Kevin Drum

Favorite Presidents

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 8:42 PM EST

FAVORITE PRESIDENTS....At a recent debate, all the candidates for RNC chairman named Reagan as their favorite Republican. Ezra Klein comments:

It's really weird that Republican candidates for high office almost never named Abraham Lincoln as their favorite Republican president. He was, after all, a Republican. And he was inarguably more consequential than Reagan, no matter how enamored you are of Reagan's tenure. Indeed, most historians consider him America's greatest president.

Ezra chalks this up to coded racism, and maybe that's right. I guess I'd guess be a little more generous, though, and attribute it instead to the different valences of favorite vs. greatest, figuring that Lincoln would be more likely to come up if these guys were asked who the greatest Republican was. Maybe.

But this is really just an excuse to observe the weird fact that for modern conservative Republicans, Reagan isn't merely their most frequently named favorite, he's pretty much their only possible answer to this question. Bush Jr. is obviously damaged goods. Bush Sr., Ford, and Eisenhower are more or less considered closet Democrats these days. Nixon was a crook. Hoover — 'nuff said. Coolidge and Harding were do-nothings. If you're restricting yourself to the past century, you're basically stuck with Reagan and no one else.

Democrats have it way better. Sure, most Dems of the past century produce mixed sentiments (especially Wilson and LBJ) but virtually every one of them is at least a plausible candidate for "favorite Democrat." Modern liberals haven't excommunicated any of them.

Why is this? Why is it that Republicans have produced only one president in the past century that they're still enthusiastic about?

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Panetta to Head Up CIA

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 7:39 PM EST

PANETTA TO HEAD UP CIA....Apparently Barack Obama has chosen Leon Panetta to head the CIA. This is a pretty unconventional choice since Panetta has no intelligence experience, but David Corn is enthusiastic:

A CIA director who has denounced torture, advocated intelligence cuts, and backed greater congressional control of covert operations — that would be....different. This appointment certainly has the potential to spark opposition from inside and outside the agency. But if Panetta manages to make it to Langley without much fuss, that would indeed signal real change in Washington.

More about Panetta at the link. Panetta on torture here.

UPDATE: Feinstein and Rockefeller apparently aren't very enthusiastic about this choice.

Finally....Election Pool Winners!

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:38 PM EST

FINALLY....ELECTION POOL WINNERS!....Back in October I held a pool to guess the results of the November election. With Al Franken now the official winner of the Minnesota senate race (officially enough for me, anyway), I can finally declare a winner.

Two winners, actually. Here's how things broke down:

  • Obama won 365 electoral votes, but nobody got that exactly right. (Thanks, Nebraska!) So I rounded up all the people who predicted 364 electoral votes.

  • Democrats won 257 House seats and 59 Senate seats (counting the two independents). However, none of the folks in the 364 pool got that exactly right.

  • But two people came close. Professional prognosticator Sam Wang (founder of the Princeton Election Consortium) guessed 257 House seats and 58 Senate seats, while James Shearer predicted 260 House seats and 59 Senate seats.

Congratulations, James and Sam! A free subscription to Mother Jones is yours for the asking. Just email me your address and I'll get you signed up.

The N-Effect

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:20 PM EST

THE N-EFFECT....Via Tyler Cowen, a couple of researchers have uncovered what they call the N-Effect: it turns out, they say, that people do better when competing against a small number of people than when competing against a large number.

At first, this seems unsurprising: you have a better chance of winning against a small group than a large group, a small group is less distracting than a large group, etc. There are also lots of confounding factors when you try to measure this, which makes me take their conclusions about SAT scores (they're supposedly higher in small groups) with a grain of salt. But what if you just tell people they're competing against a small group?

Experimenters asked potential participants if they would be willing to take part in a short experiment. One experimenter then handed participants a two-page packet (a cover page followed by a short quiz page) and explained they would be taking a timed quiz and their goal was to finish the quiz as fast as possible without compromising accuracy. Participants were told they were competing against either 10 or 100 other participants and that those scoring in the top 20 percent in completion time would receive $5. The short quiz contained four general knowledge multiple-choice questions (e.g. "Who is the Secretary General of the UN?") and four true-false statements (e.g., "Michigan is shaped like a shoe").

Once the first experimenter gave participants the packets and instructions, the second experimenter, blind to the experimental condition, informed participants he would begin timing them with a stopwatch. Afterwards, each participant wrote their e-mail address, in case they scored in the top 20th percentile. Participants in the top 20 percent were later paid $5.

There were no actual group dynamics at work here since the quiz was administered one-on-one. And both groups had a 20% chance of winning five bucks. But the first group finished the quiz in an average of 29 seconds, while the second took 33 seconds.

The authors do some further tests to demonstrate that this effect isn't due to mistaken ideas about odds being better in small groups, or to a decrease in motivation due to perceived task difficulty. Basically, it seems that people just feel more motivated to compete if they think they're competing against an indentifiable group rather than a large mob. The application of this conclusion to the blogosphere is left as an exercise for the reader.

DOMA

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:28 PM EST

DOMA....Bob Barr, the Georgia congressman who authored the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, writes in the LA Times today that it's time to get rid of it:

The first part of DOMA [] is a partial bow to principles of federalism, protecting the power of each state to determine its definition of marriage. The second part sets a legal definition of marriage only for purposes of federal law, but not for the states. That was the theory.

I've wrestled with this issue for the last several years and come to the conclusion that DOMA is not working out as planned....In effect, DOMA's language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don't want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran's benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.

Hopefully DOMA will end up on the ash heap of history, where it so richly deserves to be, before the year is out.

World Government Watch

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:57 PM EST

WORLD GOVERNMENT WATCH....John Bolton and John Yoo complain today in the New York Times that Barack Obama might be tempted to overstep his constitutional bounds by sidestepping the requirement that all treaties be approved by two-thirds of the Senate:

On a broad variety of issues — many of which sound more like domestic rather than foreign policy — the re-emergence of the benignly labeled "global governance" movement is well under way in the Obama transition.

Candidate Obama promised to "re-engage" and "work constructively within" the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Will the new president pass a new Kyoto climate accord through Congress by sidestepping the constitutional requirement to persuade two-thirds of the Senate?

Steve Benen notes the irony of hearing this argument from John Yoo, who, back when he worked in the Bush administration, was probably the biggest booster of unfettered executive power this side of Dick Cheney. Beyond that, though, I'm a little puzzled about what he and Bolton are even talking about here. Will Obama try to approve the Kyoto Treaty with only a majority vote of Congress? That's easy: no he won't. How about a followup treaty? Not likely. On the other hand, might Obama introduce climate legislation that binds the United States to goals that are similar to Kyoto? Sure, he might. But that's not a treaty, it's just domestic legislation.

Very odd. But toward the end of the piece Bolton and Yoo make it pretty clear that they aren't especially concerned with constitutional delicacies anyway. They just don't like treaties, full stop. But then, conservatives never have, have they?

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FoPo Blogging

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:22 PM EST

FoPo BLOGGING....Lots of new foreign policy blogging over at Foreign Policy magazine today. They've rolled out a whole series of new blogs from Dan Drezner, Steven Walt, Tom Ricks, David Rothkopf, Marc Lynch, and Laura Rozen ("The Cable"). There's also — and no, I'm not making this up — Madam Secretary, "an obsessive blog about all things Hillary Clinton." There are also a few new group blogs, and of course, their current blog, Passport, continues as usual.

Dan, Marc, and Laura are old friends around here, and I wish them luck in their new home. The others, especially Ricks and Walt, will be worth keeping an eye on too. The official intro is here.

Smile!

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 11:38 AM EST

SMILE!....I missed posting about this over the weekend, but the Washington Post ran a fascinating article yesterday about a multi-year effort by the Maryland State Police to spy on a wide variety of liberal activist groups. It all started with the infiltration of a group protesting a planned execution, and then spiraled out of control:

Meanwhile, the intelligence-gathering expanded in other directions, to activists in New York, Missouri, San Francisco and at the University of Maryland. Shane Dillingham's primary crime, according to the six-page file classifying him as a terrorist, was "anarchism." Police opened a file on the doctoral student in history a week after an undercover officer attended a College Park forum featuring a jailhouse phone conversation with Evans.

Investigators also tracked activists protesting weapons manufactured by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. They watched two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore. Environmental activists made it into the database, as did three leaders of Code Pink, a national women's antiwar group, who do not live in Maryland.

PETA was labeled a "security threat group" in April 2005, and by July police were looking into a tip that the group had learned about a failing chicken farm in Kent County and planned on "protesting or stealing the chickens."

This all started in 2005 and went on until 2007, so it wasn't some kind of panicked reaction to 9/11. It's been stopped since, and according to the Post, the Maryland State Police "plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to 'reasonable suspicion' of a crime." Good to know.

Negotiating With Themselves

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:50 AM EST

NEGOTIATING WITH THEMSELVES....Paul Krugman surveys the current political scene and wonders if Barack Obama is going to be undone by his insistence on bipartisanship:

Here's my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it's only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy — well, you can see where this is going.

So this is our moment of truth. Will we in fact do what's necessary to prevent Great Depression II?

I've been getting the same sense recently: Obama's team is so focused on getting a big bipartisan majority for their stimulus legislation that they're negotiating their goals down even before they actually start negotiating. I'm reluctant to critique Obama's political instincts, since they've proven shrewd so often in the past, but I gotta say: this isn't going to work. Obviously Obama needs a modest level of Republican support just to get the bill passed, but he doesn't need 80 votes, and straining to get there will just produce a watered-down plan without getting anything in return.

The American public really doesn't know or care if this bill passes by one vote or thirty votes. So why waste time on this? It's just a gold-embossed invitation for Republicans to obstruct and posture endlessly, something they hardly need any encouragement for.

Yet Another Reason to Hate Bankers

| Sun Jan. 4, 2009 10:50 PM EST

YET ANOTHER REASON TO HATE BANKERS....Headline from the Wall Street Journal tonight:

Twin Risks for Treasurys in Year Ahead

This is the second time I've seen this in the past couple of days, and I don't remember seeing it before. Is the plural of treasury really treasurys? Shouldn't it be treasuries?

Via Google, I see that both forms are fairly common. But why? Where did treasurys burble up from? Is Wall Street, not content merely to ruin our economy, now taking a crack at ruining the English language too?