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What on Earth Happened in Alaska?

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 9:34 AM EST

Is something fishy going on in Alaska?

In the state's single House seat, embattled and federally investigated Republican incumbent Don Young was slated to lose 50.4-44.0 (by an average of the polls). Instead, he won 52-44, an Election Day swing of more than 14 points.

In the state's Senate seat, embattled and federally convicted Republican incumbent Ted Stevens was predicted to lose his seat 47.9-43.5 (again, by an average of the polls). Leading Republicans, including the GOP presidential candidate and the Senate Minority Leader, said Stevens should resign. Harry Reid warned that he may be expelled from the Senate if he were to win. Yet, Stevens appears to be leading 48-47 as vote counting concludes. That's a election day swing of 5.5 points, in the face of all expectations.

And then consider this, from the Washington Post:

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Transition Rumint: Security Posts

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 8:57 AM EST

As advisors to President-Elect Obama move swiftly into transition mode, speculation on possible appointments is heightened while those under consideration for the jobs have gone quiet. But here are some names I am hearing and reading for national security posts:

James Steinberg, the highly regarded former Clinton-era deputy national security advisor, is being considered for national security advisor. Long time Obama national security advisor Susan Rice, Clinton's former assistant secretary of state for Africa, is being considered for deputy national security advisor, as well as for US ambassador to the UN. Top NSC appointment announcements could come as early as today, and other White House appointments would be announced after that.

For top jobs at State, the short list includes Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb, ret.), Richard Lugar (R-IN) (all moderate colleagues of Obama and VP-elect Joseph Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), former Clinton-era Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke, and retired Marine Corps General and Mideast envoy James L. Jones, who is likely to get a top job in the administration elsewhere if not at State. Deputy Secretary of State could go to Greg Craig, a former counselor to President Clinton.

At the Defense Department, conventional wisdom has it that the top job is Robert Gates' if he will keep it, at least initially, and that Clinton's well respected former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig could come in as deputy. Other people named as contenders for top Defense Department posts include former Pentagon officials Ashton Carter, a big-think arms control hand who has arm wrestled with Pyongyang and negotiated post-Soviet nuclear issues and now teaches at Harvard, Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, co-founders of the new think tank, the Center for a New American Security, whose ranks are likely to provide additional security brainpower to the new administration, along with security and regional experts and staff from other think tanks, academe, and the Hill. Former Georgia Democratic Senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, a member of the 9/11 commission, is reportedly under consideration to become Secretary of the Army.

Rumored contenders for top intelligence posts include Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the high-powered former ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who is also interested in heading the bureaucratically-challenged Department of Homeland Security (see my recent profile), and former top CIA official John Brennan, who has served as an intelligence advisor to Obama. Other intel posts could be filled by this team.

Worth noting that news video of Obama going into his first intelligence briefing yesterday showed him accompanied by Steinberg, former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta (who has indicated he does not want an administration job), and the Obama campaign's foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough. It's likely that Obama would want to have been accompanied by his would-be national security advisor, presumably Steinberg.

We'll know soon enough, and there are bound to be surprises. But given the stakes of a war-time transition and the signs of new life after the fatigue of covering the late term Bush administration foreign policy, speculation on these posts is hard to resist.

Obama's Constitution

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 1:54 AM EST

OBAMA'S CONSTITUTION....I don't expect to hear anything about this stuff soon from the Obama team, but I hope they don't put off for too long making some explicit statements about:

  • Domestic surveillance/warrantless wiretapping

  • Guantanamo

  • Torture policy/adherence to Geneva conventions

  • Signing statements

  • Military tribunals

Let's call this the "shredding the constitution" file. Or, more hopefully, the "putting the constitution back together" file. The first two items in particular are going to be especially tough for Obama. He's almost certainly going to be told in no uncertain terms by men wearing dark suits and penetrating stares that the wiretapping program has produced reams of actionable intelligence and that cutting it back will endanger American security. And those sentiments won't stay private. They'll be leaked to plenty of friendly reporters if Obama orders the program modified anyway. We can expect some major political firestorms over this.

Guantanamo, if anything, will be even harder. I'm not talking here about Guantanamo the place. The prison itself can be pretty easily moved elsewhere. I'm talking about Guantanamo the problem: namely, what do you do with the remaining detainees there? Battlefield conditions being what they are, it's almost a certainty that the evidence against many of the prisoners — including some of the genuinely dangerous ones — is far too weak to withstand any kind of dispassionate tribunal. But if that means some of them get released, where do they get released to? Kansas City? It's not as if there's another country in the world that will take them, after all.

But we can't keep surveilling American citizens forever and we can't continue to keep prisoners locked up based merely on rumors and hearsay (or confessions extracted by torture). I don't expect Obama to clean this stuff up on his first day in office, but here's hoping that the constitutional law professor doesn't wait too long. It would be nice to have our country back again.

Droughts Destroy Dynasties

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 12:51 AM EST

400px-Drought.jpg Chinese history is replete with the rise and fall of dynasties. New research identifies a natural phenomenon behind at least three of the downfalls—the weakening of the summer Asian Monsoon. The same problem may be afflicting northern China now.

Summer monsoon winds originate in the Indian Ocean and sweep into China. When the monsoon is strong, it pushes farther into northwest China. The new research found a strong summer monsoon prevailed during at least one of China's golden ages, the Northern Song Dynasty, when rice first became China's main crop and China's population doubled. Weak summer monsoons coincided with drought in the northwest and the increasing civil unrest that unraveled the Tang, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.

The droughts were deciphered from layers of stone in a 1,810-year-old, 4.5-inch long stalagmite from Gansu Province, China. Measurements of uranium and thorium revealed the date each layer was formed. Analysis of two forms of oxygen were used to match those measurements to low rainfall dates. Prior to this research no one expected that a record of surface weather would be preserved in underground cave deposits.

Viva Obama

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 12:43 AM EST

VIVA OBAMA....Great moments from the annals of debate prep:

For the second debate, a town-hall format, Obama was told to be careful to hold the mike by his side — not straight up in his lap — when he sat down. The same instructions had been given to John Kerry four years ago. It wasn't hard to persuade the candidates to mind the advice, said an aide; all you had to do was show them a video.

Roger that.

Raw Data

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 7:03 PM EST

RAW DATA....Via Steve Benen, Steve Waldman says that Obama has shrunk the God gap:

Obama got 43% of weekly church-goers vs. 55% for McCain. In 2004, Bush got 61% vs. 39% for Kerry. What this means is that Bush beat Kerry by roughly 27 million among weekly churchgoers, and McCain beat Obama by only 15 million — a stunning 12 million person shift.

Hold on a second. I made a pain in the ass of myself over this subject in 2004, and I'm going to do the same thing this year.

First things first. In 2004, Kerry lost to Bush nationwide by 2.4 percentage points. In 2008, Obama beat McCain by 6.3 percentage points. That's a swing of about 9 points nationwide, which means that any group that also swung by 9 points in Obama's favor was doing nothing except following the national trend.

So how about those churchgoers? They went from -22 for Kerry to -12 for Obama. That's a swing of ten points, almost identical to the nationwide swing in Obama's favor. Weekly churchgoers just didn't do anything unusual, which means there's no reason to think that Obama did anything special to appeal to them. More than likely, they voted for him in larger numbers this year for the same reason as everyone else: they were tired of Bush, tired of Republicans, and trusted Obama more in tough economic times. There's really no justification for a special narrative to explain those 12 million extra voters.

But as long as we're on the subject, which groups did Obama do especially well with? That is, which groups did he swing by margins substantially more than 9 points? Based on the 2004 and 2008 exit polls, here are the groups that swung in disproportionate numbers this year:

  • Income $200,000 or more (+34)

  • First-time voters (+33)

  • No high school (+27)

  • Latinos (+27)

  • 18-29 year olds (+25)

  • Under $15,000 (+21)

  • Full-time workers (+19)

  • Urban (+19)

  • Non-gun owners (+18)

  • Non-religious (+16)

  • Parents with children under 18 (+16)

The swing in first-time voters (which overlaps heavily with 18-29 year olds) and Latinos was especially stunning. Also worth noting, just because they're such obvious swing groups, are Obama's large gains among moderates (+12) and the unmarried (+14).

And which groups did Obama do substantially worse with than his overall national trend? Here they are:

  • Gay/lesbian (-11)

  • Last minute voters (-8)

  • Union members (0)

  • "Other" religions (0)

  • Gun owners (+2)

  • White women (+4)

  • 45-59 year olds (+4)

Gays and last-minute deciders are the only groups where Obama performed worse than Kerry. The other five are groups where he did better than Kerry, but not by as much as he did with the country as a whole.

I don't have any special narratives or analysis to offer for any of this. Maybe later. For now, it's just raw data for your noodling pleasure.

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The Hidden Cameras' Anti-Marriage Sentiments Way Ahead of Their Time

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 6:07 PM EST

mojo-photo-hiddencameras.jpgLike Jonathan, I'm profoundly disappointed about the apparent passage of California's Proposition 8. While he managed to look to the future, reminding us that this is a battle we'll eventually win, I'm ticked off right now, sick of having nuptials dangled in our face only to be snatched away again, pissed off that people get to vote on this. My fellow angry queers and sympathetic straights are already proposing a radical solution: ban marriage entirely. That seems like a fine idea to me--plus, if the movement takes off, we'll have a theme song all ready to go! Back in 2003, Canadian combo The Hidden Cameras released a wildly underappreciated album called The Smell of Our Own. The music was a celebratory cross between the Polyphonic Spree, the Magnetic Fields, and Neutral Milk Hotel, but lyrically, they crossed even more boundaries, refusing to hide their sexuality behind coy double-entendres or bland generalities. The song "Ban Marriage" whips the musicians into an uptempo frenzy, but the lyrics are complex, with the protagonist's wedding to another man disrupted by cries "to let coupledom die." Is it an anti-assimilation tirade in defense of promiscuity, a dream of equality, or an expression of hopeless isolation? Whatever it really means, it's great, and its joyous three-chord pattern is helping calm my fury. But you breeders aren't getting any more wedding presents from me until we get this shit worked out, I'll tell you that right now.

Video of a live show after the jump.

Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 6:05 PM EST

KEVIN DRUM SMACKDOWN WATCH....Felix Salmon says we shouldn't be demonizing credit default swaps as the source of our recent financial turbulence. Earlier this morning I said I wasn't so sure about that. Today Salmon responds, and he starts out strong:

Add Kevin Drum to those who think that a bit of CDS demonization is not such a bad thing at all. Unfortunately, he's a bit shaky on the facts....

Sigh. Story of my life when it comes to the credit crisis. Salmon's response is too long to excerpt, so click the link and read it. I find it disturbingly persuasive, especially this part, which is something I've been wondering about too:

It's not surprising that CDS desks haven't lost a lot of money, because CDS, like all derivatives, are a zero-sum game.

Well, yeah, what about that? Mortgage losses are absolute: if a homeowner defaults, then the noteholder loses a lot of money and nobody else makes any. But derivative trades always have two sides, so if banks have lost jillions of dollars on derivative speculation then there ought to be a whole lot of people licking their chops right now in anticipation jillions of dollars in gains. But as Salmon says, that doesn't seem to be the case. So maybe that means there aren't a lot of losses?

So....I dunno. As always, it bugs the hell out of me that there's so much disagreement even about things that strike a layman like me as fairly basic. I mean, recently the Minneapolis Fed published a paper saying that the credit markets were actually in fine shape, and a few days later the Boston Fed published a paper saying they were all wet. Hell's bells. A bunch of Fed economists can't even agree on something as basic as whether credit is contracting? WTF?

In the same way, I guess we really don't know how big the losses have been in derivative speculation related to the subprime crash — which, of course, isn't a bad argument for making derivative trades a little more transparent in the first place. In the meantime, though, I'd sure like to hear some other experts respond to Salmon's points about the CDS market. His arguments seem well formed to me, but then, if I was wrong once I could be wrong again, couldn't I? Are there any finance gurus out there to dive into this?

Video Roundup: M.I.A., R.E.M., Coldcut, Daniel Owino Misiani

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 2:55 PM EST

mojo-photo-viddies110608.jpg

M.I.A. featuring Blaqstarr – "S.U.S. (Save UR Soul)"

First up, via Boing Boing comes this homemade clip produced and directed by the apparently-now-big-as-a-house M.I.A., made to accompany her and Blaqstarr's cover of Tom Waits' "Way Down In the Hole," the theme song to HBO's The Wire. Even though it uses the simplest of plug-and-play B-more beats and a single, ominous chord repeated over and over, it's got that old M.I.A. magic.

R.E.M. – "I Believe" (Live in Santiago)

If you couldn't be at the election night celebration in Grant Park, perhaps the second most fun place to be would have been an R.E.M. concert in Santiago, and Stereogum's got the video. The band's manager came out on stage with his laptop displaying the Huffington Post and announced the big news, and then Stipe and crew launched into "I Believe." Pretty cool.

Social Conservatism

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 2:40 PM EST

SOCIAL CONSERVATISM....David Frum on the future of the Republican Party:

Since 1988, Democrats have become more conservative on economics — and Republicans more conservative on social issues. College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats — but that their values are under threat from Republicans. There are more and more college-educated voters.

So the question for the GOP is: Will it pursue them? This will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. It will involve even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarising on social issues.

Greg Mankiw on why McCain lost the youth vote:

Recent conversations I have had with some Harvard undergrads have led me to a conjecture: It was largely noneconomic issues. These particular students told me they preferred the lower tax, more limited government, freer trade views of McCain, but they were voting for Obama on the basis of foreign policy and especially social issues like abortion. The choice of a social conservative like Palin as veep really turned them off McCain.

Ross Douthat is right to warn that Mankiw's students are hardly a representative sample, but I'll bet he's basically correct anyway. Four years ago the big post-election meme was a warning that Democrats needed to get more socially conservative, but that didn't happen and they won anyway. Social liberalism is actually (surprise!) pretty popular.

On the other hand, there's certainly a place in America for an economically conservative party. Republicans have gone overboard on this during the past decade, but they might be able to get by with only a modest course correction on this score. The financial meltdown won't last forever, after all. On social issues, though, they're doomed if they continue to hitch their future to the hard edged conservatism of their evangelical base. They've mostly won the battle on guns, but on issues like abortion, stem cells, gay rights, immigration, and the environment (which most people view as a lifestyle issue, not an economic issue) I don't see how they survive if they don't moderate their positions fairly dramatically. The GOP is in danger of permanently losing an entire cohort of the electorate if they continue to be perceived as a party in thrall to xenophobes, bluenoses, and tent revival preachers. They created James Dobson; now they need to tame him.