Kevin Drum - November 2010

Prop 19 Postmortem

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 4:29 PM EDT

I've been busy and only just now got around to looking at the final results for Prop 19, the California initiative to legalize marijuana. Here it is:

I know this won't be much solace to everyone who worked on Prop 19, but.....this isn't so bad, really. Given the automatic headwind of getting people to vote Yes on anything, the additional headwind of a big Republican turnout, plus the general nervousness that middle class people have about drugs, a loss this small is actually sort of encouraging. All we need to turn this around in a few years is for 4% of voters to change their minds.

What's more, the threat of Prop 19 passing probably helped to get the penalty for pot possession reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction. So now, on the off chance that you get caught with a small bag of weed, all you get is the equivalent of a traffic ticket. A lot of people think this reduced the incentive to vote for Prop 19 and thus helped to defeat it, and maybe it did (though I'm skeptical). But it still means we made progress. And we're not very far from making even more. Probably not in 2012, but I wouldn't be surprised if something similar to Prop 19 could pass by 2014 if the stars align favorably.

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QE2 Sails Into Port

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 1:47 PM EDT

Quantitative easing is officially here:

The Fed said it would buy an additional $600 billion in long-term Treasury securities by the end of June 2011, somewhat more than the $300 billion to $500 billion that many in the markets had expected.

The central bank said it would also continue its program, announced in August, of reinvesting proceeds from its mortgage-related holdings to buy Treasury debt. The Fed now expects to reinvest $250 billion to $300 billion under that program by the end of June, making the total asset purchases in the range of $850 billion to $900 billion.

I would like to feel optimistic about this. It's certainly better than nothing. I just wish that "better than nothing" weren't the best we could do at the moment.

Politicizing Climate Science

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

Can climate scientists confine themselves solely to analytical judgments about global warming and steer clear of politics entirely? This is what Judith Curry advocates, but Dave Roberts thinks it just isn't possible in the real world:

I'm not talking about climate sensitivities or hurricane frequency or sea-level projections or other areas of active scientific disputation. I'm talking about whether human beings are driving changes in the climate. That question is simply not in serious dispute in the relevant scientific disciplines....Yet Republicans have now made rejection of that root scientific consensus a litmus test, in keeping with their decades-long assault on America's institutions. Virtually every Republican candidate for Congress has denied the most rudimentary facts about climate change.

Yes, Democrats mangle climate science sometimes too. Activists can exaggerate the degree of certainty behind model projections. Scientists can be unduly dismissive of critics. Nobody is blameless. But there is simply nothing on the left (or in the center, or in professional science) remotely equivalent to the anti-intellectualism that reaches to the very top of the Republican Party.

Conservatives are politicizing climate science. Curry is uncomfortable saying that; it sounds like "getting involved in politics."....But the fact remains: Even if climate scientists confine their comments purely to what's known with a high degree of probability, with all the uncertainties baked right in, staying scrupulously clear of policy or ethical judgments, they will still find themselves aligned against the conservative movement and they will be attacked. Republicans slander peer review, science funding, scientific institutions, and scientists themselves. "Both sides" don't do that. Just the right side.

Obviously this puts climate scientists in a difficult position. As pure scientists they may want to avoid making policy pronouncements, but they also have a legitimate interest in making sure that overreliance on nuance doesn't swamp understanding of their basic conclusion. And their basic conclusion is that greenhouse gases are warming the globe, quite possibly in a catastrophic way. When one side in the debate considers a simple analytical judgment like that to be de facto politicization, that makes it impossible to avoid politicization no matter what you do. So what's a scientist to do?

Pundit Alert

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 11:52 AM EDT

Beware of pundits today. Here is Politico on the fate of House Democrats who voted for the climate bill:

Nearly 30 (and counting) who cast ‘aye’ votes for Waxman-Markey were swept away on Tuesday’s anti-incumbent wave. The casualties ranged from 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher to freshman lawmakers like Betsy Markey, Mark Schauer and Tom Perriello.

But as Kate Sheppard tweets:

Looks like 25 of the 42 Dems who voted against the climate bill lost their seats today. #thatworkedoutwell

Italics mine. Likewise, a bunch of progressive Dems like Tom Periello lost their races, but as Glenn Greenwald points out:

Half of the Blue Dog incumbents were defeated, and by themselves accounted for close to half of the Democratic losses....For slothful pundits who want to derive sweeping meaning from individual races in order to blame the Left and claim that last night was a repudiation of liberalism, the far more rational conclusion — given the eradication of 50% of the Blue Dog caucus — is that the worst possible choice Democrats can make is to run as GOP-replicating corporatists devoted above all else to serving corporate interests in order to perpetuate their own power: what Washington calls "centrists" and "conservative Democrats." That is who bore the bulk of the brunt of last night's Democratic bloodbath — not liberals.

As it happens, I don't buy Glenn's analysis here. Parties win big majorities by nominating moderates who can win in swing districts. Inevitably, when the other party wins, they're going to do it primarily by winning in those exact same swing districts. Being a moderate in a swing district is just a dangerous place to be, full stop.

Still, his broad point is well taken. Liberals lost some seats, Blue Dogs lost some seats. Dems who voted for the climate bill lost some seats, Dems who voted against the climate bill lost some seats. In the House, Democrats just lost a lot of seats. So far, the most persuasive explanation I've seen that goes beyond structural issues is displayed in the chart on the right, from Ezra Klein. Basically, turnout among the young was way down and turnout among the old was way up. We'll need to see raw turnout numbers compared to 2006 to really get the whole story here, but at first glance it looks like young people were discouraged and old people were fired up, and that made most of the difference. For non-lazy pundits, the next question is to ask why that happened. At a first guess, I'd say lack of Obamamania among the young and relentless Medicare demagoguery among the old. But for now, those are just guesses. The key is to find out which groups swung toward Republicans in greater numbers than the average swing, and the only way to do that is to look pretty carefully at the exit poll numbers. I'll try to get around to that later today.

California's Insanity

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Just a quick California note. On Tuesday, following our habit of the past few decades, we approved Proposition 22, which limits the ways the legislature can allocate property tax funds, and Proposition 26, which essentially eliminates the legislature's ability to levy new fees on businesses. Today, we will undoubtedly return to our usual hobby of yelling and screaming that the legislature isn't doing enough to balance the budget and make government work. For the past 30 years, in election after election, we have relentlessly reduced Sacramento's ability to raise money at the same time that we've piled on an endless series of new spending requirements — and as the cherry on top, insisted that this citizen-created circle be squared by a bunch of term-limited amateurs who have no idea how the machinery of the state really works. And then we wonder why things aren't going so well.

We are insane.

(And in case you're wondering, this is why I don't really care much that Proposition 19 failed. Legalized pot might be nice, but we've got way bigger things to worry about here.)

Tea Party High, Tea Party Low

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

At the moment, it looks like the senate seat in Colorado is going to go Democratic. If it does, the tea party scorecard looks distinctly weak this cycle. In places like Utah, Kentucky, Florida, and Pennsylvania it produced victories that Republicans would have gotten anyway. In Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, and West Virginia, it produced losses where more mainstream candidates probably would have won. And in Alaska it produced a civil war.

In the House, though, the tea party seems to have done fine. So what to think of this? It seems like there are two obvious frames. The first is that insurgent movements like the tea party start out at the local level and move outward over time. So maybe it was too early for them to win statewide seats, but by 2012 they'll be in good shape. The second is that tea partiers can do well in local races where districts are fairly homogeneous and voter distress is easy to stoke, but that kind of angry entreaty just doesn't work at a higher level, which by definition requires a media-centric approach and a more pluralistic appeal.

I wouldn't bet the ranch on it, but I suspect the answer is more the latter than the former. As time passes, the economy improves (touch wood), and the tea party inevitably gets integrated into the machinery of the Republican Party, it's going to have to moderate its message to succeed. Just how much it's going to have to moderate is still an unanswered question.

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Two Lessons From the Election

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 12:45 AM EDT

I don't have a whole lot to say about tonight's election results, but I will toss out a couple of quick thoughts:

Live by the model, die by the model. Lots of Democrats, including me, have been pointing out that structural factors alone predicted a 45-seat loss in the House this year. In other words, the bulk of the expected Democratic losses weren't due to healthcare reform or Obama's remoteness or liberal overreach or anything like that. It was baked into the cake all along.

But the model I wrote about, which comes from Douglas Hibbs, only predicted a 45-seat loss, and it looks like Dems are likely to lose at least 60 seats. That means Democrats underperformed the Hibbs model by 15 seats or so, which is a record for them. (See chart below.) They've underperformed by ten seats a couple of times in the postwar era, but never by more than that. So at the same time that it's correct to blame most of their losses on structural factors, it's also correct that this was something of a historically bad result. I think it might be fair to say that the economy is so epically bad that Hibbs's model might not account for it entirely, but that's mostly special pleading. It really does look like there's a fair amount of scope to place a lot of the blame for tonight's Democratic debacle on both tactical and policy missteps.

Live by the tea party, die by the tea party. The tea party movement may have provided a lot of Republican energy tonight, but it pretty obviously cost them a lot too. By my reckoning, Republicans most likely would have won Delaware, Nevada and maybe West Virginia if they'd run more mainstream candidates. (Colorado is still up in the air as I write this.) This is necessarily a little speculative, but it's quite possible that non-tea candidates could have won all those states, and with it 51 seats in the Senate. So the tea party might have produced outsize gains in the House, but at the cost of control of the Senate. Sic transit etc.

Election Coverage

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 10:21 PM EDT

I'm not planning to do a lot of heavy election blogging myself, but MoJo has a dedicated election page with tons of updates and coverage of all the major races. If that's what you crave, click here and then check in throughout the night.

Headline of the Year

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 3:56 PM EDT

A friend passes this along as headline of the year:

BP ups Gulf spill cost to $40 billion, still reports profit

No comment needed.

Magical Thinking

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 3:45 PM EDT

Paul Krugman on the notion that Barack Obama blew it by not focusing more on jobs:

So when you say Obama should have focused more, what policies are you talking about? A bigger stimulus? As far as I can tell, almost no pundits are saying that. So what other concrete policies do they have in mind? I have never gotten an answer.

The notion seems to be that if Obama had spent the past 20 months going around with furrowed brow, saying, “I’m focused on the economy”, this would have (a) somehow created jobs (b) made people feel better about 9.6 percent unemployment.

Krugman, of course, has been vocal about the fact that Obama should have pushed for a bigger stimulus. Others have pointed at the foreclosure mess and suggested that a better-designed HAMP would have helped the economy. But Krugman is right: the actual people who keep claiming that Obama needed to focus more on jobs haven't generally gotten on either of these bandwagons. They just seem to think there's some kind of magic that would have either improved things or, at least, cheered everyone up even though they didn't have actual jobs. But what?