Friday, November 14, 2008

Why The Republicans Will Recover

It may seem odd that a liberal, dyed-in-the-wool-Democrat would make a post claiming that the Republicans will recover, but unless they do something really bizarre, like endorse Osama bin Ladin's policy statements, the next Congressional elections will reduce the Democratic majority. There are two factors that tend to change large majorities into small majorities over time.

A large majority is inherently unstable. The more members any one party has in Congress, the more likely some of those members are to retire, get sick, get caught in a scandal, etc. If a certain percentage of members of Congress leave in a five year period, the larger party will have more people leaving, and the other party will grab some of those newly empty seats.

A certain percentage of new members of Congress are not very good at their jobs; either they're not good at campaigning, and therefore aren't likely to get reelected, or their performance on the job will make them unpopular. When a party suddenly gets a lot of new members in Congress, some of them will not perform very well and will be replaced. And their replacements will probably be from the other party.

The Republicans were hampered by Bush's unpopularity. Barack Obama's platform was vague, and he wasn't tied to a previous president's policies. A vague platform doesn't give people much to object to. As Obama formulates and implements policy, what was vague will become concrete and specific, and some of his previous supporters will find things to object to. So Obama is bound to lose some of the support that elected him, and the Democrats will be linked to his policies and face the same opposition.

And finally, the Republicans will imitate Obama's fund raising techniques and come to the next election better funded.

On the other hand, I don't expect the Republicans to recover a majority in Congress. The Democrats are less disciplined, which means they have more diversity in members, which means that they are better able to field candidates that match a particular area's characteristics. Republicans like to paint the Democratic party as liberal, but the Democrats have a lot of conservative members in Congress. The number of moderate or liberal Republicans in Congress can be counted on the fingers of one hand. At the same time, the diversity and lack of discipline makes it harder for Democrats to forge agreements to get bills passed, and makes it easier for Republicans to persuade dissatisfied Democrats to join them in opposing specific legislation.

In the long run, look for a smaller Democratic majority which is less successful than the Republicans were in getting policy implemented in law.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Gerson Ignores Recent History

In the Washington Post on Friday, Gerson wrote
Election Day 2008 must have been filled with rueful paradoxes for the sitting president. Iraq -- the issue that dominated George W. Bush's presidency for 5 1/2 bitter, controversial years -- is on the verge of a miraculous peace. And yet this accomplishment did little to revive Bush's political standing...
Nor should it. Top military leaders and Bush's secretary of state tried to warn Bush before the Iraq invasion about the immensity of the task of occupying and rebuilding Iraq. His Chief of Staff, General Shinseki, tried to warn him that his administration's estimates of the number of troops needed for the job was far too low. The Bush administration's treatment of Shinseki made it clear that it wouldn't tolerate differing opinions. The result was that Army commanders, from the Chief of Staff down to the field commanders in Iraq, offered no opposition to administration plans even as violence increased in Iraq. Bush would later claim that he waited so long to increase troop levels because his field commanders weren't telling him he needed to, but his previous decisions had ensured that they understood their job to be carrying out his policies, not pointing out those policies' weaknesses as Shinseki had done.

In addition to bringing in 30,000 extra troops during the surge, the Army also hired 100,000 Sunni tribesmen as auxiliary forces, generally called Sons of Iraq, or the Awakening movement. This absorbed many of the Sunnis who had been active insurgents and gave the army a force that was familiar with the local population. 100,000 Sunnis who often knew the insurgents they were fighting had much more effect on reducing violence than adding 30,000 US troops who didn't add any knowledge or skills that weren't possessed by the troops they were supplementing. While 30,000 troops is a lot of soldiers, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed. It was the Sons of Iraq who made the surge work.

When the occupation of Iraq began, we had two choices: completely disband the existing Iraqi government institutions and rebuild the government from the ground up, at great expense; or keep institutions such as the Sunni dominated Iraqi Army in place to avoid the cost of providing the massive numbers of US troops that would be needed to police the country. Bush chose the expensive option, but chose not to expend the resources needed to make it work. The Army never had the manpower it needed. This policy of expensive ambitions and cheap, inadequate follow through was finally changed by switching from expensive goals to cheap ones rather than by providing the resources necessary to achieve the expensive goals. Hiring the auxiliaries in the Awakening movement effectively created a new Sunni military force to replace the disbanded army, and to do a job the weak, nonsectarian Iraqi army the US was trying to build was unable to do.

The success in reducing violence by rearming the Sunnis showed how inept US policy had been from the beginning. The fact that it took so long to recognize what the administration had been warned about from the beginning goes back, ultimately, to Bush. He had already ensured that the Army field commanders wouldn't tell him that his policies were failing, and as he has publicly said, he doesn't second guess himself. We had a long period of violence from Sunni factions in Iraq, with loss of American lives and massive loss of Iraqi lives, due to Bush's obstinacy.

As for the miraculous peace, a lot of the violence was Sunni against Shia. In cases where Shiites have been driving Sunnis out of mixed neighborhoods, the violence has stopped because the Shiites succeeded. The Sunnis have been driven out. Gerson attributes the lack of violence to effective military action, but until the Sunnis who have been driven out can move back in, it is the Shiite militias who have been effective, not the US.

Another factor in the reduction of violence has been the ceasefire declared by Moqtada al-Sadr, the religious leader of the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr lost control of about one third of the Mahdi Army as that militia splintered. Gerson also attributes the decrease in violence in Basra to effective military action, but the Mahdi Army was able to hold off the combined US and Iraqi forces. A cease fire was brokered in Iran. Al-Sadr has maintained the ceasefire, seemingly as part of a turn away from military force and towards political action. It's fortunate for the US that he is changing the way his opposes the US, but it is not something the US has much control over.

The long period of violence in Iraq was due, in large part, to Bush administration policies, specifically its refusal either to provide the the resources needed to make its ambitious goals work, or to lower its goals to match the resources it was willing to provide. Bush's success in Iraq follows a long period of failure caused by his own incompetence. I'm willing to believe Bush is a decent human being. I don't need Gerson to remind me that there's some good in everyone. But Gerson's effort to rewrite Bush's failures as successes isn't believable.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Good Decision Making

Now that I've bashed Jonah Lehrer for saying that poor people have warped minds, I'd like to praise him a little. There's a popular notion that science supports going with your gut. The truth, as usual, is that it's not that simple. Lehrer has been making occasional posts showing that good decision making involves matching the decision making process with the circumstances. In some cases going with your gut reaction works fine, in other cases it will lead you badly astray. Lehrer's most recent post describes Barack Obama doing this type of introspection. It's a nice change after eight years of leadership by a man who claims not to do the sort of self-introspection necessary for making good decisions.

Live Science Blog

I haven't looked at the Live Science blog is a few weeks; my loss. If you are not a scientist but you are interested in science, it's a great blog. It does a pretty good job of vetting research so that you don't get a lot of articles touting faulty research and bad logic. A couple of the science blogs I read publish obvious trash. You'd be amazed at how much bad science gets reported, and how much reporters distort good science. Live Science seems to do a good job of filtering that out. It also does a good job of reporting how science gets misunderstood and misused. And it has really great articles on research. Some recent examples:

Sarah Palin's Fruit Fly Comments: Her critics got it wrong. They assumed that the research was pure science involving Drosophila melanogaster and genetics. It was actually applied science involving Bactrocera oleae, the olive fruit fly, a pest that is causing problems for olive growing regions in California and the Mediterranean. And Palin got it wrong. The research wasn't being carried out in Paris, but Montpellier, which is in the olive growing region of France. And cutting off funding would make it less likely that scientists find a way of controlling a pest that causes economic harm. There's a real possibility of the research creating an immediate economic benefit in the US.

Politicians keep promises: Amazing, but true.

A Third of Medical Studies are Wrong: New findings should be distrusted until they have been peer reviewed and backed up with more research. But newspapers love to publish dubious findings. This is an old article, but worth reading.

And a bit of history.

Dead People in 1700s Were the First Celebrities: According to the article,
These periodicals that published obituaries started out as religious pamphlets aimed at reminding people that they should be very pious because they could die at any moment, Barry said. Later, they became more secular, grab-bags featuring obituaries, political news and essays. At first, only kings and famous artists and writers got obits, but later publications also featured death write-ups for eccentrics, performers, sportsmen and others who previously were not seen as worthy of a written memorial...
I could probably write something profound here about the link between celebrity and our own fascination with death, but there's no research to back it up and it probably isn't true. :)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Warped Minds

Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex has a post on a new book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone. Specifically, he talks about Martha Farah's efforts to find links between mental abilities and socioeconomic status. He makes this conclusion:
The point is that poverty isn't just an idea, or a state of mind: it actually warps the mind.
Well, great. It's not enough to be poor, you have to have a warped mind to go with it.

Obviously, the development of children's minds is strongly influenced by environment. But it's a real stretch to claim that a mind adapted to a specific environment is warped. If a person lives in a society that values certain skills developed during childhood, and that person doesn't develop those skills, that's a problem. If you put that person in an environment where those skills aren't important, are they still warped? If that person spends their entire life in an environment were those skills aren't needed, are they warped?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How McCain Lost

Now that the 2008 campaign is over, there seems to be a common thread in the post mortum analyses: McCain lost because he did X or didn't do Y. Here's an informal list of supposed mistakes.

  • Didn't raise enough money.
  • Didn't separate his policies from Bush's policies.
  • Didn't respond effectively to the economy.
  • Picked the wrong running mate.
  • Catered to the wrong segment of the Republican party.
  • Message wasn't unified.
  • Behavior was impulsive.
  • Failed to attack strongly enough.
  • Stopped being a maverick.
  • Supported the financial bail-out bill.

Before examining the list, let's take a look at the environment McCain was campaigning in.

Money Raised During Sept. & Oct., In Millions
Consumer Confidence Index
Oct, 2007Oct, 2008
George W. Bush's Ratings On Election DayPercentage Of Voters Who Think McCain Would Continue Bush's Policies
Ratings for McCain & His Running Mate
John McCainSara Palin

In addition to the numbers in the table, McCain was running as the Republican candidate. Candidates from either party are successful only if they can unite the various factions that make up their parties and then add enough independent votes to out-poll their opponent. A candidate who doesn't unite his party behind him has very little chance of winning. So what is the Republican party that McCain has been leading? Wikipedia has a nice breakdown of the factions, or what might more accurately called issue clusters, that draw people into the Republican party.
  1. Religious right
  2. Social conservatives
  3. Fiscal conservatives
  4. Neoconservatives
  5. National security-oriented
  6. States' rights oriented
  7. Paleoconservatives
  8. Libertarian conservatives

McCain has been more a less a libertarian conservative, like his predecessor from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. This has earned him a reputation as a maverick because most members of the party are more concerned about other issues. In order to unite these other groups behind his campaign, he's been spending the last four years redefining his position to address their concerns. If he hadn't done that, he wouldn't have earned enough of their votes during the primaries to become their candidate. Even so, his libertarian record was recent enough to be a problem. Many Republicans weren't excited by him, and distrusted him. He needed a running mate who would be supported by the distrustful parts of the party.

Bush has been very successful in getting support from those parts of the Republican party that distrusted McCain. In order to avoid losing them, McCain had to support a large part of Bush's policies. So at the same time that he needed to distance himself from Bush in order to win the support of independents, he also needed to signal to different parts of the party that he would continue Bush policies that they support. And he needed to do this at a time when Obama had an overwhelming spending advantage and could use advertising to influence how voters perceived McCain's message.

Now let's have a look at the list of mistakes.

Didn't raise enough money.

No, he didn't. He accepted federal funding, which capped his spending at $85 million. McCain helped write current campaign funding law, and it would have looked strange if he had chosen to pass on federal funding. To compete with Obama, he would have had to know that Obama would raise several times McCain's spending limit, and then he would have had to learn, in a very short period of time, how to raise funds the way Obama did. Obama's campaign started learning to do this at the beginning of Obama's campaign, almost two years ago, which gave it an insurmountable head start in skill. McCain had no way of knowing how much money Obama was going to raise, and it's doubtful if his campaign could have closed the gap in fund raising skills in just a few months.

Didn't separate his policies from Bush's policies.

Again, he didn't. If he had, he probably would have lost the support of a large section of the Republican party. And given Obama's advantage in spending, he wasn't in a position to use advertising to create the perception of breaking with Bush while reassuring his party about continuity.

Didn't respond effectively to the economy.

Actually, neither McCain nor Obama have told us how they're going to deal with the economy. It's doubtful that either one really knows how they would deal with it. But Obama's spending advantage allowed him to promote himself as the candidate of vague, unspecified change, and to frame McCain as the candidate who would continue Bush's policies.

Picked the wrong running mate.

Given McCain's position in the Republican party, it's hard to see how he could have chosen a running mate whose politics were substantially different from Palin's without losing support in the party. He might have chosen a running mate with more experience, but her approval and disapproval ratings indicate that she didn't actually have much effect on the campaign either way, aside from firming up support among Republican factions where McCain was weak. Any vice-presidential candidate with more experience and support among social conservatives or national security-oriented conservatives would also have strengthened McCain's connection to Bush's policies. Palin's lack of experience meant no political baggage and no identification with Bush.

Catered to the wrong segment of the Republican party.

He needed them all.

Message wasn't unified.

No, it wasn't. He was at a disadvantage from the beginning, and circumstances changed during the campaign in ways that increased his disadvantage. His inconsistent messages were the result of looking for a chink in Obama's armor, or for a critical issue that would change the terms of the campaign. His message wasn't unified because there was no issue or group of issues that he could use to overcome his disadvantage.

Behavior was impulsive.

Again, he was looking for a strategy that would reframe the campaign. He never found it, and it made his searching seem impulsive or aimless. Had he found a way of reframing the campaign, his behavior would have been considered brilliant.

Failed to attack strongly enough.

Actually, he probably attacked Obama as strongly as he could without alienating independent voters.

Stopped being a maverick.

Yes, he did. That's how he became the candidate of a major political party. If you want a candidate who never compromised his maverick cred, you know how to find Ralph Nader.

Supported the financial bail-out bill.

When it looked as though Congress would support the first version of the bill, members of Congress were swamped with calls from people opposing it. When Congress withdrew its support from the original version, members were swamped with calls from people panicked at the thought of Congress doing nothing during a financial crisis. Voting for it became a non-issue. Voting against it would probably have cost McCain a significant chunk of voters.

Most of the "mistakes" that McCain is accused of having committed were forced on him by circumstances. They were trade offs that allowed him to avoid worse choices. He also made other mistakes, such as running against a charismatic, talented politician who didn't need to compensate for distrust in his own party. It's hard to see how he could have avoided that one either. McCain is a charismatic politician in his own right. All in all, it's hard to see how the Republicans could have fielded a better candidate, or how any other candidate could have been more competitive against Barack Obama.