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The Booming Economy

Monday, May 31, 2004
A lot of Republican talking heads are evincing frustration that the improving economy has not translated into better polling for Bush. Their belief is that the bad news (or perceived bad news) on Iraq is crowding out the positive economic news. They hope that by the end of the year, this situation will change.

Don't hold your breath.

There are a number of reasons why people don't think the economy is as good as the media or Republicans do. One statistic after another has gradually moved into the positive column, and each of them has not has the political advantage that Bush expected. First it was GDP growth, but this doesn't mean much for average people. Then it was (finally) a falling unemployment rate. But this says nothing at very slow job growth. But even if there are a lot of jobs, are wages and income going up? This is the walmartization/off-sourcing problem. Income gains in the first 3 years of the Bush administration were being concentrated for the rich and corporate profits (but I repeat myself), and lost jobs were good and new jobs were bad. Those rdi numbers are finally (maybe) improving, but there is still no apparent improvement in Bush's popularity. Why?

Two reasons. First, the numbers have gotten better, but they are still way below where people expect them to be. For an incumbent, slow income growth is better than income decline, but it still won't get you re-elected. Just ask Al Gore, who was confronted with slowing income gains at the end of 2000. Second, economic voting is not just based on current evaluations of economic growth. They are also tied to retrospective evaluations of how well the incumbent has managed the economy. Six months of not so bad news does not cancel out 3 years of bad news. And the prospective element of voting is even more intriguing: voters really don't believe in this recovery, so they are discounting any current growth. They don't think it's going to last.

Given the falling dollar, rising oil prices, growing trade and budget deficits, and continued outsourcing, maybe the voters have reason to fear for our economic future. Which makes the voters a lot smarter than the Bush Administration. No surprise.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:46 AM

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Sunday Wrap-up

Sunday, May 30, 2004
Sunday, May 30, 2004

Just got done watching Russert. First of all, I find it fascinating that they included one rep from NBC (Andrea Mitchell, who HATED Bill Clinton), Roger Simon from Time, Joe Klein (US News), and some wacky dude from the Weekly Standard. Why isn't there someone on the panel from one of the liberal mags (Prospect, Nation, Progressive). It reminds me a little of FOX.

Secondly, there was a great deal of discussion of Kerry's problems with Iraq and lack of enthusiasm. The show left you with the impression that Kerry is having trouble because the Democratic base is in favor of unilateral withdrawal, and Bush's movement to Kerry's position is creating problems with that base. Leaving aside the substance of any withdrawal, I think the basic argument from Kerry should be: Bush CANNOT fix this problem, because he needs international support, which is going to take a new President. Franken has made this point several times, and I think he's right. This would return the debate to whether we should have gone in and Bush's lies, where I think we are stronger, and underlines Bush's incompetence and create more daylight.

As far as enthusiasm goes, I really doubt how much enthusiasm there ever is for a challenger who is a moderate. Kennedy in 1960 didn't have a great deal of fervent support, nor did Clinton in 1992, and neither did Bush in 2000. In the last election, the focus of Republicans was on defeating Bill Clinton (by way of his surrogate, Al Gore), much like defeating Bush is for liberals this year. Kerry doesn't really need to evince a great deal of personal support to get the left to turn out- they're pretty well mobilized as it is.

This doesn't mean that Kerry doesn't deserve our emotional support, though. Much of the "boring" tag is a self-reinforcing media perception. I saw Kerry speak a few months ago, and I felt fired up. He's not Robert Kennedy or Mario Cuomo, but who is, really? He's been committed for years to protecting women's rights and the environment, two big liberal issues, and has been very mature on foreign policy, which we need very much right now.

And I really fail to see what was so radical about Gore's speech. It was very critical of Bush, but that doesn't mean it was extremely liberal. A lot of moderates could have given a very similar speech. It was the passion that people have objected to, not the case Gore is making. For some reason passion is now a bad thing. But even if Gore had been boring (wait, I thought he was....), there still has been absolutely no public discussion over the merits of Gore's arguments, only some half-baked analysis of their political impact. Typical reporting by the lazy press.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:45 AM

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Why Third Parties are a Bad Idea

Saturday, May 29, 2004
I have a good friend who voted for Nader in 2000, much to my disgust. He doesn't plan on doing so this year, but he avoids any responsibility for electing Bush. There are a lot of people like this, and they have a lot of different arguments. I'd going to take them on one at a time in an effort to demonstrate that 1) one should never vote for a third-party, 2) that a multiparty system is not something you want, and 3) that 3rd party candidacies are unnecessary

Democrats frequently accuse Naderites of electing Bush. Exit polls indicate that 60% of Nader voters would have voted, and voted for Gore, in 2000. Most of the remainder would have stayed home. This would have provided the crucial margin of victory in Florida and New Hampshire, and we would now be working to re-elect Gore rather than defeat Bush. Nader voters respond first by saying that with peace and prosperity, Gore should have won easily. If the few percent of the vote he lost because of Nader were enough to beat him, then he deserved to lose.

Now I would the be the last person to defend the quality of Gore's campaign in 2000. It was uninspired, undisciplined, and lacked a clear message. But to say that Gore should have easily won is to underestimate the skill of the Republicans at campaigning, the fundamentally even split in American politics today, and the fact that the economy in 2000 was already slowing.

Another argument is that people voted for Nader because he was closer to them on the issues than Gore. This assumes that people should vote based on their most-preferred outcome. This is just not the way we do things. In a winner-take-all plurality winner electoral structure like we have both for the electoral college and almost all other elections in the U.S., there are only going to be 2 parties. This is called Duverger's Law (there are a couple of exceptions). In this situation voters should follow a risk-aversion strategy so that they can avoid their worst likely outcome (in this case Bush). To do otherwise is essentially to vote FOR your worst preferred outcome, which is basically irrational (like preferring lima beans to dirt and then eating dirt because you can't have ice cream).

Naderites have 2 potential responses to this. The first is that Gore and Bush were basically identical. Since there was little substantive differences between the parties, then why not vote your conscience as a protest, and also to pull the party to the left? Now this is just silly- the 2 parties are as ideologically polarized as they have ever been, and I would venture to say that no party since the southern slavocracy Democrats in the 1850's has been so much an enemy of liberalism (and sanity) as the contemporary Republican party. Recent history has borne out the massive differences between the parties. And these differences were apparent at the time to anyone willing to do the research. People who thought Gore and Bush were close were really just hoodwinked by the Bush campaign. Come on- did anyone on the left really think Bush was a "compassionate conservative"?

Secondly, I have yet to hear any specific policy positions were Greens and Dems really disagree. Both are pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-minority rights, have reservations about free trade, and are in favor of a restrained, multilateral foreign policy. They differ on the pace of change, not the direction.

The second Nader argument is that we should scrap the 2-party system and move to a genuine multiparty system like in Europe. This is only going to happen if we changed the electoral structure to a multi-member district proportional representation system. We could do this, of course- all it would take is change in state and federal law. The way we do it now is not in the constitution. So the 2 major parties would disaggregate into their constituent elements. You would christian, corporate and libertarian parties on the right, and civil liberties, environmental, and labor parties on the left.

This is a really, really bad idea. Anyone who has taken PoliSci 101 knows about how the separation of powers and checks and balances make it almost impossible to pass legislation. One of the few things that help you overcome gridlock is unified party control. What would happen if you overlaid a multiparty system on top of our legislative structure? People should know that Europe has basically unicameral systems, so the checks and balances work themselves out when parties form coalitions after the election. So we would be adding ANOTHER layer of checks and balances onto an already unwieldly system. And you know what? This would just benefit the right, not the left, since they right is full of people who are already benefiting from the current social arrangements, and it would be easier for them to play us off against each other. So to really go multi-party, you'd have to abolish the Presidency and the Senate. Good luck with that.

Finally, 3rd parties are just unnecessary. In one sense, we already have a multi-party system. Both parties are coalitions of what would be separate parties in Europe. In Europe, the ally after the elections. And it's almost always coalitions of the right or left, just like here. Here we do it before the elections and on a more permanent basis, giving the alliance a brand name. You would still have give and take between factions over policy, so I'm not sure what you'd gain. Also, the voters would have to vote for a party rather than a person, which they may not like doing.

Finally, if someone does have a distinct position they are pushing, it makes more sense to mobilize within one of the two pre-existing parties. You can contest primaries and maybe get your faction the nomination. Even if you lose, if you do well enough the nominee will have to meet you part of the way. And a faction gains tons of influence when they deliver votes and activists. Just look at the labor movement or the religious conservatives. They could have formed their own parties, but they took the smarter path and now have tremendous influence within the major parties. If Nader had been serious, he would have challenged Gore or Kerry in the primaries and then he would have had credibility for himself and his movement. But I don't think Nader is serious.

Which brings me to the saddest thing about the Greens. You have all these passionate, committed liberal activists whose program has been so much wasted effort. If they'd had better leadership, then they would already be major players. Hopefully they'll learn their lesson.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:43 AM

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The Veepstakes

Friday, May 28, 2004
Okay, I'll bite. It seems to be an obligation of every political analyst (or wannabe) to comment on who Kerry should select as his running mate. First, let's run down a list of the potential candidates:

John Edwards
Dick Gephardt
John McCain
Bob Graham
Wesley Clark
Janet Napolitano
Kathleen Sebelius
Bill Richardson

There are probably others, but these are the major candidates as far as I can see. I'll take them in order

John Edwards: Performed well in the primaries. A charasmatic candidate with a good populist message and a good choice if you're looking for regional balance. Also, he's from a pretty big state (North Carolina has 15 electoral votes). He also scrupulously avoided criticizing Kerry. On the minus side, he might have too much charisma for Kerry (making the latter look bad by comparison). Being from the Senate might be a liability (too much Washington-insider stuff), but he doesn't have a long tenure in that body, so that might not hurt much. Unfortunately, that inexperience might hurt a bit in this election (which is a big reason why he lost the primaries). He's only been in politics for 6 yearss. But the biggest potential problem is that he would have a hard time carrying the state for Kerry- it isn't even clear that Edwards could have kept his seat if he'd run for re-election. And I'm not sure how much he lets us cut into the Republican lock in the South. On balance probably a good choice, and clearly a popular one among the Democratic rank-and-file.

Dick Gephardt: I love Dick Gephardt's background, experience, and populism. He also might help us pick up Missouri. The biggest problem with him, however, is precisely that experience. If Gephardt is the VP nominee, a lot of people will just yawn. More dangerously, a Kerry-Gephardt ticket would reinforce the image of being a party of Washington insiders. And I hate to say this, but there are a whole lot of people in Washington who are sick and tired of Gephardt and blame him for the trouble the D's have had recovering the House. And a lot of people outside Washington view him as exhibit A of how the Democratic party in Congress has been hoodwinked and bullied by the Republicans. But he is probably the safest choice- he's a known commodity.

John McCain: This is more a press-driven story than anything else. They love the guy, and it is clear that McCain is pretty pissed at the Bushies. I believe McCain when he says that he wouldn't take the job. But let's just say that he would. It would win us Arizona (up to 10 electoral votes), consolidate Kerry's grip on independents and even cut into some Republicans. It would also be a war hero ticket, which doesn't hurt. But I'm just not crazy about having an anti-environmental anti-choice Veep. I can imagine the Republicans pointing to all the things they disagree on. Finally, I'm afraid McCain is in a similar position to that of Robert Kennedy in 1967- he's effective as long as he isn't running, because as soon as he announces, it becomes all about revenge. Frankly I think McCain does us more good criticizing the Bush administration from within the Republican party, a lot like Perot helped Clinton in 1992 by doing all the dirty work for us.

Bob Graham: A nice man and proven vote-getter in Florida, the nation's premier swing state. He also has foreign policy experience and was a forceful and able critic of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. But man is this guy a snoozer!

Wesley Clark: An all-military ticket, and from the south. I really don't know effective a campaigner this guy is, and like Edwards I'm not sure what he really brings to the electoral table. Is this guy really ready for prime time? He wasn't really vetted in the primaries.

Janet Napolitano: A woman, which is fun. From Arizona, a swing state. But what kind of candidate is she?

Kathleen Sebelius: Also a woman, and also an unknown, but not from a swing state, so no electoral college gains. If you have to pick one of the other, I'd say go with Janet, although I don't know a lot about either.

Bill Richardson: In my humble opinion the no-brainer choice for VP. Upsides? This guy is Mr. Upside. He's Latino, which will solidify our position with one of the most critical constituencies. He's from the Southwest, which is a swing region. He would secure New Mexico, which is small, but he also might help in Colorado and Arizona, which totals up to 24 electoral college votes. His Latinity (Is that a word? And hy is it "Latino" anyway? Aren't the French and Italians Latino too?) might also help in Florida, which is obviously nice. And there's an obvious thematic bonus- securing the American Dream, with Richardson an obvious example of its success, and then a segue into how we need to preserve it for the future and how the Republicans are squandering that legacy.

But there's more than that with Richardson. He's Latino, but he's not a strictly ethnic candidate. He's very personable, folksy, and someone you can imagine having a beer with, which is precisely the quality that Kerry lacks. He also is a Governor, so no insider problem. But he's a Governor with tons of experience from many years in the Congress, and even foreign policy credentials as U.N. ambassador. I am positively salivating at the prospect of a VP debate in which Richardson asks Cheney if they're so good at foreign policy, why did the Bush administration had to come begging to Richardson to help them out on North Korea?

And even if we lose the election (egads I hope not), we have set up a prominent Hispanic for national politics. I just don't see the downside. So we should just ignore the governor's statements he doesn't want the job- he can win us the election we have to win, and if LBJ couldn't say no, neither can he.

Just my opinion.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:43 AM

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The Imperial Mirage

Thursday, May 27, 2004
It is easy to criticize the pursuit of empire in the Bush administration. Easy, but worthwhile. It is important not just to point out the imperial dreams of the neoconservatives. For a lot of people, the word "empire" doesn't conjure up much more than Darth Vader and Great Britain. It is important to talk about why empire is so fundamentally repugnant to the American vision of the world and our ourselves.

I think Al Gore's speech yesterday is important in this regard. He talked a lot about domination, and the effect that domination has not only on its victims but on its perpetrators. It is an unfortunate but valuable truth that Lincoln's criticism of slavery was most persuasive to his contemporaries not in its compassion for the enslaved, but in arguing what enslaving others would do to us. Iraq has become a breeding ground for tyrants as well as terrorists. Domination is the utter opposite of liberty, which is why you cannot dream dreams of regional or global hegemony while doing so in the name of liberty.

Gore Vidal is not one of my favorite thinkers, but he made a telling point when he said that America was born trying to become Greece and ended up Rome. It might be more accurate to say that we began as the Roman Republic and are in danger of becoming the Roman Empire. I've never been very interested in how empires fall- they are all structures of oppression and therefore not very interesting for a democrat. But the Roman Republic was like us in many ways. They fell because of consitutional rigidity, ferocious political conflict, and the erosion of its middle class at the hands of ambitious and ruthless proto-capitalists who cloaked themselves in military glory and religion.

Let's not make their mistakes.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:40 AM

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Second Time Farce

Wednesday, May 26, 2004
While the real trick is learning from the mistakes of others, it remains important to learn from our own. This is one of the reasons why the last three and half years have been so frustrating. The Bush administration appears intent on reproducing every calamity this country has experienced over the last several decades. A foolhardy quagmire of a war half a world away conducted on false pretenses (Vietnam), an irresponsible fiscal policy (Reagan), a prolonged jobless recovery (the Bush I recession), rising oil prices (70's oil shock- just wait), an ethically challenged Imperial President (Nixon), a dirty presidential campaign that pits Americans against one another (Bush 1988), etc. Of course, if Bush is re-elected and the Republicans retain control of Congress, there is unlikely to be another Watergate. But if Kerry wins and the Republicans keep Congress, I'm sure we'll be treated to an impeachment of some kind.

This situation reminds me very much of those people who date the same sorts of abusive people over and over and over again.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:38 AM

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