Thursday, January 27, 2005

Blogging Syzygy/Quasi-Celebrity Sighting 

I hate omphaloskeptical and self-congratulatory blog posts about the act of blogging, but I couldn't resist this: I'm currently in a Starbucks in Dupont Circle checking my e-mail between meetings. Blog Superhero Mark Schmitt just walked by my table and asked if I was drawing "Blogging Energy" from the place, which is apparently the site of much Josh Marshall and Steve Clemons blog-related program activities.

At that moment, I had a brief glimpse of nerd nirvana. It was kind of like that Tex Ritter song "Hillbilly Heaven," but pastier.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Democratic "Contract with America" Version 1.0 

Via The Left Coaster, news that the Democratic leadership of the Senate is working on an opposition agenda:
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will do something this morning that an opposition party is supposed to do: Senate Democrats stopped playing defense and will begin playing offense by setting forward an ambitious agenda of their own. In a conference call earlier this morning, Reid’s staff announced their top ten priority bills for the 109th Congress, and they address many of the needs accumulated by this country but ignored by the White House the GOP Congress under Bill Frist and Denny Hastert...

This agenda is not yet a unified agenda with the House, but Reid’s staff feels that a great deal of this will make its way into Pelosi’s agenda for the run up to the midterms. Also, this is a legislative strategy but not necessarily a communications roadmap, and the blogosphere will be moving ahead with discussions on translating these priorities into the Democrats’ version of Gingrich’s Contract with America. Democrats will however be stressing that we intend to keep America’s promise through possibly a Promise To America, whereby the overall agenda is translated into 8-10 themes that can be used to batter the status-quo and corporate-owned GOP entrenched machinery for the next two years. And you can bet that congressional reform and Tom DeLay’s corruption will figure prominently into the overall anti-GOP incumbency message.
Check out the original post for some of the legislative details, or read Senator Reid's statement on the agenda here.

I'm glad to see Reid attempt to take the offensive, but I'm a little concerned to see the legislative strategy released before a communications roadmap is established. There does seem to be an underlying set of ideas. Reid cites the themes of "Security, Opportunity and Responsibility" repeatedly. Sounds good, I guess: This sort of thing always leaves me cold, but I know it's important.

An intriguing element of this early attempt at agenda-setting is the Democrats' focus on grabbing part of the military vote by focusing on the concerns of National Guard and Reservist voters (as well as the traditionally-targeted veterans). This seems smart to me, as my sense is there's significant discontent in this constituency, and it'll be tough for Republicans to match Democratic promises with actual policy changes during what promises to be a long stay in Iraq.

I'll need more time to render a well-considered judgment, and I am a little underwhelmed by the message aspect of the agenda, but I'm glad to see somebody get things moving here.

UPDATE: The blogosphere is sure to be full of posts saying that Reid's strategy is foolish, since its model, Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America," wasn't actually of any electoral help to the GOP. I've noted the weakness of this claim (and some strong countervailing evidence) here.

Ever Closer Constitutional Union? 

If you're one of the many people plagued by concern about the fate of the EU's proposed constitution, do yourself a favor and check out this Doug Merrill post (and its superb linkage). The punchline:
One of the CAP’s experts told me last week that the only significant problem for the constitution is the UK. Sentiments in France appear to be moving in favor of ratification. The other big and medium countries are also expected to have relatively easy paths toward ratification. And as for the smaller ones, well, it’s not like Malta would be truly missed if it opted to leave the Union.

Opposition Strategies 

[NOTE: I've been meaning to write about this for some time, and a longer version will be posted soon]

Here's a question to get you thinking: what has been, historically, the most successful electoral strategy for US political parties who are out of office? In other words, if the other party just ate your lunch at the polls, and you want to win in the next election, should you:

a) Adjust your policies to be more like the other (more successful) party's?
b) Stick to your guns and maintain the same policy positions (or move farther away from the other party)?
c) Innovate: find a new set of policies to champion?
d) Go out of business?

If you chose "d", you're not paying attention, I guess. The surprising answer, however, is that none of the other options is clearly superior, historically.

Lots of smart people have made the case for the other three options. The cartoon version of the DLC is that it always shouts out "Go right! Take option 'a'!" Option "a" is also endorsed (or at least predicted) by a huge literature in political science, drawing on the work of Anthony Downs, which suggests that in a two party system candidates will tend toward the political center. [Those of you with access to a good library can find an excellent review of this literature, by Bernard Grofman, in the 2004 issue of Annual Review of Political Science. It's worth noting that the newest research on the issue is driven by the empirical observation that even in the US, the two parties and their candidates tend to support and enact very different policies, pace Ralph Nader and most college sophomores.]

The left half of the blogosphere regularly endorses option "b". And the DLC's own version of its history suggests that option "c" has worked in the past (Clinton 1992) and could work again.

So what does history tell us? The most rigorous attempt to answer this question that I'm aware of is a 2001 paper by Kenneth Finegold and Elaine Swift (you can find it here if you have access to the British Journal of Political Science). Their result? Despite the impressive arguments mustered by proponents of each option, none of the strategies stands out as superior, at least in the US presidential context. Each strategy has produced a statistically similar won-lost record. A more sophisticated test (examining the size of deviations from predicted vote totals) returns the same result: even when controlling for the non-policy factors (national economic performance, personal popularity of the incumbent) that typically go into vote-prediction formulas, the out-party hasn't done any better or worse when it has chosen to move toward, away, or in a different direction from its incumbent opponent.

There's an important caveat to be made here: the results presented above don't take into account the policy strategy chosen by the incumbent. I'd suspect this is an important omission.

While we're waiting for further research, though, where does this leave us? I'd draw at least one pretty strong conclusion: reasoning from historical analogy here (e.g. "President X gained election and established a legacy of control for his party by adopting strategy Y") is pretty worthless. Rather than seizing on a narrative based on a single past election, Democratic policy strategists should focus on the here and now.

UPDATE: Mark Schmitt has a terrific post up about the use and misuse of George Lakoff's "framing" ideas, which makes a similar point about extrapolating from individual cases of electoral success.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Blogging Drought 

It's been bad, I know. I'm working very hard on a number of real-job related things. Thanks to all of you for hanging in there: I promise more quality posts soon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


To those of you who are still reading despite my recent spotty posting record, I hope you still like what (little) you see on the Bonassus.

If you do, please avail yourself of the opportunity to spread the Bonassus word: I've been nominated for a "Koufax Award" for "Blog Most Deserving of Wider Recognition," and I'd most appreciate your vote.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Superhero Anxiety at the NY Times 

Something sinister is brewing at the New York Times. First, this sorely-needed correction:
An obituary of the innovative comic-page illustrator Will Eisner yesterday included an imprecise comparison in some copies between his character the Spirit and others, including Batman. Unlike Superman and some other heroes of the comics, Batman relied on intelligence and skill, not supernatural powers.
How could they make that kind of mistake? After all, the paper's cultural critics (or at least Virginia Heffernan) are apparently being browbeaten by oppressive males into reading superhero comics on a daily basis:
"Alias,"... whose fourth season has its two-hour premiere on ABC tonight, is nothing more than a pretentious comic strip: static, allegorical, a pleasure only to addicts, but also headache-inducingly difficult to criticize in these times when American comics have become, through male nostalgia and the canonization of the graphic novel, sacrosanct.

Let's be honest. Many of us don't like comic books and have feigned interest in their jumpy bif-bam fighting scenes and the way they redeem loser guys, only to impress and minister to those loser guys. And now we can admit that while the redemption dynamic - little X-Men boys finding in their eccentricity and loneliness a superpower - is touching, there's nothing duller than listening to someone explain, in all seriousness, the Syndicate and the Shadow Force and the Hard Drive and the Plutonium Lance. And the characters: lame. One is good and the other is evil, and then one is evil pretending to be good, and then one is good pretending to be evil.

Thanks for that tiny window onto your personal life, Virginia. I hope that the loser guys you've wasted so much time on all read your review.

In all seriousness, there has been a lot of superhero-glorifying going on in the literary world these days, what with Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and the contributors to this inconsistent but entertaining book all doing their part. And, honestly speaking, if you go back and read those old "silver age" X-Men comics, they're pretty damn juvenile and simple-minded, just less so then one might have expected given what else was to be found in comic books of the era. And yes, as a host of blogospheric commentaries prove, nerds love to bluster about superheroes. But come on, Virginia: drop the "man bites dog" tone when you're sneering about comic books in the pages of the Times. You're not fooling anyone.

Maple Leaf Rag 

Symbolic rejection of the Canadian flag: as the CP reports, it isn't just for Quebecois anymore:
Premier Danny Williams isn't the first politician to use the Canadian flag as a political tool, but he is unusual because most flag flaps have involved Quebeckers.

The decision by the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador to haul down the flag from provincial buildings to protest Ottawa's handling of the province's resource claims adds a new tactic to federal-provincial squabbling while underlining the flag's potent symbolic value, analysts say.

The flag, born in political controversy 40 years ago, has most often been waved, burned or complained about in Quebec terms.

Having Newfoundland lower the flag has a different impact, says Richard Simeon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.

"People are saying, 'We kind of expect that from Quebec, but we don't expect that from English Canada'."

During the constitutional wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Quebec flags were trampled on publicly in the streets of Ontario cities. The Maple Leaf was occasionally burned in Quebec. It was dragged behind a car through downtown Montreal at least once...

"What's more interesting about this case is that it's happening at a time of heightened Canadian pride and sort of the rah-rah nationalism or patriotism," said Simeon. "A lot of people see it as a slap in the face, even in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Over the last few decades we've invested a lot in the flag as a national unity thing, as a way to promote a distinct identify from the U.S., so taking it down is seen as a sign of disrespect."

Richard Nimijean, a political scientist from Carleton University in Ottawa, said flags - whether federal or provincial - have become potent symbols in the last decade or so, giving them new value as rallying points.
And since it just wouldn't be a story without some reference to stereotypes about Canadians:
Gerald Baier, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, said the context is important, because for Newfoundland, the resource issue is the province's big fight.

He also points out that the flags were lowered, not torn down.

"There's no stomping of Canadian flags here . . . there hasn't been any burning or anything like that," he said. "That sort of stuff can really get people upset."
[Hat tip to Alex]

Tsunami Relief and US "Stinginess" 

The Bush administration has, as everyone presumably knows by now, finally done the right thing by massively stepping up its aid to the victims of the tsunami. I'm glad to see it, and willing to give them a lot of credit.

In the meantime, though, a commenter responded to my previous post on the matter by noting a single, somewhat deceptive figure about US development assistance outside the current context. The truth of the matter is neither that the US is an exemplar on foreign aid, nor the complete moral midget it is sometimes made out to be. Daniel Drezner has an excellent post on the matter. Go read it.

A Dangerous Wedge Not to be Exploited 

Andrew Sullivan notes a disturbing division within the ranks of conservative religious Republicans:
EUPHEMISM WATCH: "Mitt Romney is going to have a hard time connecting with the social sonservative base of the party given his Mormon faith--just a fact of life. For what it's worth..." - a GOP insider as reported by Rich Lowry in NRO. Lowry clarified with another less pronounced euphemism: "Yes, the point that insider I cited earlier was making was that a Mormon would have trouble connecting with the evangelical Christian base of the party." It's not a big deal, but it is interesting as an indicator of what the GOP now is: a sectarian base with political outreach. "Trouble connecting ...?" Translation: a Mormon would not be accepted by the evangelical Christian base of the GOP because he's a ... Mormon. When your base is sectarian, it's not surprising they have sectarian preferences. A simple question: will someone not "born again" be able to be a Republican candidate for president in the near future? The answer isn't obvious.
I'm not sure I agree with Sullivan's conclusions, but I do wonder if and when we'll see a fight over precisely what religious conservatism means in the US.

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