Ross Douthat makes a good point today about the endlessly repeated observation that Republican voters don't seem very thrilled by any of the presidential candidates on offer:

What’s remarkable is how often this seems to happen. As weak as this year’s Republican field has proved, it’s not that much weaker than a number of recent presidential vintages, from the Democrats’ lineups in 1988 and 2004 to the Republican field in 1996. In presidential politics, the great talents (a Clinton, a Reagan) seem to be the exception; a march of Dole-Dukakis-Mondale mediocrity is closer to the rule.

There's a lot of truth to this. When it comes to presidential candidates, we are a nation of whiners. Let's refresh our memories about the candidates who ended up winning their primaries and running for president over the past 30 years.

Among non-incumbents, I think it's fair to say that Reagan in 1980 and Obama in 2008 were unquestionably inspirational figures among their party's base, not just candidates they were willing to settle for. I think it's also safe to say that Mondale, Dukakis, Bush Sr., Dole, Gore, Kerry, and McCain, weren't.

Clinton in 1992 and Bush Jr. in 2000 I'm less sure about. Clinton has taken on elder statesman status since he left office, but I don't recall Democrats being thrilled about his candidacy in 1992. Bush Jr. is a little harder to call. I think I'd probably have to ask some Republicans to weigh in on this.

In any case, this means that out of 11 non-incumbent candidates over the past three decades, only two were clearly inspirational at the time, two more were possibly B-list inspirational, and seven were basically duds. Long story short, we Americans aren't usually very happy with the presidential choices put in front of us. The 2012 Republican primary is much more the rule than the exception.

From John Boehner, asked about President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address:

I’ve read a lot about what the president will talk about Tuesday night. It sounds to me like the same old proposals we’ve seen — more spending, higher taxes, more regulation — the same policies that haven’t helped our economy, they’ve made it worse. If that’s what the president is going to talk about Tuesday night, I think it’s pathetic.

Pathetic! That's one of Newt Gingrich's favorite words! I take this as a subtle hint that the Republican establishment is starting to accept the possibility of a doomed, Newt-inflected future. Further Kremlinological observations will follow in future posts.

What's the big difference between the Republican primaries this year and the primaries in 2008? I think one of the key changes is how sparse the early schedule is. This year we had Iowa, then a week until New Hampshire, then eleven days until South Carolina, and now another ten days until Florida. In 2008, there were a bunch of other primaries sandwiched in: Wyoming, Michigan, Nevada, Louisiana, and Hawaii.

That sure feels like a big difference to me. The primaries were so fast and furious in 2008 that there wasn't much time for voter sentiment to change. Momentum was a big deal. This year, the eleven days from New Hampshire to South Carolina felt like forever, and the next ten days are going to feel like forever too. If Newt Gingrich has a chance to win, it's going to be because there was so much time for him to get a bit of a bandwagon going in South Carolina and (perhaps) again in Florida.

If Gingrich pulls this out (which I still doubt) and then goes on to get clobbered in November (which I have little doubt about), I suspect that the Republican leadership will be none too pleased with the way they tweaked the early schedule this year. More early states, please.

This isn't going to come as a surprise to anyone, but the chart below is instructive nonetheless. It comes from Matt Glassman, a fellow skat fan, and it shows the cost per rider to buy up all the ad space in a DC Metro station (i.e., "station domination"). For the most part the cost runs around $2,000 per thousand riders. The two exceptions are just where you'd expect: the Pentagon station and the Capitol South station, where all the congressional staffers get off. Those staffers' eyeballs, it turns out, are worth about 4x what all the rest of our eyeballs are worth.

(I'm actually a little surprised that congressional staffers are apparently more valuable than military procurement folks, but I suppose the military suppliers have so many other outlets for their money that a Metro station is hardly worth the bother.)

Steve Benen sends me to Benjy Sarlin and Kyle Leighton, who write:

What If Voters Just Don’t Like Mitt Romney?

Mitt Romney may be on the verge of securing the nomination, but his campaign is still struggling with a pretty basic problem as it looks towards the general election: people just don't like him very much.

I admit that what I'm about to write sounds like a snarky #slatepitch ("America is Falling in Love With Mitt Romney!"), but is it really true that people don't like Romney? Well, I don't like him much. Most of my readers don't like him much. The press corps probably doesn't like him much. But the truth is that the only reason Romney has this label pinned on him is because the media anointed him a front runner and is now feigning surprise that he hasn't sewn up the nomination sooner than any candidate in history. But that doesn't mean Romney is unlikeable. It just means he's fairly normal.

As further evidence, Sarlin and Leighton cite a new PPP poll showing that Romney's unfavorables are high. But let's take a look at everyone, not just Romney. Here are the unfavorables for all five candidates still in the race as of early this week:

  • Rick Perry: 63%
  • Newt Gingrich: 60%
  • Ron Paul: 57%
  • Mitt Romney: 53%
  • Rick Santorum: 51%

Not bad! Especially for a candidate that everyone knows is starting in a hole because a certain segment of the evangelical community is just never going to approve of a Mormon for president. The fact is, these are just not the numbers of a guy that no one can stand. Rather, they're the numbers of a candidate in a tough race, where negative ads have forced everyone's unfavorables pretty high.

Sarlin and Leighton acknowledge this later in their piece. But the headline and the lead are all about the fact that people just don't like Romney. Watch out, though. The DC media invented an identical narrative for Al Gore in 2000, and it was more a self-fulfilling prophecy from a bunch of reporters who disliked Gore than it was a reflection of the actual truth.

Look: I'm not going to vote for Romney. His willingness to abase himself to the tea party wing of the GOP is nauseating, his obvious fealty to corporate interests is offensive, and — well, you know, he's a conservative. Of course I'm not going to vote for him. But that doesn't mean he's unusually unlikeable. Frankly, of the five guys listed above, I'd probably prefer him as a next-door neighbor to any of them.

On the left, we have a rare archive photo of Domino playing in the Christmas wrapping paper. I'm using "rare" here in the sense that's recently become so common for this kind of thing: Not that there are actually any fewer Christmas photos of Domino than there are of any others, but simply in the sense that no one has ever seen this one before. I'm not really sure when or why that sense of "rare" became common, but it has, and it bugs me, so I'm taking this opportunity to vent about it. On the right, Inkblot has taken possession of our Scrabble dictionary following a bloodthirsty game last night. I came in third out of three, partly because of bad luck (isn't that what everyone always says?) and partly because I was too dimwitted at the end to realize that I could have played DEARIE, not just DEAR. That would have used up a bunch of those damn vowels! Marian still would have won if I'd done that, but at least I could have come in second.

Greg Sargent reports on the latest lefty cause:

With unprecedented amounts of cash set to flood the airwaves this year, campaign finance reform advocates have slowly began to coalesce around a far-fetched idea: How about a constitutional amendment to ban big money in politics?

The idea, floated by various left-leaning groups in recent days, is to build a grassroots campaign behind an amendment to reverse Citizens United, which laid the groundwork for the Super PACs that are expected to pump unlimited sums into the 2012 campaign, with untold consequences for our politics. Now that campaign is about to take a new turn: Lefty groups are going to call on President Obama himself to support such a step.

There are two ways to react to this. The first is substantively: would this be a good idea on a public policy level? I'd be shocked if someone could convince me that it was. As near as I can tell, just about every campaign finance reform measure of the modern era has either (a) had no real effect, or (b) backfired, making things objectively worse. The idea that we can predict the effect of yet another proposal well enough to set it in stone in the Constitution strikes me as extremely unlikely.

But then there's the second way to react: is this a great fundraising issue for Democrats? On that score, I'm sure the answer is a big fat Yes. In fact, just as abortion is for the right, it's probably a perfect issue, one that gets everyone riled up and is unlikely to ever go away. Ironically, endorsing a constitutional amendment to change the way campaigns raise money is probably a great way for campaigns to raise money.

Responding to my piece about capital gains tax rates this morning, Matt Yglesias makes a couple of useful points. The first is that there's a big difference between a capital gains tax cut that simply raises the deficit (almost certainly worthless) and a cut that remains deficit neutral because it's offset with something else (possibly modestly worthwhile). His second point is that even if your capital gains cut is deficit neutral, the offset matters:

The politically and theoretically sound alternative is to offset your cut in taxation of investment income with new taxes on either high-end consumption or environmental degradation or both. It's striking, however, that the political entrepreneurs promoting low levels of taxation of investment income never propose these options and seem generally unconcerned with the entire question of offsets. It's enough to make you question their sincerity! A path to an increased national savings rate over the long-term that opens with a gigantic increase in public sector debt doesn't make any sense, and the fact that this is the strategy they keep promoting is surely on the list of reasons that their claims are so hard to verify in the data.

Without writing a humongous post about this, it's worth keeping in mind that this is an example of the public policy question you should always ask yourself whenever anything is proposed: compared to what? A capital gains tax cut, like any other policy proposal, doesn't happen in a vacuum. So even if you're convinced that it might have a positive effect, that's not enough. How big an effect? And how does that effect compare to, say, a cut in the payroll tax? Or the personal income tax? Likewise, if you want to be deficit neutral, how does a cap gains cut paired with spending cuts compare to a cap gains cut paired with a carbon tax to make up the revenue?

Hauling out an Economics 101 argument is almost never enough to shed much light on any public policy problem that's controversial enough to be interesting. Will a tax cut incentivize certain behavior? Sure, probably. But how much? If the effect is small, does it get swamped by other things? And how does it compare to alternate proposals? Unless you can get halfway plausible answers to those things, you're just being sold snake oil.

The latest from Afghanistan:

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France suspended military operations as part of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan on Friday and said he was considering an early pullout of his nation’s forces after a man in Afghan Army uniform shot and killed four French soldiers....The four French service members were killed and a number were wounded on Friday when a gunman wearing an Afghan National Army uniform turned his weapon on them, according to an Afghan police official in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan where the episode occurred.

This isn't an isolated incident, either. The Guardian reports on a recently completed Pentagon study:

Mutual mistrust and contempt between local and foreign forces in Afghanistan that often borders on hatred is one of the main reasons why Afghan troops increasingly turn their guns on their Nato comrades, a damning report has found. The research, commissioned by the US military, said American soldiers enrage their Afghan colleagues with what the report describes as extreme arrogance, bullying and "crude behaviour".

It also heavily criticised as "profoundly intellectually dishonest" the Nato claims that the killing of alliance troops by Afghan soldiers is extremely rare. The data suggests incidents such as the killing on Friday of four French soldiers "reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between 'allies' in modern military history)"....According to behavioural scientist Jeffrey Bordin's report, the number of attacks have been growing, with 26 incidents of killings or attempted killings since early 2007. Those attacks led to the deaths of 58 foreign personnel.

The military has dismissed the study, saying it "suffered from irrelevant generalisations, narrow sample sets, unprofessional rhetoric and sensationalism." Maybe so. But these kinds of studies, often scorned in pretty similar language, have usually turned out to be more accurate than the happy talk from commanders on the ground.

It's always worth keeping in mind, even though I know this is obvious, that we're not on Plan B here. We executed that one around 2005 or so. We're currently about on Plan F, and if it's working better than Plans A through E, the improvements are pretty marginal. As the old saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me six times, shame on me. As near as I can tell, though, the Republican candidates pretty unanimously want to move on to Plan G, and the military has given plenty of hints that they'll be proposing exactly that sometime in the next year or so.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if we fall for this yet again, we're collective idiots. Drawing down from Afghanistan will be no cakewalk, and the results will almost certainly be lethal. But it's past time that we acknowledged we've done about as much as we can. It's time to come home.

Two years ago Michael Kinsley wrote a piece in the Atlantic explaining that he was worried about inflation:

For this, I was widely ridiculed, and I’d like to take this opportunity to claim vindication. That is, I’d like to —  but I can’t. Inflation (CPI) has been creeping up the past couple of years —  from less than 2 percent to more than 3 percent  —  but that’s still pretty low. Nevertheless, I double down: Barring a miracle, there will be a fierce storm of inflation sometime in the next few years and it will wipe out a big chunk of the national debt, along with the debts of individual citizens, and the savings of others. 

One reason I say this is that the arguments on the other side have shifted. It used to be, “It’s not gonna happen — so don’t worry about it.” Now it’s, “You know, a moderate dose of inflation would be no bad thing. So don’t worry about it.”

The last time around I sort of semi-defended Kinsley. This time around I'm just perplexed. His original piece appeared in March 2010. Here is Paul Krugman a month earlier praising a suggestion from IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard that the world could use a bit of additional inflation:

I’m not that surprised that Olivier should think that; I am, however, somewhat surprised that the IMF is letting him say that under its auspices. In any case, I very much agree.

I would add, however, that there’s another case for a higher inflation rate....[blah blah blah]....So yes, let’s have modestly higher inflation. Alas, Ben Bernanke — at least when speaking publicly — doesn’t agree. And I can only imagine what Trichet would say.

And here is Ryan Avent at the same time, not only agreeing but pointing out that Kenneth Rogoff, Greg Mankiw, Scott Sumner, and Brad DeLong all agree too. So this time I can't even semi-defend Kinsley. Plenty of economists were making the case for higher inflation well before he wrote his original article. The arguments haven't shifted, he just never noticed them before.