"). That’s shrinkage of the economic wing of the party by nearly two-thirds.

Thus, the libertarian wing of the party is incredibly overrepresented on the Internet and in the Tribune. Remember "South Park Republicans?" According to this survey, their actual numbers are about the size of South Park’s cast.

So while reading these pages or the blogs, remember you’re hearing from a very small percentage of Republicans -- and that’s why the GOP candidates just aren’t talking about those issues. If Fabrizio's right, Republicans are getting older, more conservative, and less like America every decade.