Politics as Entertainment

James Fallows watched the O'Donnell-Coons debate on TV and concluded that Christine O'Donnell is a true creature of the 21st century:

Sarah Palin was wounded by Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson in their 2008 interviews because she seemed at some level aware of what she didn't know.....[But] in this debate tonight, O'Donnell has not seemed uncomfortable for one second — even in her most obvious dodge, about whether she really thinks evolution is a "myth." The difference is, she is a talk show regular. Among the many things wrong with talking-head gab shows, which have proliferated/ metastasized in the past generation — they're cheap to produce, they fill air time, they make journalists into celebrities, they suit the increasing political niche-ization of cable networks — is that they reward an affect of breezy confidence on all topics and penalize admissions of complexity, of ignorance on a specific topic, or of the need for time to think.

Paul Waldman pleads for the media to fight back:

One of the simple tactics I used was to ask my opposing number to get specific about whatever sweeping claim they were making. Simply saying, "Can you tell us what exactly you're talking about?" was often enough to win the argument, because as often as not there really wasn't anything in particular....Christine O'Donnell got stumped on a question like this at a debate yesterday when she was asked what Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with, which presumably came because she had given the standard Republican line about the tyranny of liberal judicial activists.

This isn't just a plea for campaigns to be more focused on policy. Every candidate makes choices about what he or she believes the important issues are, and focuses the campaign on those issues. They regularly get away with making vague yet wildly overstated claims about them, and they ought to tell voters just what they're talking about.

But Paul, details are boring! And elitist. And besides, if you start asking about them then people won't come on your show anymore. Politics has always been as much entertainment as anything else, and today the entertainment comes in glorious, 24/7, high-def color. Why would anyone want to interfere with that?

Quote of the Day: Secret Corporate Donors

From Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Bruce Josten, explaining why they keep the names of their donors secret:

Corporations, as I said, have employees, vendors, suppliers, and shareholders of all political stripes. They’re not trying to alienate anybody. They’re looking for representative organizations, such as mine and thousands of others, to be an express organization to advocate for them on their behalf.

Whatever else you can say about the flap over the Chamber's funding sources, this is a notably unpersuasive argument. Josten is essentially saying that rich corporations want the ability to hound and attack anyone in the political sphere they don't like, but want to be protected from being hounded and attacked by others. That's nice work if you can get it, but I don't think most Americans will be sympathetic. If you want to be in the arena, then you need to be in the arena. Being a corporation doesn't — and shouldn't — endow you with a special exemption from being attacked if you take controversial political views.

UPDATE: Chamber CEO Tom Donohue, as usual, puts things more bluntly: "I want to give them all the deniability they need," he says. And he does.

Obama After Two Years

Peter Baker has a big story in the New York Times this week about Barack Obama's first two years in office, complete with lots of navel gazing about what Team Obama has done wrong. David Corn is unimpressed:

The White House with this article (well executed by Baker) has demonstrated a sense of lousy political timing. There are not many days left before voters hit the polls for the critical midterm elections. Now is not the moment for a high-profile "We blew the politics" admission. The White House ought to be in full attack mode. Yet this intriguing tale of presidential second-thoughts, made possible by White House cooperation, is ready-made for endless regurgitation within the media.

My guess is that this is mostly an example of the Bob Woodward syndrome: the article was going to be written whether Obama liked it or not, so his choice was either to cooperate, and at least get his side of the story on the record, or not cooperate and have the whole thing end up one-sided and hostile. So he cooperated.

Beyond that, I think my reaction to Baker's piece was the opposite of David's: I was surprised at how boring it was. Baker is a pro, and the prose was fine, but there was hardly anything new or interesting in the piece at all. Obama is disappointed at the depth of Republican obstructionism. Obama thinks the media is obsessed with trivialities. Obama thinks his substantive record is pretty good. Obama and his staff are cogitating over what they'll do for the next two years. Conservatives think Obama is too liberal and liberals think he's not liberal enough. (For some reason, Baker calls this "confusing and deeply contradictory.") Etc. In fact, the only paragraph in the piece that I thought was enlightening was this one:

“Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama told me, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

Italics mine. Obama does seem to take a perverse pride in ostentatiously showing that he doesn't care much about his own political base — something that's really pretty odd coming from a former community organizer — and it's interesting to see that his self-reflection extends to being honest even about this. But I wonder if this means he seriously plans to do better on this front over the next couple of years? Or if he just thinks that he needs to fine tune his speeches a little?

No Compromise

The LA Times has a front page story today about Ann Quinn, an ordinary Pennsylvania wife and mother who's tired of all the fighting in Washington DC. It's fine, really. But since my blogger's license would be revoked if I didn't kvetch about something, there were a couple of things in the piece that bugged me. First, we're told that only 23% of voters describe themselves as "angry":

As for the rest, many of them are not terribly partisan, though they may lean toward one party over the other. Immigration, earmarks, same-sex marriage, those things that exercise activists, are of little interest. Mainly what they want is for lawmakers to stop bickering and address the problems they deal with on a daily basis, "putting food on the table, gas in their car and ... getting the kids through college," said Democratic pollster Margie Omero.

Once and for all, no, it's not right to say that "as for the rest, many of them are not terribly partisan." Leaners, as any first year political science student can tell you, tend to be just as partisan as people who actually identify themselves as partisan. Probably no more than 10% of the country is genuinely unpredictable in their voting habits. I wish we could all get this straight. Then there's this about Ann and her husband, John:

In 15 years of marriage they have never agreed on anything political. When she put a John Kerry sign on the lawn in 2004, he ran out and got a George W. Bush sign to plant right next to it. But when it comes to the important things — Patrick, improvements to their two-story Dutch colonial house, which car to buy — they put their differences aside and did what needed to be done. If they can figure out how to make it work, why can't Washington?

Eh. If Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner only needed to agree on a maintenance schedule for the Capitol Dome or how big the House motor pool needed to be, they'd get along fine too. But Ann Quinn and her husband, in 15 years of marriage, still don't agree on anything political even though they love each other and live a wonderful life together. Shouldn't that tell us something? If 200 Anns and 200 Johns had to decide whether to raise taxes, they wouldn't do any better at it than Pelosi and Boehner.

Kvetching over. Other than that, it's not actually a bad profile. You won't learn anything new from it, but I think it captures the mood of a certain slice of the electorate pretty well.

The Foreclosure Mess

I haven't been blogging about the foreclosure debacle in detail, so here's a quickie catch-up on what it could all mean:

Beyond sloppy documents, the foreclosure debacle has exposed one of Wall Street's little-known practices: For more than a decade, big lenders sold millions of mortgages around the globe at lightning speed without properly transferring the physical documents that prove who legally owned the loans.

Now, some of the pension systems, hedge funds and other investors that took big losses on the loans are seeking to use this flaw to force banks to compensate them or even invalidate the mortgage trades themselves. Their collective actions, if successful, could blow a hole through the balance sheets of big banks and raise fundamental questions about the financial system, financial analysts and a lawmaker said.

....Local laws in most states dictate that each time a mortgage changes hands, the transaction needs to be recorded in courts or county offices. But the speed with which the loans were being generated during the housing boom and then pooled together and passed around Wall Street meant that big financial firms took shortcuts, consumer lawyers said.

Italics mine. I was at dinner last night with a longtime reader, and we naturally ended up talking a bit about the economy. My biggest worry, I said, continues to be an "event." Maybe China crashes. Or Iran decides to embargo oil for some reason. Or Ireland collapses, sending the Euro into a tailspin. Or maybe something like this foreclosure mess, which blows a hole in bank balance sheets yet again and turns into a replay of September 2008. I don't know how likely this is, but the fact that Geithner & Co. are so obviously eager to keep the foreclosure machinery humming suggests to me that they have similar worries.

Now, maybe I'm just a worrywart. If I start hawking gold on the blog, that'll be a sign that weird economic conspiracies have finally seized hold of my mind and I can be safely ignored. But a "lost decade" of slow growth and stagnant income, bad as it is, isn't the worst thing that could happen to us. My sense is that although banks are much stronger now than they were two years ago, they're still not strong enough. Another meltdown is still possible given the right event to set it off.

UPDATE: Details of the worst case scenario here.

Eric Cantor on Earmarks

Eric Cantor explains today why he's obsessed with earmark reform even though it wouldn't have the slightest impact on federal spending:

If we hope to preserve Social Security and Medicare for seniors, younger workers and our children, we must begin the conversation about common-sense ways to reform both programs.

These are big things — and there is little question that turning trillion-dollar deficits into surpluses, while starting to pay down our national debt, is an enormous mountain to climb. Yet the long climb to fiscal responsibility must begin with a few smaller, but necessary, steps.

Hmmm. I think Cantor has failed to explain his position clearly. Allow me to make a few small edits. Don't worry, I'm a professional:

If we hope to preserve Social Security and Medicare for seniors, younger workers and our children, we must begin the conversation about common-sense ways to reform both programs.

These are big things — but proposing cuts to these program would be an electoral disaster. If Republicans proposed real federal spending reductions we'd get our hats handed to us in November. So we're not going to do it. We're just not. And we're not going to do anything serious about cutting spending after the election either. Instead we're going to distract the rubes with some chatter about a problem that even I admit is trifling. They'll eat it up. I might be pandering here, but that's sure better than the alternative.

All fixed. Any questions?

Lunch at the White House

 I just saw this picture on the New York Times front page:

Seriously? Obama and Biden eat lunch with each other at opposite ends of a long table? I've seen that used as a joke in movies, but never in real life. Is there some kind of weird White House etiquette that prevents them from sitting right next to each other?

Trouble in Bankster Land

Felix Salmon has a fascinating post today on the ever expanding mortgage foreclosure scandal. His take goes beyond the foreclosure problems themselves, though. The background is this: back in the glory days, when banks bought up mortgages by the millions to repackage into MBS and CDOs, they'd hire a firm (usually Clayton Holdings) to do a spot check of the quality of the mortgages. Typically, Felix says, the spot check would show that upwards of half the mortgages had underwriting problems, but instead of rejecting the entire pool the bank would just reject the mortgages that had been spot checked and then negotiate a lower price for all the rest of them:

This is where things get positively evil. The investment banks didn’t mind buying up loans they knew were bad, because they considered themselves to be in the moving business rather than the storage business. They weren’t going to hold on to the loans: they were just going to package them up and sell them on to some buy-side sucker.

....Now here’s the scandal: the investors were never informed of the results of Clayton’s test. The investment banks were perfectly happy to ask for a discount on the loans when they found out how badly-underwritten the loan pool was. But they didn’t pass that discount on to investors, who were kept in the dark about that fact.

So in addition to investment banks being at risk because they screwed the pooch on title transfer paperwork, which might mean that bondholders can force them to repurchase the mortgages, they might also be at risk because they knew the mortgages were crappy and failed to disclose that to the bondholders. Result: lots of lawsuits and, potentially, lots more crappy mortgages on the books of our biggest banks. Stay tuned.

Trouble at the Legion Post

 Adam Weinstein reports that the VFW is facing an insurgency right here at home:

From Hernando County, Florida, to Windsor, Connecticut, plenty of the VFW's 8,000-plus local posts are happy to host tea party meetings for the dozens of GOP vets vying for House and Senate seats next month. But when the group's political action committee released its latest slate of endorsements, none of those hopefuls made the cut. Not Joe Miller, the Sarah Palin-approved ex-soldier who's already dispatched sitting Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski for the state's GOP nomination. Not Ilario Pantano, an outspoken conservative former Marine and VFW member running for the House in North Carolina. And not Allen West, the Islam-criticizing Army vet who's challenging an two-term Democratic congressman in a South Florida district. In all, at least 11 GOP tea party candidates (see a list below) with solid military credentials have been passed over by the VFW, even as it's endorsed incumbents like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, and Jesse Jackson Jr.

The tea partiers are not happy about this state of affairs. "Have you seen these guys?" asks critic Jonn Lilyea. "These members of the board of the PAC look like they rode with Pershing. They don't know what's going on." More at the link.

Schools and Poverty

Matt Yglesias muses on the eternal question among education wonks: should we focus our attention specifically on education reform itself, or is that unlikely to make much difference unless we also address the broader issues of concentrated poverty that are largely behind so many of our educational problems? He kinda sorta defends the latter view:

The rising cost of health care, the shrinking public tolerance for tax hikes on the middle class, and the hyper-empowerment of the rich in the political system are combining to create a situation where it will be impossible to finance K-12 education in the United States. Institutions committed to “education reform” as their mission sort of can’t focus on this nexus by definition and the people who fund such outfits are generally not interested in funding talk about the desirability of higher taxes. Similarly, most American cities are in a position where if they improve their school system and hold housing policies constant, the medium-term impact will be to create a new equilibrium where poor people can’t afford to live in the city, not a new equilibrium where poor people attend the new good schools.

I'm going to get the ed people mad at me again — and I guess I'll add the poverty people too this time — but I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers. Movies like Waiting for Superman (which I haven't seen), along with an endless stream of credulous punditry, keep suggesting that the answers are out there if only we'll fund them and take them seriously. But they aren't. Charter schools are great, but they're no panacea. (Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday after we figure out which ones work.) High-stakes testing might be a necessary evil, but it hasn't proven to have any long-term value yet either. Etc. You can go down the list of every ed reform ever touted, and they either can't scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time.1

And as Matt suggests, the tolerance of the middle class for raising its own taxes to improve education is pretty low. One reason, I suspect, is that people have largely lost faith that their taxes are being used for anything useful. If they pay more, they won't get better schools, they'll just get higher teacher salaries as the teachers unions hoover up all the dough. That's especially galling for a middle class that no longer believes teachers are underpaid. Here in California, the average teacher makes about $55,000, and that's for a job with good benefits, great job security, a nice pension, and a workyear of 180 days. Like it or not, your average waitress or truck driver just doesn't think that's so terrible.

So is the answer to address concentrated poverty? Sure. Except that, if anything, attempts to address poverty have a worse track record than attempts to improve education. Hell, attempts to address poverty have such a bad track record that even credulous pundits rarely bother writing about it anymore. Nobody really seems to have any compelling answers, and for about 90% of the country it's just too easy to ignore the problem entirely. They won't phrase it quite this way, of course, but basically they're willing to let the cities rot.

I would really, really like someone to tell me I'm wrong. So far, though, no one has. At least, not to my satisfaction. But I'm willing to be schooled if anyone thinks I'm missing the big picture here.

1As near as I can tell, the only real exception is intense and persistent early intervention. It's still no panacea, but done right it really does seem to make a difference.