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Fri May 01, 2015 at 10:14 PM PDT

Thugs and messaging fail

by ericf

cross-posted at MN Progressive project

The Democratic Party of the my senate district recently started a book club with the intention of focusing on messaging and explaining Democratic values (no, you need not live in the district to attend). The first meeting discussed one of the preeminent books on the subject, Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. Always a worthwhile subject, made more timely by the riots in Baltimore and a huge messaging fail that's a prime example of the biggest way Democrats screw this up. Well, we said at the end of the book club we should think of some examples to add to what Lakoff provided. Might have been nice if subsequent events hadn't made it so easy.

Let me put it his way: President Obama spoke for about 15 minutes on the Baltimore riots and the context in which they occurred, but he used the word "thug", and nobody heard a single other word he said. Seriously, without digging up the video, name anything else he said. The president violated one of the rules of messaging, and the mayor of Baltimore committed the exact same violation. Never use your opponent's words. If you do want to dig up the video, I dug it up for you.

It's OK if you don't get "framing" and "messaging" to such an extent that you could explain them to someone else.  It's enough for most of us to learn some dos and don'ts, so you can at least recognize it when you hear it and avoid some mistakes. One of those don'ts is don't use your opponent's words because your opponent has likely chosen those words to build or activate the audiences' frames in a way that favor your opponent. You play into that by using the opponent's words. You don't have to get just what frame is being activated to be aware that when we hear the same word or phrase being used by Fox News, conservative talk radio, Republican politicians, and our conservative friends, it's on purpose. In this case, the word used over and over again is "thug". Even if you didn't get that "thug" was being used as a racial code word to make you think "black" when you hear "thug", the fact that it was repeated frequently should have told you it's a word to avoid. So what harm did the president and the mayor of Baltimore do?

Though "thug" has become a racial dogwhistle, a term used for terms that sound neutral but with a meaning only conservatives can hear, a lot of liberals have figured it out. There was an active pushback against the use of the word, not that the pushback has gone away, it never goes away entirely, but it was undermined when the president and the mayor used the word too to denounce rioters. What they thought they were saying was "violence is wrong", but what they actually said was "blacks are violent". No wonder the conservative bubble burst with joy, because the use of the disputed word by the president and, to a degree lesser but still significant, the mayor, who is also a black Democrat, validated what had been spewed all day on Fox News. How can you call us racist if your president uses the same word to describe black people acting violently?

Conservatives were engaging in deliberate conflation. That's a term which means putting two things together so your audience will assume an association. Admittedly I think it's just my term, or at least I don't recall Lakoff using it (pending a means of doing a keyword search in paper), so don't blame him if you don't like it. Conflation just means confusing one thing with another, but I'm using it to mean deliberately and repeatedly putting two things together to form an association which likely isn't there, or you wouldn't have to resort to it. You might put two things consistently in the same paragraph if not the same sentence. Conservatives put "thug" and "black" together, over and over, to activate a frame. Maybe verbally, or by using "thug" over video of black people. And this is not the only example of the technique I'll be pointing to.

What frame does "thug" activate? Unless you're new to America or you've lived under a rock, you know many (most?) whites think of blacks as violent and criminally inclined. Everyone understands "thug" to mean a violent person with criminal intent. By conflating "black" and "thug", conservatives activate that frame in the audience's mind. Arguing against a frame is really tough, and if it seems like stories on police violence toward unarmed black civilians don't sink in, and neither do statistics on blacks being arrested more often and getting stiffer sentences than whites, that's why. "Thug" fits the frame while blacks as victims doesn't. If you've wondered why it seems so natural to your conservative friends to send you links alleging criminal tendencies on the part of the victim, while it seems irrelevant to you when the victim wasn't engaging in criminal activity when they were attacked by police, that's why. Apparently your conservative friend thinks you'll agree the victim was to blame once you're reminded that blacks are criminals. Any conservatives reading this are probably feeling greatly offended now by the thought that they're being called racist, but they probably aren't even conscious of any of bias. It's the frame they start with. So every time we use their word, especially when a president uses it, but a little bit when any us do, we validate that frame.

If you want an alternative word, try "rioter". It's amazing to hear conservative pundits decry complaints "thug" is racist by proclaiming they have no other word to use for people who are rioting. Really, Dana Perino, when watching a riot, when talking about people who are rioting, you just can't come up with another noun for the participants?

If you're reaching for the dictionary definition of "thug" and you object to the word no longer being racially neutral, bad news: language evolves. Meaning and usage changes. Did you even notice I used "fail" as a noun in both the title and text? "Fail" isn't a noun. It's a verb; at least such was the case a few years ago. Now it's a noun with a subtly different usage than "failure". I admit being surprised the first time I found myself using it that way.

Some good news: I can offer a current example of a messaging success, in terms of obeying that rule to not use the other side's words. In his chapter "Framing 101", Lakoff used the example of the phrase "tax relief" to sell the Bush tax cuts, and Democrats at the time fell for it. Republicans in the Minnesota legislature are currently trying to use it to sell their proposal to cut taxes for rich people and I've seen some reporters covering the legislature repeat it, and of course getting the press to repeat your word choices like an objective phrase is part of successful messaging. However, the legislative DFLers haven't fallen for it. Kudos. I don't know if they fully grasp the framing, or just know not to use the Republicans' language, but I do know I haven't heard a DFL legislator say "tax relief". Lakoff explained that we need "relief" only if something is onerous, so putting "relief" after "tax" was a means of spreading the message that taxes are too high, and Democratic use made that seem like objective reality. Everybody dislikes paying taxes even when they recognize the necessity, and of course conservative propaganda has been anti-tax for decades, so the public was already carrying a frame that taxes are bad and we're taxed too much. The objective reality that Americans are more lightly taxed than they used to be or in comparison to other developed nations just bounced off because it didn't fit the frame.

An example of deliberate conflation Lakoff used, unsurprisingly since he was writing in 2004, was the sales campaign for the invasion of Iraq. War supporters put "911" close to "Iraq" with great frequency to embed the association in the audience's minds. Even when supporters didn't say something like, "Iraq was behind 911", they didn't have to. The proximity of the two words was enough to make it the frame through which the war was understood. Thus why it took years to get the public to understand there was no association --- the lack of connection didn't fit the frame.

Deliberate conflation was used again by Republicans after the 2008-2009 recession and financial crisis, and Democrats made two messaging mistakes to help them along. One mistake was once again using the other side's words, and the other was using jargon without explaining it. Unfortunately, these mistakes played a role in spreading what Paul Krugman recently dubbed "The austerity delusion". Republicans activated the frame we all carry that debt is immoral and dangerous by referring to the deficit whenever talking about rising unemployment, job losses, bank bailouts, or just anything to do with the economy that seemed to be plunging into the second Great Depression. Funny, they understood the need for fiscal stimulus when the president was Republican. At least Bush did since, credit where it's due, he signed the 2008 stimulus bill. It was too small  and inefficient, but the right idea. But suddenly when Obama is president, the deficit becomes the biggest problem. Democrats should have explained that the rise in the deficit was the result of our economic problems, not the cause, and in fact necessary to start recovering, but they didn't. Instead they chose to agree that the deficit was a terrible thing and had to be a priority, and look at how us Democrats are trying to restrain it. In other words, they validated the Republicans' conflation; in other other words, they reinforced the frame.

Democrats simultaneously made the jargon error, by talking about the need for a fiscal stimulus without remembering that few people besides economists had a clue what a "stimulus" was. They handed Republicans a prime opportunity to demonize the word, and demonize they did. "Stimulus" is now a word no politician dares use, except as an attack. Americans might have liked the "recovery act" as the eventual stimulus bill was referred to, but Republicans had succeeded in creating fear of deficits and opposition to the stimulus among people in desperate need of the job creation the stimulus and deficit would bring. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, actually well-named in messaging terms, was half the size economists said it needed to be, was too much tax cuts instead of spending, and it's been pulling teeth to get any more stimulus no matter how well aimed or badly needed. In fact, this last recession was the first one where the government actually cut jobs. In other words, the austerians had won the debate so thoroughly that we did mostly the opposite of what we needed to do. At least we had some stimulus and less austerity than we could have had. The Europeans went all in on austerity, and whereas we refer to the biggest recession since the Great Depression, they pretty much can just call it the Second Great Depression.

So again, there's no need to understand the theory to avoid pitfalls. To "don't use the other side's words", add "don't use jargon without explaining it", or to change that into a do, "do keep in mind the meanings others will attach to words". If you do that, you're more likely to remember that jargon has no meaning to a general audience. If you want to apply what you've learned, then in the case of "deficit", be aware that we're not framing the debate about the last recession. We're framing the debate for the next recession. Yes, that's awkward when bragging about how rapidly the budget deficit has fallen since 2009. On the one hand that's just the objective truth, it's politically beneficial to point it out, and undeniably fun to throw that in Republicans' faces when they repeat the false claim that the deficit is still shooting up. On the other hand, doing so plays into giving the deficit undue importance, and that will bite us the next time we need a stimulus. It might work if we follow up by making sure it's understood that the plunge of the deficit is the result of the improving economy, not the cause, like the rise of the deficit was the result of the bad economy and not the cause. Focusing on the deficit in a weak economy is like thinking you're curing your cold by wiping up your sneeze, but we'll never get that point across by nodding stupidly when some shallow person compares government spending to a family budget.

I suppose that adds one more don't. Don't indulge bad metaphors like a family budget, because now you're arguing within a misleading frame.


baseball and cash in baseball gloveDemocrats rely on a ground game more than Republicans. Or maybe we do more on the ground because we're better at it. I suspect ground game tactics are appealing because their cost is lower than advertising and we usually don't have as much money to throw around as our opponents. Maybe we knock on doors more because our urban and suburban base live in houses closer together and walkable. My doorknocking where houses were spread out certainly made me think about that. Whatever the case, this much I'm sure about: our reliance on a ground game makes it important that we do it efficiently. Since we know that the most effective tactic for increasing turnout is the face to face conversation at the door, and that dropping campaign literature without talking to anyone gets us almost nothing, we should be valuing the proportion of doors where we get conversations, and we should be unimpressed by the raw number of contacts.

Yet that's not what we're doing.

This is a follow-up to Applying Moneyball to political campaigns, which I posted roughly a week and a half ago. I explained the concept of moneyball in politics at length there, so if you happened to read that, feel free to skip these next couple paragraphs. For everyone else, here's the concept.

Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis that could be about politics — though it’s actually about baseball. Broadly though, it’s about a contest where money is important, and the contestants have greatly varying amounts of it. That means the party with less money either loses, or finds the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. In baseball, that’s what the Oakland Athletics did while Lewis followed them during the 2002 season. They were willing to ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. They challenged their experience and conventional wisdom with data. They used what statistics said were the best strategies. In the running argument between baseball insiders on one side, and outsiders who happened to be huge fans of both baseball and statistics of which baseball has many, Oakland was the first team to let the statisticians win the debates, and they found good players who were undervalued enough to be affordable. To see Democrats’ problem, replace “baseball” with “politics”, “Oakland A’s” with “Democrats”, and “New York Yankees” with “Republicans”. Basically, Republicans have a collection of crank billionaires who can engage in unlimited spending, and we don’t. They can throw money at problems and we can’t. So we need to find the inefficiencies.

So Democrats need to ask the same questions. Are we measuring and valuing the right things? Are we putting data ahead of experience and conventional wisdom? Are we acting on assumptions rather than knowledge and thereby pursing suboptimal strategies? To answer those questions, I asked what we value, and what we could value instead. The answers were coming on two levels, a macro level like taking back Congress, and a micro level, meaning the ground game where I spend much of my volunteer time. The first post was plenty long explaining the concepts without diving into the weeds of details, so I’m making separate macro and micro posts for detailed weediness. This is the micro post.

Though I said in the first paragraph that our campaigns our valuing the wrong thing by touting the total number of contacts, it's not a useless number. It's just that it's useful only in terms of working out the proportion of doors we knocked on that turned into conversations. Since we have the research to tell us that conversations at the door are easily the most effective tactic at increasing turnout, we should be trying to figure out how to doorknock in such a way as to maximize the conversations and minimize the unanswered doors. Instead, by valuing the sheer number of doors, we're actually pushing canvassers to do a poor job. That especially matters if we're paying canvassers. If they're evaluated on their performance by the number of doors they knocked on or the blocks they covered, then we're actually providing an incentive to avoid conversations. Even volunteers will pick up on this notion that they're doing a good job by walking more sheer blocks. Really though, if we don't talk to anyone at the door, but leave some campaign literature and move on, then we're getting no more impact than a lit drop, which is campaign jargon for leaving some literature at a door and moving on without trying to contact anyone inside, which is a tactic with a negligible increase in turnout.

If we properly value the sorts of contacts we have, then we're going to try to figure out the circumstances that get us the most conversations and fewest unanswered doors. As I thought it through, I realized I was asking campaigns to experiment, which means taking a risk that by ignoring what we think we know, we may do things in the less effective way, just to get a more valid experiment. Long term, that's what we have to do. Short term, well, do you want to be the candidate who loses by a five votes because you chose to work the less promising precinct just to get a more useful experiment? So I realize what I'm asking, yet I must point out that much of what we know, not "think", but know, is because some people have run campaigns in a way to have a better experiment. I'm as shocked as anyone that a candidate who gave great latitude to political scientists to experiment with his campaign was Rick Perry. Yes, former Texas Governor Rick Perry; and he did win, partly by having information on effective campaigning no one else had at the time.

A supposed contrast between baseball and politics is that baseball has this mass of data and politics doesn't, but that's wrong. I think I read that in Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise, but I'm not sure so don't quote me. It appears to make sense that baseball is more approachable by statistical analysis because every pitch is a whole set of data. For each pitch there's the pitch velocity, type of pitch, location, the count, swing or take, fair or foul ball, hit or out, and a bunch more. For politics there's nothing except polling, if you have enough polls ... except that's wrong.

Politics does have something similar, and this is what I really want us to think about: every door we knock on is a set of data. Knock on lots of doors, and we have loads of data, if we'll just collect it and use it. For each knock on a door, there is:
-the time of day
-the day of the week
-days until the election
-time the canvasser waits before leaving
-weather conditions
-partisan lean of the precinct
-number of prior contacts and unanswered attempts
-type of housing (single family, condo, apartment)
-and of course the main piece of data, whether the result was a conversation, refusal to speak, or no answer.

Any of us could no doubt think of more. I don't know which data are the ones that, if analyzed, would tell us how to maximize the proportion of doors that turn into conversations. I have a guess, but the point of experimenting is to not need to guess.* And that's just it: we can and should test all this. Suppose Mondays have a 20% response rate but Tuesdays have a 25% rate. One door in four or one door in five, so what? "So what" is that would mean 25% more conversations for the same number of doors on Tuesday over Monday. That adds up.

Here's a question we could answer with a pretty straightforward test: how long should we wait at the door after knocking? How long do we wait? I know that I just have my internal clock telling me when to give up and leave, but I don't actually know how long that is, or if that's the optimum time. I sometimes notice that when I'm working in a pair, my partner goes faster than I do. I also rarely have someone come to the door as I'm walking away. So am I just waiting too long, or is my faster partner missing a bunch of people opening the door after they've left? We could test this by having canvassers go out in a pair, with one person canvassing as normal, and the other just recording the time between the knock and when either the door is answered or the canvasser leaves, and recording how often the door was answered after the canvasser left. If we're getting an answer rate of only 20% which I think is pretty common, then missing a conversation by not waiting long enough is a significant loss. Waiting too long is a loss too since time is usually limited. So why are we out there just guessing?

I recognize there are factors that might limit our ability to use what we learned. If your campaign finds that you get a clearly better answer rate at 2PM Tuesday than other times, but your volunteers are available 11AM Saturday, I have a guess at when you're scheduling your doorknock. However, consider that volunteer time isn't the only time you need to be efficient with. If a campaign has paid staff, then presumably they can be sent out at 2PM Tuesday. Your candidate's time is also a finite resource, and candidates normally arrange their schedules around the needs of the campaign. Wouldn't it be really useful to know the optimum time to have the candidate on the doors?

I mentioned the risk that running an experiment might mean the canvass is done in a less than most effective manner for the sake of future campaigns, which might seem like a poor trade-off if this is YOUR election (though I reiterate that Rick Perry allowed experiments when his election, at least the primary, was in doubt). Another risk is that you'll experiment and find that nothing affects the answer rate, and it's all just noise. At least then, however, you can know that you can schedule only in terms of when volunteers are available, or when the candidate prefers to go out, without worrying you're being inefficient.

Just to acknowledge the nuances, notice I keep referring to increasing turnout. That was the subject of the research I'm aware of. It's for turnout that we want to maximize the conversations and minimize the non-answers. That might not apply to persuasion. My guess is it does, but I'm unaware if anyone has done such research, and that strikes me as a lot harder to measure than turnout. Maybe face to face conversations at the door aren't more effective at persuasion than phone calls or lit drops. I do find it plausible --- my guess is it's wrong, but it's plausible --- that literature dropped at the door can be persuasive in certain circumstances. Specifically, lit drops might work when the residents are already certain to vote, and the candidates are in downballot races where there voter is unlikely to have formed an opinion. I'm skeptical about anyone changing a presidential vote that way, but maybe a well-targeted lit drop could work for something like county board or city council, maybe even an obscure partisan race like state legislature. But as I said here, from what I could see, campaigns that relied on lit drops got nothing for it. Maybe they lit dropped too many non-voters.

Maybe. But the whole point of this exercise is that we have to find the inefficiencies to beat our better funded opponents. So don't we want to figure out what works, and get our campaigns to stop doing anything else?

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baseball and cash in baseball gloveGerrymandering isn't the only thing giving Republicans a guaranteed majority in the US House and a bunch of state legislatures, but it is most of it. Clearly, what Democrats have been doing to counter that isn't working. Time for a rethink, and here's what I thought: we don't need to win seats gerrymandered to be unwinnable, nor do we need to win complete control of state governments so we can do the gerrymandering (many Democrats have an ethical problem with gerrymandering anyway, so there's a bonus). We just need enough control in the right states to block Republicans from gerrymandering.

This is a follow-up to Applying Moneyball to political campaigns, which I posted a few days ago. I explained the concept of moneyball in politics at length there, but since it's unreasonable to require anyone to read that other post before continuing with this one, pardon the recap. I suppose if you read the prior post, you get to skip the next couple paragraphs.

Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis that could be about politics --- though it's actually about baseball. Broadly though, it's about a contest where money is important, and the contestants have greatly varying amounts of it. That means the party with less money either loses, or finds the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. In baseball, that's what the Oakland Athletics did while Lewis followed them during the 2002 season. They were willing to ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. They challenged their experience and conventional wisdom with data. They used what statistics said were the best strategies. In the running argument between baseball insiders on one side, and outsiders who happened to be huge fans of both baseball and statistics of which baseball has many, Oakland was the first team to let the statisticians win the debates, and they found good players who were undervalued enough to be affordable. To see Democrats' problem, replace "baseball" with "politics", "Oakland A's" with "Democrats", and "New York Yankees" with "Republicans". Basically, Republicans have a collection of crank billionaires who can engage in unlimited spending, and we don't. They can throw money at problems and we can't. So we need to find the inefficiencies.

So Democrats need to ask the same questions. Are we measuring and valuing the right things? Are we putting data ahead of experience and conventional wisdom? Are we acting on assumptions rather than knowledge and thereby pursing suboptimal strategies? To answer those questions, I asked what we value, and what we could value instead. The answers were coming on two levels, a macro level like taking back Congress, and a micro level, meaning the groundgame where I spend much of my volunteer time. The first post was plenty long explaining the concepts without diving into the weeds of details, so I'm making separate macro and micro posts for detailed weediness. This is the macro post.

What have we been valuing? Votes. Seems obvious enough when trying to win elections. Somehow though, there are times when getting the most votes isn't getting us the most seats. Apparently, instead of valuing votes, we should be valuing seats. Seats are the real goal. Votes are just the main way of getting them, but not the only way. The other factors I mentioned  were gerrymandering, voter suppression, partisan election officials, partisan judges, and election rules. Don't take the following focus on gerrymandering to mean I'm blowing off the rest. Of course they're important, or else we can't understand Florida 2000 where Al Gore won the election but George Bush become president. I'm focusing on gerrymandering because we're not making progress on that, which I suspect is partly because we have the wrong strategy, while Democrats generally understand the other problems. We don't always have the solutions, but at least we seem to be going in the right direction. I can think of opposing arguments to that last statement, but I've written about them before, and maybe again in a future post.

So when we comfort ourselves with having gotten the most votes, we're overvaluing votes, and undervaluing seats. What are these strategies for countering Republican gerrymandering that aren't working? Essentially there are three: 1. Rack up all the votes we can wherever we get them and hope they result in the most seats; 2. Make a big effort to win in districts gerrymandered to be safely Republican; 3. Try to win control of state governments so we can do our own gerrymandering. Strategy one turns out to have too inefficient a distribution of votes to work. Strategy two is very costly because of the money we have to pour in to move these districts the opposite of the way they're made to go, and maybe no amount of money would be enough, assuming we even have enough money to move enough districts, which is a questionable assumption. Strategy three is also expensive, and the Republicans need thwart us in only one house of the legislature, or just the governor in many states, to block a Democratic gerrymander.

Thus why I said at the top that we don't need to gain the ability to control redistricting, nor do we need to pound our heads against the wall of unwinnable seats. We just need to block the Republicans from being able to gerrymander, thereby forcing a non-partisan redistricting. That alone would make a whole bunch of seats winnable. Moreover, we don't need to do this in all states, but just enough big states.

Why just big states? It's not that I'm saying some states are more important that others, but, ... OK, I guess I am  saying that, but only in terms of drawing congressional districts. I can understand someone with the DLCC (Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee) thinking one legislative seat is the same as another since winning as many as possible is their job, but for redistricting Congress, they're not equally worth pursuing. It would be nice to win the legislature in North Dakota, but North Dakota has one at-large seat, so there's nothing to gerrymander. Compare that to Texas, which has 36 seats, and is carefully gerrymandered to help Republicans. Just blocking the GOP in Texas would flip some seats. Do the same in the other big states where the GOP was able to gerrymander, and we're a long way towards regaining the majority of the US House. Winning anything in Texas has proven difficult, but winning something is still a lot shorter hill to climb than winning complete control. Notice the strategy here: focus on winning seats that make it more likely we win other seats. Winning in small states just doesn't make progress toward undoing congressional gerrymandering. Trying to win in just some states, even though they're big, is a whole lot cheaper than trying to win in all states. Winning something in a state, however difficult it is, is a lot cheaper and doable than winning everything.

Hopefully no one in North Dakota took offense. You have every right to care unapologetically about your own state legislature, given that you have to live with the public policy that results. Grassroots activists can individually have the biggest effect in their own districts. And of course legislatures do more than just redistricting, though I must point out my suggested GOP-blocking strategy would also block the GOP from passing the horrible legislation they're inflicting on the states they control. I do get the desire to have complete control so as to pass progressive legislation, but keep in mind we're thinking for right now purely about redistricting, so accepting the blocking of the GOP and the forcing of a non-partisan redistricting is a perfectly acceptable outcome.

So how do we block the GOP? There are four places where we might be able to block: governor, the upper house, the lower house, and a non-partisan redistricting commission. I say "upper house" and "lower house" instead of just "legislature" because if you're doing a rethink, it helps to break everything down into small units just to make sure you're not missing something. As it happens, in pretty much every state, the houses of the legislature have different dynamics, like getting elected in different years or having dissimilar districts, or a history of control by different parties. The effect is one house may be much more winnable than the other, and since we're looking to be efficient with limited resources, it may be wasteful to go after just any seat whatsoever.

Then of course, there's the catch-22 that the legislature is often already gerrymandered to be Republican, so we have to flip it to stop gerrymandering, but we can't because it's gerrymandered. Trying to win governor seems obvious since whole states aren't gerrymandered, but that works only if the governor can veto a redistricting plan. Many can, but not all states let the governor have any say. What this means is, as we're trying to win gubernatorial elections, states aren't equal. Governors who aren't involved in redistricting don't help. Again, that's just for redistricting; there are no governorships that are bad to hold. They're just not equally worth limited resources. Among those who can veto a redistricting plan, just like state legislative seats, we want big states first. It might be hard to tell that to the DGA (Democratic Governors Association) because if you work for them, your first job is reelecting Democratic incumbents since they presumably paid in. Competitiveness is presumably the only criteria for getting into other races. For the rest of us though, governors are not all equally valuable. Remember the general strategy: identify and gain seats that can get us more seats.

Non-partisan commissions aren't common, and the only one I know of for sure is California. Interestingly, Democrats actually gained seats under the non-partisan plan. Putting commissions in place entails giving up the chance to do the gerrymandering, but they sure can block the Republicans even if we fail to hold any part of the state government. So maybe we should think about more of these. Getting state legislators to give up that power is presumably difficult, but some states have citizen initiatives, though as we've seen sometimes, when Republicans have control, they just overturn initiatives they don't like, so these commissions ought to be done via constitutional amendment. I suppose it could be done through statute, and then dare Republicans to run for election after making a blatant power grab, but can anyone recall voters punishing a party over how districts were drawn? Me neither.

There might be hesitancy to change long-standing strategies at the DGA, DLCC, DCCC, DNC, or Democratic leaning independent groups, but one thing is for sure: the Republicans have been thinking strategically. Their success in state legislatures in 2010 was partly the luck of a red wave, but they had positioned themselves by focusing on state legislatures. Democrats, remarkably for a redistricting year, paid scant attention. It's as if the strategic thinking we see in presidential years just gets tossed in midterms. Democrats revert to the same strategies that fail just about every time.

However, I don't think we're stuck merely hoping the Democratic acronyms get it figured out. We can push. And it's not like volunteer time and small donations mean nothing. Probably anyone reading a post where the word "redistricting" gets used repeatedly already knows how their state does it, but if you don't, find out. Remember that your time and money are resources to be deployed strategically. Hopefully the candidates on the Democratic ticket will work together but if not, pick who gets your help. If you can't take the lower house, then with apologies to the really good lower house candidate, you have to go help the upper house candidate. If you can't take either house, try to help win governor. Support a push for a non-partisan commission. Work at home and in adjoining districts of course, but if sending money to candidates elsewhere, be strategic in picking who you help.

And if you can, give some help to Democrats in Texas. If the GOP loses Texas, it's in multiple forms of trouble. Obviously a tough state for Democrats, but wow, the impact if we can do something there.

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baseball and cash in baseball gloveI recently read Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book that is ostensibly about baseball, but really is about politics. OK, it's really about baseball, specifically about the Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season. Broadly speaking however, it's about a contest where money is important, and the different parties in this contest have drastically different amounts to work with, forcing the side with much less money to either lose badly, or find the inefficiencies everyone else is missing. Oakland did the latter. If you're uninterested in baseball, I still suggest reading the beginning, and in your head replace "baseball" with "politics", "Oakland A's" with "Democrats", and "New York Yankees" with "Republicans", and some questions should come up. In a matchup of unequal financial resources, where the other side can just throw money at things and we can't, are we using our resources efficiently? Democrats actually tend to match Republicans in spending by party units, by candidates, and even by independent groups who have to report their spending and donations. The difference is in dark money, though we can't know by how much, which is the point of dark money. We simply don't have the Republicans' ample supply of crank billionaires willing to spend unlimited funds on their favored candidates and ideological crusades. They throw money at campaigns. We can't afford to.

Lewis said he started out looking into how a team that was consistently near the bottom in payroll was consistently contending. He coined the term "moneyball" to describe Oakland's approach to competing by finding players they could afford who were still good enough, and doing that required finding what other teams were missing. After the 2001 season, they were pushed hard when three star players signed big contracts with other teams including, of course, the Yankees. The Athletics' management did this by being willing to question what they believed, differentiate between knowledge and assumptions, trust data over experience, and ask if they were measuring and valuing the right things. If you think I'm leading up to a suggestion that our political campaigns are measuring and valuing the wrong things, yes. Though at least on Team Blue, it seems we value and use research more than baseball did. Just my impression, which is ironic since I'm suggesting less reliance on impressions. Anyway, we can do better, and it's not like I, and probably most readers, are unable to cite instances of people in campaigns stubbornly refusing to reconsider conventional wisdom and change established habits.

So yes, I'm thinking of ways we campaign where I suspect we value and measure the wrong things, so sometimes we lack data and sometimes use less than optimal strategies.

I'm going to give a couple examples from the book, admittedly at the risk of indulging the liking I have for baseball and the enjoyment I got learning about this stuff, but I think non-baseball fans will get this too, and I ask us to apply this same thinking to politics.

Something the Athletics chose to value was how often a player gets on base. Baseball is blessed to be followed by people enthusiastic about both baseball and statistics, who tried to tell the people who run professional baseball that the frequency of getting on base is the most important aspect of judging a player. Scouts did not agree, and Oakland was the first team to take the statisticians' side on this. Scouts didn't think much could be judged by a young player's numbers, especially at a high school level (they have a point, so Oakland looked more at college players, which scouts tended to ignore), so they didn't measure how often a player got on base. They measured foot speed, throwing distance, and judged whether a player had an athlete's body. Oakland had conflicts between scouts and the staff who applied statistics, who came to different conclusions about which players had potential. The statistics won, and Oakland didn't care what a player looked like, as long as he could get on base. Thus they found players overlooked by other teams and thereby affordable to the A's, and the A's were able to contend while spending roughly a third of what the Yankees were spending.

Similar conflicts arose regarding strategy. Statistically inclined fans calculated the odds of scoring a run given different combinations of outs and runners on base, and determined that certain long-standing assumptions were wrong, leading to self-defeating strategies, such as the sacrifice bunt. That's where the batter bunts the ball and signals the bunt to the defense, making himself an easy out at first. In exchange for giving up the out, the team at bat gets to advance a runner on first base to second, or second base to third. However, the odds of scoring with a runner on first and one out turned out to be higher than with a runner on second and two out. In other words, outs were being undervalued. The sacrifice is a good deal for the defense. Some managers still haven't come as far as fans in figuring this out, thus why the smattering of boos when the home team sacrifices.

So how about we ask similar questions about our campaigns? Are there analogous situations where we're measuring the wrong things? Refusing to use data which conflict with experience and conventional wisdom? Those of you who have been at this politics stuff a while are probably formulating examples already. As I thought about it, I realized I was thinking on two different scales, macro and micro, by which I mean the grand scale like national strategy, and down on the ground where we're pounding pavement. Campaigns entail a lot of factors that make it hard to tell exactly why we won or lost, which strategies help, but maybe we can get beyond merely taking our best guess, and having a strategy of "just do everything because we don't know what works".

To answer the question of whether we value that right things, I asked what it is that we value, and what potentially we could value. Getting into the details on either the macro or micro levels would make this post awfully long, let alone covering both, so my thinking now is I'm going to save the details for separate posts on each level. But I do want to share the general direction now.

On a macro level, we value getting votes --- yet getting the most votes isn't always getting our candidates into office. What we need isn't votes; what we need is seats. Votes are merely the main means of getting seats, and sometimes when we get the most votes, Republicans get the most seats. Probably many readers just remembered Florida 2000, when Al Gore won the election but somehow Bush Jr. got into the White House. I thought of that too, but I'm also thinking of 2012, when Democrats in aggregate got the most votes for Congress, but weren't even close to getting a majority of seats. The same happened in some state legislative chambers. Republicans got more seats with fewer votes. Apparently there are more ways to get seats than getting the most votes. What else might affect getting more seats? Might seem obvious, but let's think it through, because sometimes it's surprising what we find when we back up and think through what we think we already know. So, ways to get seats besides getting the most votes:


  • Gerrymandering: this is the big one, at least in terms of winning back Congress, and the macro post will focus on gerrymandering, but to put it briefly, we try to counter it by winning control of state governments and trying to win gerrymandered seats. But there might be a more efficient way to counter gerrymandering. We don't need to control states to allow us to gerrymander, which many Democrats have ethical problems with anyway. We need to gain partial control, of big enough states, to block Republican gerrymandering. I'm thinking that's both cheaper and more achievable.
  • Voter suppression: If you weren't reminded of Florida 2000 before, you probably just recollected the effect of a partisan state secretary of state purging tens of thousands of black voters from the registration rolls by falsely identifying them as felons. Democrats definitely have an ethical objection to suppressing Republican votes, but we have to block Republican suppression of likely Democratic voters. Keep in mind Republicans don't do this merely to be mean, but because it gets them more seats.
  • Partisan election officials: hard to separate from voter suppression since it usually requires election officials to act in a partisan way to suppress the other party's votes, but it's also about having people who want the machinery of government to work, and who value more people voting. Even just wanting to block Republican voter suppression rather than wanting to suppress their voters, which I expect no Democrat would be ethically OK with,  requires winning the elections for the officials that administer elections, or the officials that appoint those who administer elections. We don't have to stop a crooked secretary of state from wrongly purging voters off the registration rolls if we elect a secretary of state that won't do that.
  • Partisan judges: Republican were many years ahead of us in their focus on controlling the judiciary, and having partisans on the right benches has gained seats for them, the presidency in 2000 obviously being the big one. I don't want judges who will be partisan to Democrats because partisan judges erode the legitimacy of the judicial branch, but we sure have to block partisan Republicans.
  • Election rules: By this I mean how we hold elections, like instant runoff versus separate runoff versus plurality winner, or party primary versus jungle primary.

Again, I'm saving the dive into the weeds of details for a separate macro post, but do notice right now one thing: winning seats by these non-vote methods has proven cheap. The big one is Republicans gained the presidency in 2000 for the cost of winning a secretary of state election. Getting Republicans on the US Supreme Court gained Republicans a court that throws out campaign finance laws, gaining who knows how many elections so far or to come, which we have failed to counter by what we've tried so far.

On a micro level where, like probably most of you reading this, I spend my actual campaign time, I thought of the times I heard campaign staff or candidates boast of the numbers of doors their campaigns knocked on. However, we know that only the actual conversations really matter. So when we count just the doors knocked on, we're measuring the wrong thing. Since only the conversations matter, counting the doors where no one answered is useful only in terms of establishing a proportion of doors where we're getting the conversations. Yes, it's a potentially useful piece of data, but we're treating it like the goal. A supposed difference between baseball and politics is that baseball has loads of discrete bits of data while politics doesn't. That's true about baseball, where each pitch can be taken as a separate measurable unit. But it's true about politics too. Yes, it's hard to know if votes were won or lost from TV ads, posters, bumper stickers, or debates. But we do have a load of data available if we recognize that each voter contact is a measurable piece of data. Since knocking a door and getting no answer is no better than a lit drop, it seems we would want to analyze our doorknock data with the goal of maximizing the conversations and minimizing the unanswered knocks. Instead, by emphasizing the sheer number of doors, we're actually providing an incentive to do a poor job of doorknocking.

Doorknocking is where I spend most of my volunteer time, so that's the explanation of why my thoughts would go that way. There are a number of things about our doorknocks I question and as I'm pondering the post, even just in my head it's getting really long. Like a separate macro post, my intention is to have a separate micro post for a deep dive.

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I never thought we'd get to use this again when Mitt Romney dropped out of the 2016 presidential race:
Turns out we can, as long as we solve the problem of which 2016 candidate deserves it more. Rand Paul and Scott Walker are in a tight competition for the Romney Prize for Bizarre Position Changing. I doubt either can match Romney's ability to change positions on consecutive days, but they're making a valiant effort.

To start with Paul, he was asked to explain some position changes in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, and Paul really thought this was a valid reason for saying something different in the past than he's saying now: "I also wasn't campaigning for myself, I was campaigning to help my father at the time." Later on a similar question,  "Once again, before I was involved in politics for myself." I guess somehow that makes sense to Paul. Hannity let it slide.

That interview was obscured by the controversy over his interview on NBC's The Today Show, where he was a jerk towards interviewer Savannah Guthrie. He's been similarly boorish towards other female interviewers, but Paul excused himself on the grounds that he acts like that to male interviewers too. Um, I hate to you Mr. Sort-of-Doctor Sen Paul, but that's not better. "Complete jerk" is different than "patronizing chauvinist", but not actually better.

Scott Walker has been making flip-flops that seem like the old-fashioned practice of changing your politics to please the audience in front of you, which worked more often before the internet. Hat tip to Laura Clawson, who picked up on this Politico article from JR Ross of Ross showed Walker switching positions on sales taxes, immigration, abortion access, and he suddenly sounded friendly to ethanol subsidies in Iowa in contradiction to his prior opposition. He likewise changed positions on the need for stronger gun laws, being fine with them when representing a suburban district in the state legislature, but now that he want the votes of the gun nuts in the GOP base, not so much.

If you don't like Walker's position on something, just wait until you're in the audience, and he'll change it.

So which gets the Mittster? I decided "Romney Prize for Bizarre Position Changing" is a bit long to write over and over again.

Twitter users, remember the hashtag #ThisGuyWantsToBePresident

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Just so we're clear, the "troubles with the truth" in the headline aren't necessarily lies. There can be more subtle forms of obfuscation, denialism, and even inadvertent honesty.

Or just plain old refusing to check facts that are just too convenient to not use. I'm referring here to Marco Rubio, who claimed Obama refused to comment on the fraudulent election in Iran 2009 that ignited street protests in Tehran. Obama did comment. Rubio is just flat out wrong. My guess is he wasn't lying, but just repeating a talking point that was so good, it was best to not fact check it. Rubio is hardly the first. The Washington Post's fact checker has Rubio's statement and tracked the statements Obama made at the time, though he also did that thing that drives me nuts about fact-checking columns and sites, some of them anyway. They have to do their own twisting to find some way a false statement isn't completely false, or a true statement isn't completely true. In this case, Glenn Kessler gave Rubio just three Pinocchios instead of four (and why do fact checkers need the cutesy rating systems?) because Obama could have been stronger sooner, and Rubio would have had a point if he'd said something else. Fact checkers keep doing this. "The president didn't say that but looking only at part of what he said, the misquoting would have been close to what he was accused of saying, and the person making it up would have been close if he had said X instead of what he actually said, so it's therefore not completely false." Why is this so hard for not just Kessler, but other fact checkers too? Rubio said Obama said X. Obama didn't say X, so Rubio's statement is false. Rubio's staff tried to support their boss's claim by referring to something Obama said that was related to the topic but not what they claimed he said. They should get extra cutesy icons for bogusity.

Bobby Jindal actually got other Louisiana Republicans upset with him for his own act of bogusity. In a desperate attempt to keep his no-tax pledge while plugging massive budget holes, Jindal wants to eliminate $526 million in tax rebates that go to business. He didn't consult with anyone in Louisiana, but with Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Jindal sought ATR's blessing first, and they decided that ending a tax rebate isn't a tax increase, much to the consternation of Louisiana business and Republicans. In pure policy terms, ending the rebate is probably a smart move, though I suppose being a liberal, I would think that ending a special tax break for some businesses when there's a budget shortfall is smart. However, the issue here is Jindal got some anti-tax fanatic in DC to approve his policy before asking anyone actually in his state, and his state's Republicans and businesses are ticked both at losing a rebate, and at losing it because some guy in DC makes up the rules by no discernible rationale. ATR decided to call ending the tax rebate a spending cut rather than a tax increase, which I intend to point out next time I'm arguing for ending a tax expenditure.

Of course, if that were a Democrat who wanted to end a tax expenditure rather than Norquist's presidentially ambitious buddy, there no doubt would be screaming about another "Democrat" tax increase. To be fair though, a bunch of conservatives in Louisiana aren't buying the definitions even from Jindal. Losing your own goodies from government will have that effect I guess.

Lindsey Graham says Al Gore is to blame for the inability of Republicans to address climate change. Why can't Republicans accept climate change and come up with a policy? "But the problem is Al Gore's turned this thing into religion." Oddly enough, though Graham is indulging in utter nonsense, he is accidentally telling a sort of truth. Republicans can't accept that climate change is real because a Democrat they hate has been prominent on the issue. Call it childish or tribalistic, but Graham is telling us where they are: Republicans can't accept it because that would mean agreeing with environmentalists. Whatever the ideological enemy believes must, by definition, be wrong.

It's ironic that Graham et al accuse Gore and environmentalists of making a religion of global warming when global warming realists are following the evidence, while deniers are holding tight to their beliefs without proof, or in this case despite proof. Yes, somebody is making a religion out of it, eh, Senator?

Ted Cruz would have us believe his musical tastes changed almost literally overnight. Cruz said he switched from classic rock to country because country responded better to 911. Just by coincidence, country is the preferred genre for the people Cruz is playing to in order to get elected. "I had an emotional reaction that said, 'these are my people.' So ever since 2001 I listen to country music." Right, the guy who didn't even want students from the "lesser ivies" joining his study group at Harvard is plain down home folks. This isn't to say he's lying because who knows what music he likes now or what he used to listen to. Or if someone does know him well enough to know he's lying, it's that person's word against Cruz, so we'll never know for sure. It can be said for sure that claiming musical taste changes on a dime is down low on the plausibility scale, and claiming that it just happened to change in the most politically convenient way pushes it down even further.

TPM posted the video of the interview, and what's rather scary is how the panelists, supposedly journalists trained to be skeptical, just nod in agreement. Not one "are you frikkin' kidding me?!" expression to be seen. Just nodding heads, as if these Beltway and NYC denizens had the same reaction. Sure, now here's a radio, show us where the country stations are.

Twitter users, remember the hashtag #ThisGuyWantsToBePresident

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Cross-posted at MN Progressive Project, with a bit of editing for a national audience.

Sen. Bob Menendez, indicted yesterday on bribery charges, has just been removed from the foreign relations committee. I have a guess at the next conspiracy theory to come out of conservative Obama Derangement Syndrome. My guess is they're going to claim the Justice Department is going after Menendez because of his opposition to Obama's negotiations with Iran and Cuba.

I can't pretend to be broken up about the prospect of losing Menendez, but the notion should be seen as silly on its face. First, the indictment seems pretty substantial. The text is here (anyone know how to make a Scribd embedding work?). I don't claim to know if there really is a quid pro quo as the indictment charges, or just two buddies doing favors for each other, and these buddies happen to be rich in one case and a senator in the other, but it's clear these aren't baseless allegations. Second, Menedez's replacement will be appointed by a Republican governor, so losing Menendez, much as he's no prize, does mean flipping the seat. If the DOJ was going to make up corruption charges to remove Obama's opponents, I assume they'd go after Republicans first, especially Republican senators whose replacements would be appointed by Democratic governors. Instead, they indicted a Democrat with a Republican appointing the replacement. So no, it makes no sense that Democrats would seek some bogus grounds to remove him.

One of my state's senators, Amy Klobuchar, is the "senator 1" in the indictment. She received a donation from co-defendant Salomon Melgen that Menendez apparently asked him to make, allegedly as a favor to Menendez. She's not accused of wrongdoing, but getting your colleague even mentioned in an indictment is a lousy way to endear yourself. Klobuchar returned the donation from Melgen, and a donation from Menendez. Returning someone's donation is an monetary way of saying, "keep away from me you useless *&^%$".


Tue Mar 17, 2015 at 12:07 PM PDT

Congress has its own email problem

by ericf

An AP reporter did some digging and found out Congress doesn't have any rules   for saving official email.

Members of Congress who are demanding Hillary Rodham Clinton's emails are largely exempt from such scrutiny themselves.

Congress makes its own rules. It never has subjected itself to open records laws that force agencies such as the State Department to maintain records and turn them over to the public when asked.

There's also no requirement for members of Congress to use official email accounts, or to retain, archive or store their emails, while in office or after.

That's in contrast to the White House and the rest of the executive branch. Official emails there are supposed to be retained, though the controversy over Clinton's use of a personal email account while secretary of state has exposed vague and inconsistent requirements from one agency to another.

But if the rules at federal agencies are unclear, at least there are rules. On Capitol Hill, there are almost none.

So the same House Republicans who are subpoenaing Clinton's emails as part of their inquiry into the Benghazi, Libya, attacks are not required to retain emails of their own for future inspection by anyone.

The article points out that Congress tends to have more openness in its proceedings than the executive branch, but it can keep private anything it wants to, and individual congressmen can destroy any of their own records they want to. The article quotes a spokesman for the Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is leading the latest(!) Benghazi investigation saying the difference is the executive branch enforces laws. True, but it's not like making laws is some minor function, and it would be nice to know when corporate special interests are having undue influence. I realize such instances can be described as "always", but might be nice to know just who is being influenced how.

Sen. Jeff Flake was quoted saying constituent email is different, and that makes sense. A constituent could be corresponding with a congressman over a private matter with every reason to expect and deserve privacy, but surely rules regarding email could account for that. The executive branch already has rules regarding the handling of personal information. Surely Congress could make a distinction between official records and protecting constituents' privacy.

Not that handling email is entirely black and white. Email might be conceived of as just the electronic replacement for paper memos, but all of us who use it are aware of something else, namely that email needs to be explained to Lindsey Graham. And that it's become a substitute for short conversations. If every line of a conversation is recorded for eventual perusal by just anybody, then no one will use email because of the risk they'll be accountable for the worst ideas they ever considered, no matter how quickly discarded. Government is different than business or personal correspondence because of that blurred line between a conversation and an official document that needs to be a public record, and apparently the rules are still not figured out.

This doesn't quite let Hillary Clinton off the hook for her controversy, but she does get to make a charge of hypocrisy at Republicans given the lack of rules for Congress and how Republicans have held it almost the entire time they've had email, so the lack of rules is on them --- not that hypocrisy will stop Republicans going after her for it, as we've already seen. Democrats can point out in her defense that at least the State Dept. had some rules, unclear or inadequate as they might be (though she will have to own up that she didn't get it fixed at the State Dept. when she was secretary). Republicans will want to conspiracy-monger based on her deleted email, but we might ask what would show up if we could see what congressmen deleted.

So Hillary's email will remain merely a minor scandal. A Hillary-defender's concern remains how she got into it and she handled it. For someone so hounded by critics, it's worrisome she didn't realize she was setting up her email in a way likely to inflame suspicions she was hiding something when she set up her own private email, when she didn't put it in the State archives right away (State allowed all staff to decide which email was official and needed retaining, but they were supposed to do it right away), and when she deleted everything she didn't turn over. From a campaign point of view, she waited a week to address it and explained it in a way that sounded like dodging. Why couldn't she respond the next day and explain State's rules? More than an explanation about the email, I'd like an explanation of why the controversy was handled this way. It's not like there won't be more controversies, and how a campaign responds is vital.

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If you don't know what #47traitors refers to, it was a top trending hashtag in Twitter recently, refering to the 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to the Iranian government telling them not to work with Obama, because the next Republican president is going to undo the agreement, and executive agreements don't mean anything anyway. The newly minted senator leading Republican senators by the nose when they should know better, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, responded to the ensuing controversy by asking the Republican presidential candidates to sign on. Four responded positively, so far. With a quadruple hat tip to TPM, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal said they would sign. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush did a bit of fudging, not signing themselves, but offering excuses for those who did. Looks like those two want it both ways, being able to tell conservatives that sabotaging a president's negotiations with a foreign government is OK, but being able to deny to swing voters that they signed.

That's on top of the senators who signed and look inclined to run for president: Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. There are no senators who appear to be running who had the sense to not sign.

Do they not understand that they're undermining the very job they seek? They want to tell a foreign government, and really all foreign governments, that the president's word means nothing because Congress will sabotage a president of the opposing party, and the next president will undo any agreement any. Do they think that once they get in office, the credibility of the presidency will suddenly be restored? Perhaps they think foreign governments will conveniently forget that the president they're talking to previously said executive agreements don't mean anything. Maybe these candidates are calculating that they have to exhibit Obama Derangement Syndrome because it's pandemic among those who vote in Republican primaries, and they'll deal with the damage once they get into office. If they don't win, then the damage is someone else's problem anyway, right?



Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 06:39 PM PDT

Hillary mishandling email controversy

by ericf

When the news broke of Hillary Clinton's use of personal email for her official email when she was secretary of state, my first thought was a recollection of the Bush White House staffers getting caught doing government business through personal email. That by and large disappeared into the large milieu of Bush scandals, particularly the loss of the official White House email that came out at the same time. The Bush administration admitted to losing about five million emails, so I do get the difference in scale between Bush and what Hillary is suspected of. It's mountain to molehill in terms of quantity, and it's likely nothing government related was even lost in Hillary's case. But it's similar in quality, and the fact the comparison to the Bush email scandal was the first thing to come to mind of even a staunch Democrat indicates how bad this is.

However, assuming it turns out Hillary indeed did nothing in violation of document retention rules, she still handled the controversy badly. Aside from the specifics of email rules, this feeds into my concern about Hillary as our 2016 candidate. She's a bad campaigner. I personally find her acceptable in terms of policy. Not saying she's perfect, but I don't expect any candidate to agree with me perfectly. She also looks like she could handle the job of running the executive branch. So I'm not worried about her as president. I'm worried about getting her there.

Before getting into specifics about her handling of this particular controversy, something about why it plays into my concerns about her. When Hillary ran for reelection in 2006, she built up a huge campaign fund for such a safe seat, so it sure looked like she was prepping for a presidential run in 2008, yet she spent all of it despite a huge lead in the polls the whole campaign. Don't worry, I'm not going to rehash 2008. I'm also not going to pretend I opposed her because she was a bad campaigner, because I didn't know for sure that 2006 was a sign. I opposed her because of her refusal to admit voting to invade Iraq was a mistake until late in the campaign, by which time she seemed to have a clunky campaign. I personally didn't hear the full story (or as full as I came to know anyway) until after the primaries were done, at which point I thought Democrats were fortunate she wasn't the candidate just in terms of who had the best chance to win. Hillary seemed primed to blow a winnable election.

So that's the context in which this email controversy came up. Hillary doesn't even have a serious opponent yet. Jim Webb has basically declared, but he seems to want to run in a Democratic primary on the EPA being too strict on greenhouse gas pollution; so --- Hillary has no serious opponent yet. 2016 is a winnable race for a Democrat, so to have her stumbling again is concerning. I suppose what I'm hoping for is enough of us in the Democratic base speak up that this sentiment percolates up to Hillary and those making campaign decisions. They need to learn that this isn't the way to win. I find it unfathomable they forget there are loads of people out to get her politically. The conservative media, the mainstream media, every Republican presidential campaign, and every conservative independent expenditure group out there, is ready to pounce. I can't imagine that this has been forgotten with all he crud that's been hurled at her during her years in public life, but the way this email controversy was handled leaves me wondering.

I plead with the candidate and the campaign, don't take the base for granted. Yes, we're going to show up at the polls, and probably donate some money and volunteer at the campaign office, but a bad campaign discourages supporters. They'll show up for the phone bank once, but will they show up twice? Stay that extra hour? Did deep when feeling tapped out to make that one more small donation? Knock doors in cold weather as well as warm? Then don't leave us having to explain things. Don't leave supporters feeling like they're engaging in spin. Don't leave supporters having to resort to saying our candidate did nothing illegal when that's not entirely the question, which gets us back to the issue at hand.

Hillary's defense of using her personal email is largely legalistic. That doesn't mean her points are false. It means it misses the point. It amounts to saying she found a way to comply with the letter of the law, but nobody, supporter or opponent, is in doubt that the spirit of the law was broken. Government employees, including political appointees, are supposed to use their official email for official purposes. I'm incredulous at the notion this wasn't the general assumption both inside and outside the beltway. How did she not know that? Did no one tell her this personal email was a bad idea? Finding a way to use personal email and somehow keep it legal doesn't cut it. How did she not know this would be perceived badly? Maybe someone with no further political ambitions might not care about how it's perceived, but Hillary should have thought of that.

If she didn't think about that at the time her email was set up, then she should have known this would come up inevitably when the campaign started. That's what makes her response so galling. Her press conference yesterday was dreadful. The biggest issue was just the time lag. She waited nearly a week to respond. That's a rookie mistake. I, and I assume every Democratic activist, expected a response the same day. Maybe two days if it takes time to form a response, but nearly a week?

I do believe her explanation about wanting to be able to use just one device for email. Pardon the snarky reasoning, but someone who was lying would surely come up with something better after a week. So I'm satisfied that's the real reason, but it's not a good one. Multiple email accounts are a pain for anyone, but many if not most people have more than one. If we use our work email for personal purposes, we get no privacy for the simple reason that our employer owns the email and gets to see our mail at any time. If we use personal email for work purposes without some agreement with our employers, they may be able to legally require us to show them our mail, which is where Hillary has put herself. Far better to accept using two computers or two phones. Some employers might allow personal use of employer email with an expectation of privacy, or accept personal email for work with no right for the employer to look at it (I did once have such an arrangement on a short term contract where it wasn't worth the employer setting up email for me). But she was the boss, so the excuse the employer allowed it just doesn't fly.

Hillary never addressed why she waited a week to offer an explanation. Other than why she set up her email this way in the first place, that was the burning question. I accept her claim that she never sent classified material by email, if for no other reason than if she's lying, she'll inevitably be found out. I accept that the server was secure, but security wasn't really the issue, which is part of what I meant by legalistic explanations. What I'm most bothered about from the press conference specifically is that the email not turned over was deleted. If it can't be recovered and inspected by the state department, then there's never going to be a way to prove there was nothing she was covering up. I trust her enough to believe those were just personal emails and nothing is being covered up, but why should anyone else accept that? Remember, the public has been primed to think she's always up to something, which makes transparency vital.

What should she have done, and what should she do now? Bear in mind, this comes from someone who's going to do his best to get her elected should she be the Democratic nominee. There are two problems: letting this happen in the first place, and how she responded. Obviously, like she said, she should have used two devices, but given that she didn't, she should have anticipated this would come up and had a response ready. Even caught off guard, she should have responded the next day if not the same day, because her silence let this drag on. She should have kept a backup of everything just so she could prove there was nothing to hide. Yes, much of the mail was personal, but that's the cost of using work email for personal purposes --- you give up privacy from your employer's eyes. She should have had State Department staff do the work of combing through the email to pick out what was work related, for the apparently not obvious reason that having people who work for her do the work lends to suspicion.

At this point, intrusive as it might seem, she needs to let the IT staff at State have the actual server to see if any deleted email can be recovered (and if a Hillary staffer is there to make sure there's no prying into other users' mail, that fair, since they do have a reasonable expectation of privacy). Deleted files generally remain on computers for a long time after deletion. The computer, rather than erasing the file, marks the space the file takes up as available to be overwritten. So she should admit the mistake, hand over the server, and tell the staff to recover what they can. Even if they can't recover everything, the fact she can't control what they find will protect her from charges of some coverup (at least to tech literate people, though for Republicans, that would mean listening to experts, so don't get your hopes up). Then let State staff go through the personal email to verify there's no work email, and a non-disclosure of personal email requirement for those staff seems fair.

But then above all, the two things she has to do are one, figure out everything potentially damaging that might come up and figure out now how to deal with it, because she should not have been caught so unaware with this. Some things thrown at her will be stupid and unforeseeable, but this wasn't one of them. Two, do what every campaign has to do, and figure out the means of dealing with issues promptly. No campaign can expect everything, but they can know unexpected things will happen, and they have to be quick. I realize Hillary isn't officially running for anything yet, but realistically, the campaign is on, and this is her fourth campaign plus whatever participation she had in Bill's campaigns, so it's disturbing that she doesn't already have these procedures in place.

If I have any good news to conclude with, it's this: the current frontrunner for the Republicans appears to be Scott Walker, and despite his willingness to attack Hillary over this so far, he should be the last candidate who wants to remind people about unlawful uses of email. Somehow Walker avoided jail himself --- so far --- despite his staff doing time for setting up illicit servers to let them do campaign work on government time. In other words, what Walker did is worse than anything Hillary can be accused of, so unless he's an idiot, he'll want to let all talk about email die.

cross-posted at MN Progressive Project

I might as well own up right away that the headline is a bit misleading, as only one of these stories involves Exxon. Well, someone has to be in Exxon's pocket. The Koch brothers surely can't squeeze in everybody. Then again, the Kochs and Exxon are part of the same oil oligopoly and between them do much to keep global warming denying funded, and the subject of the second story is infamous for Koch-pocket inhabiting, so please undulge some stretching in an effort at cleverness. Anyway, New Jersey governor Chris Christie let Exxon pay $250 milion after suing for $8.9 billion in damages.
I can appreciate why, when it comes to the Christie administration, the assorted controversies can be tough to keep track of, but this story is raising questions that deserve answers.

A judge was poised to rule on damages, and New Jersey was seeking $8.9 billion – $2.6 billion to help restore the damaged areas and $6.3 billion in compensatory damages. The fact that Exxon was responsible was not even at issue anymore.

And then the Christie administration decides it’ll settle for $250 million, most of which the governor can now apply to his state budget shortfall – rather than, say, environmental recovery.

Essentially, with the lawsuit successfully fought to the point where culpability was established and they were down to the money, Christie suddenly decided his state could give up billions to the benefit of Exxon, which made roughly $32 billion in net profit last year, while his state government, like pretty much all states run by Republicans, is short of cash. I guess if the Kochs have given their affections elsewhere, Christie needs to find a sugar daddy where he can.

The aforementioned Koch-pocket inhabitant is Scott Walker, who doesn't think you need people with Ph.Ds to understand foreign policy. Not when all you need is a little undefined "leadership". Steve Benen puts it well:

This year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) isn't yet offering similar punch-lines, but he is keeping the anti-intellectual strain alive.
Walker responded by ticking through his recent itinerary of face time with foreign policy luminaries: a breakfast with Henry Kissinger, a huddle with George P. Shultz and tutorials at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.

But then Walker suggested that didn’t much matter. “I think foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhD’s,” he said. “It’s about leadership.”

I don’t much care that Walker dropped out of college and never got a degree. I do care, however, about him dismissing those with doctorates, as if vague platitudes about “leadership” are a meaningful substitute for actual expertise.

America has, of course, had plenty of great presidents who lacked post-graduate degrees, but note Walker’s specific claim: a president even “talking to” those with a PhD, he said, isn't especially important.

“It’s about leadership”? That’s fine, I suppose, but leadership based on what? If an inexperienced leader with limited policy expertise is faced with an international crisis, maybe he or she would benefit from a discussion or two with folks who’ve studied foreign policy for much of their adult lives?

The substitute would be an overconfident president who believes his “gut” is determinative. I think we know how well this turned out the last time the country tried this route.

I too don't care that Walker didn't finish college, nor do I care if any particular experts have Ph.Ds. It's the expertise and the willingness to learn about a situation before making decisions that matters. When it comes to the virtue of blowing off expertise in favor of trusting your uninformed gut, I wish conservatives would figure out that Stephen Colbert was kidding.

Yes I know, I missed commenting on Walker's flap over comparing ISIL to workers who protested when he stripped them of their right to organize. The news cycles go by very fast. So remember, and maybe add to, the hashtag #ThisGuyWantsToBePresident

Continue Reading

Fri Feb 27, 2015 at 08:33 PM PST

Gun nuttiness at the Mall of America

by ericf

Artist's conception. Not actually Tony Cornish
Artist's conception. Not actually Tony Cornish
State Rep. Tony "Yee-haw Bang" Cornish, lover of all things bullet-throwing, had his own take on the recent call by Al Shabab for attacks on western shopping malls, specifically the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. Faced with a threat someone might bring in guns and start shooting, Cornish thinks the solution is for the mall to let anyone at all walk around with guns.

Yes, he's serious. Right now, law enforcement might figure that if anyone is walking around with a gun where guns are prohibited, that might be a good clue as to the identity of the terrorists. But no, Cornish wants his fellow ammosexuals walking around showing their guns and looking for trouble. Great, because that would solve the terrorists' problem of needing to blend in.

Would the mall be safe with lots of armed, untrained, and paranoid people wandering around? I'm sure these responsible gun owners won't pull out their guns and start shooting until after the terrorists reveal themselves --- or they get a good suspicion of who is a terrorist --- or they feel vaguely threatened --- or they hear a sudden noise.

Cornish is doing what must always be done when logic refuses to give way to love of guns: use the law to require acts of stupidity. He wants to force the mall to change its no-guns policy. So when the mall wants to keep out protesters, it's all about property rights. When it wants to keep out guns, what are these "property rights" of which you speak?

If we can rein in the paranoia a moment, can we take notice that Al Shabab called for an attack rather than attacking? Would they do that if they were actually planning an attack, give us this nice warning first? What would they do if they wanted to scare us but didn't actually have the means to attack? One guess is they might call for an attack, by some undefined someone else --- like they did. Or maybe they're actually being just a bit more clever than that. An effect they might get, even if they didn't actually think of it, is to get the non-Muslims suspicious of any Muslims walking around the mall. Maybe they want us to treat Muslims as suspects, make them feel unwanted, or, with a bunch of armed paranoiacs wandering around, out and out threatened. Making Muslims feel alienated is presumably helpful for recruiting if you're some sort of jihadi. So sure, let's strap on our holsters, menace some Muslims who just wanted to visit Legoland, and give the terrorists what they want.

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