I saw a bit of Obama's speech in Iowa a few minutes ago, and it reminded me of the micro-debate over whether Obama knows how to craft a public narrative. I think the answer is clearly yes: it's just not the one that his lefty critics want him to craft. Obama was moderately tough sounding today, and he was clearly trying to relate his policy proposals to jobs jobs jobs, but at the same time he's sticking to his guns on his master narrative. It's all about Obama being the grown-up in the room and the squabbling kids in Congress needing to put "country ahead of party" for once in their misbegotten lives.

That's not a popular message among the progressive base, but it's obvious that Obama doesn't care. He's doubling down on this narrative, with jobs added on as the overlay of the moment. Nonetheless, employment is plainly not his main theme even if it permeates everything he says. Persuading the public that he's a sober, serious guy who's fit to be president is. He's running against Teh Crazy, not against Mitt Romney or Rick Perry.

On the campaign trail this weekend, Rick Perry was bragging about the medical malpractice reform that Texas adopted a few years ago. That's something we can expect to hear a lot more about, so here's a little story from a piece I wrote in 2007 at the Washington Monthly:

Like many Texans, Alvin Berry voted Yes on Proposition 12, a 2003 initiative that limited pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice suits. “I think there are too many frivolous lawsuits,” he told Texas Monthly reporter Mimi Swartz.

But then Berry suffered some malpractice of his own: a doctor who ignored a set of plainly dangerous lab results for months. When the doctor finally ordered a biopsy, he discovered that Berry had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones in 20 places. He gave Berry five years to live.

Unlike Jordan Fogal, Berry had the right to go to court. In theory, anyway. In practice, as his lawyer explained to him, it’s now usually an exercise in futility. Because of the new damage caps, it’s not worth it for lawyers to take anything but the most slam-dunk cases. What’s more, even if you can find a lawyer to represent you, insurance companies have very little incentive to settle since their losses are limited by law. Thus, between court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other expenses, Berry would be lucky to recover $75,000. Maybe not even that much. Given that reality, was he really willing to sign up for two years of litigation? Most people aren’t.

This is the key to damage caps, the worst possible kind of medmal reform because it affects only the biggest, most serious cases of malpractice, not the frivolous little suits. $250,000 may sound like a fair chunk of change, but the fact is that the cost of mounting a case is expensive enough that it's barely worthwhile for a lawyer to bother. Unless there are also some pretty hefty economic damages — and for retired people there usually aren't since they don't have much in the way of lost income to claim — most suits just don't get filed no matter how justified they are.

But hey — maybe in Texas they're willing to swallow some tough medicine in order to tackle a big problem. Unfortunately, as Aaron Carroll repeats today, Proposition 12 solved nothing. Malpractice payouts may have gone down, but the extra money seems to have gone mostly into the pockets of insurance companies. The cost of healthcare hasn't gone down, the cost of healthcare insurance hasn't gone down, the number of people with healthcare insurance hasn't gone up, and doctors haven't come flocking to Texas. Prop 12 has helped insurance companies (who support Republicans) and hurt trial lawyers (who support Democrats), and that's about it.

But since that what it was really designed for, I guess you'd have to call it a success.

POSTSCRIPT: California, where I live, also has damage caps. In fact, we've had them since 1975, so there's a pretty long baseline of data to judge whether they've worked. They haven't. See here and here for more.

A friend emails to say he's sick and tired of Rick Perry and wants me to write a post about the first non-Perry item that comes up in my RSS feed. Fine. But who to choose? One potato, two potato, I haven't linked to Modeled Behavior for a while, so let's see what's up there. Sadly, their top post right now is about Rick Perry. But the next post down is from Karl Smith:

I am short. My wife is short. Chances are my son will be short. Here’s a question – why?

At this point in human history, height in the Western world is mostly genetically determined. Yet, as far as I can tell the advantages to having tall genes outweigh those to having short.

Even in a preindustrial environment this seems to be true. This is likely why taller people, especially men are more attractive and have higher status.

So, why did genetic shortness persist?

Hmmm. What kind of ill-informed ev psych speculation can I offer up here? Maybe shortness isn't especially maladaptive. Maybe the big, tall cavemen all went chasing after the saber-tooth tigers and got eaten while the short guys ran away to live another day. Or maybe the short guys, being less sexually attractive, had to develop a better line of patter and became more socially adept? Or maybe agility and climbing ability are as important as speed and strength. Perhaps the little guys tended to stay at home and help with the farming instead of going out on hunts, thus providing lots of opportunities for afternoon quickies while Og was away? Or maybe shortness genes were all conserved via women, for whom it was an advantage?

Hell, I don't know. So let's get back to Rick Perry. Authoritative information on his height is surprisingly hard to come by, but in this picture he's pretty close to standing up straight and looks to be about six feet tall or maybe a little under — but in any case clearly a bit shorter than Barack Obama. (Perry is also about six feet wide, but that doesn't matter.) Since it's widely known that the taller candidate usually wins in a presidential contest, this makes Perry a pretty chancy GOP opponent for Obama. Mitt Romney is 6' 2", which makes him a safer alpha male bet for Republicans. And pipsqueak Michele Bachmann is obviously doomed. So I'll stick with Romney as the favorite to win the Republican nomination this year.

The LA Times investigates the big-money culture of Texas politics, which has gotten even bigger and money-er since Rick Perry became governor:

Perry has received a total of $37 million over the last decade from just 150 individuals and couples, who are likely to form the backbone of his new effort to win the Republican presidential nomination....Nearly half of those mega-donors received hefty business contracts, tax breaks or appointments under Perry, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Perry, campaigning Monday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, declined to comment when asked how he separated the interests of his donors from the needs of his state. His aides vigorously dispute that his contributors received any perks. "They get the same thing that all Texans get," said spokesman Mark Miner.

Nearly half! And this doesn't even include anything about David Nance and the largesse Perry distributes via his $200 million state-managed venture capital slush fund. Doling out political favors in industrial quantities is obviously something that isn't frowned upon by Texas political culture, and Perry has taken it to whole new levels.

Still, as long as all these good 'ol boys get all the same stuff that all Texans get, I guess it's OK.

Via Stuart Staniford, here's a chart showing the latest figures for total outstanding household debt as a percent of disposable personal income. Bottom line: American families are still heavily overleveraged, and it doesn't look like we're going to get back down to pre-bubble levels until 2015 or 2016. Stuart's conclusions:

  • US household deleveraging is a slow, painful, but orderly process.
  • It's likely to continue for a number of years more.
  • It's a drag on growth but is not going to cause the end of the world as we know it.  

Generally speaking, blogging is like shouting into a hurricane: it might make you feel better, but hardly anyone hears you and it rarely has any real-world impact. Still, every once in a while something you write makes a teensy tiny bit of difference. So this email made my day:

I was at the Iowa State Fair today and caught Rick Perry's speech. He started talking about this stupid new regulation that would require farmers to get commercial drivers licenses if they drive their tractors across the road. I remember reading about this very issue on your blog so I yelled "That's not true" a couple of times (as can barely be heard on the video at the link) and later asked the Des Moines Register's political editor to fact check the story.

I exchanged emails with her tonight and she sent me a link to their story. So thank you for empowering Iowans like me to challenge the presidential candidates who keep coming to our state.

OK, it's not a lot. But in the fight against dumb right-wing urban legends, every little bit counts.

From Rick Perry, revving up an Iowa crowd about the treachery of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke:

If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in history is almost treasonous in my opinion.

I guess this kind of pseudo-populist buffoonery goes down well with the tea partiers. But I really have a hard time believing that it impresses much of anyone else, no matter which party they belong to.

Several people today, after combing through Rick Perry's book, have noted his peculiar dislike of the 17th Amendment. In case you're a little fuzzy on which amendment is which, this is not the one that implemented the income tax. It's the one that mandated the direct election of senators, instead of having them appointed by state legislatures. That's right: Perry is opposed to electing senators. 

At this point you're probably shaking your head. Where the hell did that come from? Answer: as I learned while I was researching my piece on the tea party last year, it has a long pedigree. Here is Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, writing in 1966 about the Master Conspiracy threatening the United States and the world:

The direct election of senators was of tremendously more importance than was realized when the Seventeenth Amendment was adopted in 1913. For as long as the senators for any state had been elected by the legislature of that state, they clearly represented the state itself as a sovereign entity within a federal union, and not just the citizens of the United States within certain boundaries....The Insiders, however wanted gradually and eventually to bring a concentration of all governmental power into the hands of the executive department of one central government. And the direct election of senators was actually their first huge legalistic step in that direction.

I don't know if there was an anti-17th Amendment movement prior to Welch. I'm not aware of one. But at the very least, it was a mainstay of the John Birch Society as far back as the 60s and it's popped up periodically on the fringe of movement conservatism ever since. In the 80s, W. Cleon Skousen, a big early influence on the JBS and later a big influence on Glenn Beck, began pitching repeal of the 17th Amendment again, and a few years after that Ron Paul took up the banner. Former Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia introduced a bill in 2004 to repeal the amendment, and in 2009 repeal became a talking point among the tea party crowd. Now Rick Perry is on board.

So it's not quite as odd as it sounds. Or maybe I should say, it's every bit as odd as it sounds. But it's nothing new. Just a minor part of the same old Kool-Aid the hard-right fringe has been serving up for decades.

Roger Simon writes today that Ron Paul got "shafted" by the media because he got no credit for his second-place finish in the Ames straw poll:

“Close” does not fully describe Paul’s second-place finish. Paul lost to Bachmann by nine-tenths of one percentage point, or 152 votes out of 16,892 cast.

....Any fair assessment of Ames, therefore, would have said the winds of the Republican Party are blowing toward both Bachmann and Paul. Nonsense, some would say. Straw polls are just organized bribery, with the campaigns buying the tickets and distributing them to supporters. (And, in fact, this is what I wrote before Ames.)

What they really show, many argue, is not where the philosophical heart of the party is, but the organizational abilities of the candidates. Fine, I’ll buy that. But why didn’t Paul get the same credit for his organizational abilities as Bachmann did for hers?

I'm really tired of nonsense like this. Ron Paul isn't getting any attention because he doesn't deserve any attention, and Simon knows it. Paul has a small but fervent fan base that hasn't grown noticeably since he ran and flamed out in 2008, and he has a well-known (but meaningless) ability to fire up this little fan base for assorted minor events like this. That's his organizational ability and everyone is keenly aware of it. At the presidential level, he deserves about as much respect as Harold Stassen.

The media gets lots of stuff wrong, but not this. On the importance of Ron Paul in the Republican race for president, they've called it exactly right.

Over the next few months we're going to be treated to an endless slew of articles about Rick Perry that treat him as just another normal, garden variety presidential candidate. It's going to be a master class in how fast the bar of crazy can get lowered.

Ditto for Michele Bachmann, who was universally considered a wild-eyed bombthrower just a few short years ago, but is now talked about in the sober tones of poll matchups, caucus votes, and winning coalitions. So just to remind everyone of what was common knowledge back in the halcyon days of — well, 2010, I guess, here are a couple of new profiles of Bachmann. Tim Murphy tells her life story in MoJo this month:

Since her election to Congress in 2006, Bachmann has earned a reputation as one of the lower chamber's biggest bomb throwers. She has accused the president of harboring "anti-American" views, warned that census data could be used to round up dissenters into internment camps, and declared that the Treasury Department is quietly planning on replacing the dollar with a global currency. To her critics, Bachmann is flat-out crazy, a purveyor of, as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it, "psycho talk."

....In Washington, Bachmann has shown no signs of letting up; if anything, the stakes have gotten even higher and the nation, under the stewardship of President Obama, has careened that much further along the road to ruin. She's made her mark by framing her opponents' views in the most dire terms—charging that the Obama administration would deny conservatives health care, and that AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps' domestic equivalent, is a forerunner for "reeducation camps for young people." To Bachmann, the Obama administration is a "gangster government," unmoored entirely from the biblically supported constitutionalism she's espoused since her Oral Roberts days. Her rigid conservative dogma, an outlier at the outset of her first congressional campaign, has set the tone for the 112th Congress.

And Michelle Goldberg sounds the alarm on the doctrine of Dominionism that animates both Bachmann and Rick Perry:

Put simply, Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. Originating among some of America’s most radical theocrats, it’s long had an influence on religious-right education and political organizing. But because it seems so outré, getting ordinary people to take it seriously can be difficult. Most writers, myself included, who explore it have been called paranoid.

....We have not seen this sort of thing at the highest levels of the Republican Party before. Those of us who wrote about the Christian fundamentalist influence on the Bush administration were alarmed that one of his advisers, Marvin Olasky, was associated with Christian Reconstructionism. It seemed unthinkable, at the time, that an American president was taking advice from even a single person whose ideas were so inimical to democracy. Few of us imagined that someone who actually championed such ideas would have a shot at the White House. It turns out we weren’t paranoid enough. If Bush eroded the separation of church and state, the GOP is now poised to nominate someone who will mount an all-out assault on it. We need to take their beliefs seriously, because they certainly do.

Read 'em both. And weep.