Pawlenty in Trouble!

Chris Cillizza reports that Michele Bachmann won the Ames straw poll:

Bachmann took 4,823 votes, narrowly escaping a major upset at the hands of Texas Rep. Ron Paul who won 4,671 votes. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty placed third with 2,293, a showing that is likely to raise questions about his ability to continue in the contest.

Wait a second. Everyone expected Bachmann to win, and likewise, everyone knows that Ron Paul has a demonstrated (and meaningless) ability to round up his tiny band of fanatical troops for events like this. So third place isn't too bad for Pawlenty, is it? Or was the "Pawlenty in trouble" media narrative already so set in stone that it didn't matter how well he did?

(For the record, I think Pawlenty is toast. Still, his showing in Ames wasn't too bad.)

UPDATE: My Twitter feed is full of people who think Pawlenty's showing puts him right on the edge of viability. I don't quite get this, but maybe it makes sense given how much time he put into Iowa. Still, I can't help but think that it's basically a reaction to everything else about the Pawlenty campaign, not to the straw poll itself.

UPDATE 2: Well, I guess everyone else was right. Pawlenty is out.

My skepticism about Rick Perry is below. For a very good rebuttal, see Erica Grieder here. Perry's not especially smart, she says, but he's shrewd. (I agree.) Conservative, but not the far-right zealot we think. Not a culture warrior, but a straightforward business conservative. Bottom line: "Perry is not an idiot and not an ideologue. Democrats, you misunderestimate this one at your peril." It's one of the best, most clear-eyed takes on Perry that I've seen, and it comes from someone who's followed him closely.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Editor's Note: On Thursday, January 19, CNN reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry would drop out of the presidential race and endorse former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Back in mid-August, at the height of the GOP's Perry-mania, Kevin Drum saw this all coming.

A few days ago I rashly said, "For the record, I don't think Rick Perry can win the Republican nomination, and I know that he can't beat Obama in a general election." Unsurprisingly, a lot of people wanted to know just what made me so sure of that. So with Perry now officially in the race, I guess it's time to explain myself.

Before I get to that, though, I have a mealymouthed caveat or three. First, if the economy is bad enough, anyone can win. And right now, the odds of the economy being bad enough are a little too close for comfort. Second, in recent years you could lose a lot of money continually underestimating the lemming-like power of the Republican Party to dive off ever-higher cliffs. Third, it's absolutely true that you can make a pretty good case that none of the current GOP candidates can possibly win the nomination. And yet, someone will.

And there's more. Perry is unquestionably a very good, very shrewd politician. He has access to lots of money. And he can deliver a pretty good speech. My beloved wife just finished listening to his announcement speech and told me, "He's my favorite Republican right now." When I grimaced, she just gave me a scary look. Scary because it's the look that means she sees something that's invisible to a committed partisan like me.

But enough of that. I've covered my ass enough. Here are the top 10 reasons why, despite all this, I think Perry is a weaker candidate than he's being made out to be:

  1. Everyone looks good before they get into the race. Remember how great Tim Pawlenty was supposed to be? But just wait a few months for Perry to get beat up by his opponents, for the oppo research to kick in, for all the big profiles to start appearing, and for a gaffe or two to get some play. He'll start to look distinctly more human then.
  2. He's too Texan. Sorry. Maybe that's fair, maybe it's not. But even in the Republican Party, not everyone is from the South and not everyone is bowled over by a Texas drawl. Perry is, by a fair amount, more Texan than George W. Bush, and an awful lot of people are still suffering from Bush fatigue.
  3. He's too mean. He'll have a hard time pretending he's any kind of compassionate conservative, and outside of Texas you still need a bit of that. Aside from being politically ruthless and famous for holding grudges, Perry's the kind of guy who almost certainly executed an innocent man, never pretended to care about it, and brazenly disbanded a commission investigating it. This famously produced the following quote in a 2010 focus group: "It takes balls to execute an innocent man." In Texas, maybe that works. In the rest of the country, not so much.
  4. He's too dumb. Go ahead, call me an elitist. I'm keenly aware that Americans don't vote for presidents based on their SAT scores, but everything I've read about Perry suggests that he's a genuinely dim kind of guy. Not just incurious or too sure about his gut feelings, like George W. Bush, but simply not bright enough to handle the demands of the Oval Office. Americans might not care if their presidents are geniuses, but there's a limit to how doltish they can be too.
  5. He's too smarmy. He might be fine one-on-one, but on a national stage Perry looks like a tent revival preacher or a used car salesman. Again: This might play okay in Texas and a few other places, but it will wear thin quickly in most of the country.
  6. He's too overtly religious. Even Bush soft pedaled his religious side for the masses during his first campaign and did most of his outreach to the evangelical community quietly. Outside the Bible Belt, Perry's fire-and-brimstone act is going to be hard to take.
  7. Policywise, he's too radical, even for Republicans. "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" goes over well with a certain segment of the tea party, but not with most of the country. Nor does most of the country want to get rid of Medicare and turn it over to the states. Nor do they think global warming is a hoax, and they don't really think all that kindly of people who muse publicly about seceding from the union. Bush was able to soften his hard Texas edge with a genuine passion for education. I'm not sure Perry can do that.
  8. Despite conventional wisdom, about half of the GOP rank-and-file aren't tea party sympathizers (see Question 3G here). Of the half who are, Perry is going to have to compete with Michele Bachmann and possibly with Sarah Palin. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has the noncrazy half of the party almost to himself. Huntsman isn't going to provide him with any serious competition there, and Pawlenty is rapidly becoming a non-factor too. I think this is an extremely underappreciated dynamic right now. Yes, Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative than the party as a whole, but there are still going to be a lot of non-tea-partiers who vote, and they don't have a lot of good choices other than Romney. What's more, a fair number of tea partiers like Romney too (see Question 19 here). This is a pretty good base to work from.
  9. Perry's campaign is going to be heavily based on the "Texas miracle." But this looks a lot less miraculous once you put it under a microscope—and pretty soon it won't just be churlish lefties pointing this out. You can be sure that the rest of the Republican field will be hauling out their own microscopes before long.
  10. Republicans want to beat Obama. They really, really want to beat Obama. Romney is still their best chance, and down deep I think they know it.

All that said, I might be wrong. But I'd still advise everyone to take Perry with a few more grains of salt than they have been. It's easy for us urban liberals to just cynically assume that the tea partyized GOP will nominate whoever's the dumbest, toughest, meanest, godliest sonofabitch in the field, but I'm not so sure. Perry may come out of the gate strong, but he might not wear well once the national spotlight is on him.

UPDATE: Why Rick Perry Can Win.

From the Wall Street Journal today:

What Happened to Obama? Absolutely Nothing.
He is still the same anti-American leftist he was before becoming our president. 

This is from Norman Podhoretz, still fighting the Weathermen and the Panthers after half a century. And in case you're wondering: no, the Journal's copy desk didn't invent the "anti-American" line. It's right there in the text.

From today's LA Times:

As he confronts the threat of another recession and turmoil in the financial markets, President Obama is being advised by an economic team that is noticeably short on big-name players — potentially hurting his ability to find solutions and sell them to Wall Street, Congress and the American public.

"When you ask about the economic team, it's kind of like, 'What economic team?'" said Edward Mills, a financial policy analyst with FBR Capital Markets. "They are very thin at a very critical time."....Some analysts worry that the White House might not have enough economic expertise to fashion new proposals for boosting growth.

I get that daily newspapers need to have something new to say each day. Ditto for cable news. And blogs too! But can we please ditch the pretense here? Sure, Obama has lost most of his economic team and hasn't replaced them all. That's a legitimate story. But does anyone seriously think that this is having any effect at all on his ability to "find solutions and sell them to Wall Street, Congress, and the American public"?

Come on. Obama's current team is probably more in tune with Wall Street than the old one, and the American public responds to comforting narratives, not the quality of the economic analysis behind them. (When they respond at all, that is.) But none of that matters anyway. Obama's problem isn't a lack of bright ideas, it's the fact that the Republican-controlled House has no interest in acting on proposals to spur job growth or stimulate the economy. If it doesn't cut taxes on the rich or slash pesky regulations on big corporations, they're not going to give it the time of day. This is not exactly a big secret in Washington.

Barack Obama could have the reincarnated ghosts of Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes running his economic policy shop and it probably wouldn't make any difference. Republicans are bound and determined to do nothing to seriously address our faltering economy, and that's that. This is what's standing in the way of getting anything done, and pretending otherwise is a disservice to the news-consuming public.

Today's theme was going to be shadowy cats, but instead it's cats with Marian. It's more cats than Marian, of course, since Friday is catblogging day, not Marianblogging day. Besides, I kind of like being married and don't want to do anything to put that in jeopardy. The cats, however, are their usual camera hog selves and have no problem showing off their feline virtues to the world. So here they are. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin has a chart he's fond of that demonstrates just how ineffective the 2009 stimulus was. Basically, it shows that the stimulus cost $260 billion and produced only an extra $268 billion in GDP. Personally, I'd take even that, but his point is that the stimulus produced no Keynesian multiplier effect at all. It was just a 1:1 replacement of revenue from one source to another.

But as you may recall, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis recently revised its GDP estimates from late 2008 and 2009, and it turns out the economy was doing much worse than we thought. And if you don't recall this, Michael Linden wants to remind you about it today. He also wants to remind Douglas Holtz-Eakin about it. Because it turns out that when you redo Holtz-Eakin's favorite chart using the corrected data, it suggests that the stimulus bill produced about $544 billion in extra GDP. In other words, a multiplier effect of about 2x.

I suppose there are two ways to respond to this. Holtz-Eakin could admit that he was wrong. Or he could invent a reason that his old chart is no good and then scurry back to his computer to produce a brand new chart using a different methodology that, once again, shows that the stimulus didn't work. We'll see which way he chooses.

Here's yet another tea party wingnut blathering on about how regulations are strangling American business:

Due to regulatory morass, the U.S. is not a good place for small hydro companies to do business. In order to build even the smallest facilities, a developer must go through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments, State Historic Preservation Departments, and many more. Each of these agencies is just doing their job — but the cumulative impact weighs down small hydro and makes projects prohibitively expensive.

“The regulatory environment is not friendly at all. It’s incredibly difficult and expensive to build these facilities,” explains Lori Barg, CEO of Community Hydro, a developer based in Vermont. “It’s absurd, really.” Barg says that federal and state permitting can add up to $2,000 per kilowatt for projects under 1 MW. To put that in perspective: solar PV projects around 1 MW are being built today for about $3,000 a kW, including permitting, labor and equipment.

Oh wait. Sorry. That's not a tea partier who wrote that, it's Stephen Lacey over at ClimateProgress. He says that we have the potential to generate 30,000 megawatts of clean, renewable power via small hydro installations that are either run-of-river (i.e., require no damming) or could be built using existing dams. But they can only be built if the existing regulatory structure is substantially streamlined.

Republicans have made such an insane spectacle of themselves pretending that Barack Obama is some kind of regulatory madman that it's easy to just dismiss them wholesale. Regulatory uncertainty is very plainly not what's holding the economy back right now, no matter how many times conservatives repeat this canned talking point in front of the Fox News cameras. What's holding us back is economic uncertainty: businesses don't think there will be enough customers next year to justify expanding their operations this year, so they're not expanding. Address that problem and businesses will start adding capacity, jobs will open up, and the economy will grow again.

Still, regulations do matter, and regulatory underbrush needs to be cleared away periodically. Nor is there any reason for liberals to fight this: after all, we favor regulations that serve a clear purpose, not regulations for their own sake. The value of clean energy is pretty high, and it might very well outweigh whatever benefits we're getting from the current regulatory thicket. A pair of Republicans have introduced bills that take modest steps to streamline regulations for small hydro projects, and they're probably worth a hard look.

I'd also be pretty willing to take a look at emergency streamlining of other regulations that get in the way of quickly building new infrastructure projects if Republicans were willing to actually fund new infrastructure projects as a stimulus measure. But I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Yesterday I wrote about new fuel economy standards for big rig trucks. But Megan McArdle asked a good question: why do we even need them? For ordinary cars, you can argue that consumers aren't especially rational and don't properly consider the long-term cost of operation, so they need to be nudged into saving themselves money. But big rigs are commercial vehicles purchased by steely-eyed operators who look carefully at long-term cost of ownership and are keenly aware of how fuel costs play into this. So if truck manufacturers can make more efficient vehicles, the market should have forced them to do it long ago.

So what's the deal? A reader with experience in the field sets me straight:

You don't understand the market for big rigs. A tractor typically has three types of owners in its life:

  • The original buyer: Either a manufacturer with a private fleet that it uses to get its products to market (e.g., Sherwin-Williams), or one of the very rare firms with enough cash to afford new units. They run it for 1-2 years (or 150,000 miles), when the components go off-warranty and are at risk for breakdowns — and then trade it in.
  • The quality aftermarket: The second or third owners, who can't afford new units. Most big fleets are in this group. They get the best used models and run them until the math stops working for them. (How long this takes depends on the type of trip and cargo hauled. Long-haul is easier than city driving, but a nasty breakdown in Montana can take you off-road for two days. Also, perishable cargo or just-in-time components have to keep moving.)
  • The beaters: The third, fourth or fifth owners, who either can't afford quality yet, don't care, or find it cheaper to fix them.

There's no incentive for a manufacturer to put money into fuel efficiency. Groups two and three care about fuel cost, but they're never buying new trucks. Group one probably doesn't own the unit long enough to recoup even 30% efficiency. Because even the best stuff gets beaten to crap, everyone buys on price. If your first high-efficiency models cost a lot more, sales would drop.

I was assigned to Bendix truck brakes for about a year, and it was a master class in planned obsolescence. Bendix made parts that lasted 3-4 years — best on the market — but nobody wanted them, because they didn't own the models long enough to get a return on the value.

Still, even with that said, wouldn't a carbon tax or increased fuel taxes accomplish the same thing as stricter CAFE standards but more efficiently? Probably. But I'll let Mark Kleiman speak for me on that: "As soon as the Tea Party has been ground into the dust and the GOP transformed into a party capable of seeing reason, we can talk about it. In the meantime, kudos to the President for using his executive powers to do the right thing. And recall that none of his Republican opponents would have done the same."

From Bret Baier of Fox News, following up on Byron York's question at last night's debate about supporting any tax increase at all in order to reduce the deficit. "Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? Three to one? Four to one? Or even 10 to one?"

I'm going to ask a question to everyone here on the stage. Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10-to-1, as Byron said, spending cuts to tax increases....Who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you'd walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?

All eight candidates raised their hands immediately. This is now unshakeable dogma within the Republican Party regardless of circumstances and regardless of how it's accomplished. And yet, when the congressional super committee fails to reach agreement on a deficit reduction package later this year? It'll be a failure of "Washington," of course. Some things never change.