Monday, December 31, 2007

This Answers So Many Questions

Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg has a fascinating article in the NYT about binge drinking and how it affects long-term brain function in rats.

...after a longstanding abstinence following heavy binge-drinking, adult rats can learn effectively — but they cannot relearn.

When put into a tub of water and forced to continue swimming until they find a platform on which to stand, the sober former binge-drinking rats and the normal control rats (who had never been exposed to alcohol) learned how to find the platform equally well. But when the experimenters abruptly moved the platform, the two groups of rats had remarkably different performances. The rats without previous exposure to alcohol, after some brief circling, were able to find the new location. The former binge-drinking rats, however, were unable to find the new platform; they became confused and kept circling the site of the old platform.

Why? The toxicity brought on by heavy drinking lingers long in the brain.

From a political perspective, though, this quote warrants the double take:

Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

"Stay the course?" President Bush isn't mentioned in the article, but he appears to be there in spirit, so to speak.

The obvious question is whether results like these can be extrapolated to humans. Maybe not, although the author thinks there's a good case to believe they can.

Our understanding of how the brain operates is experiencing giant leaps forward. When future historians try to piece together how such a disastrous presidency happened, it's an area that will receive substantial attention.

Hat tip to the High Plains Bull Moose.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

How Negative Will Clinton Go in Iowa?

David Corn asks, and the answer from inside Clinton sources seems to be, as much as we have to.

An interesting flip of conventional wisdom from one:

"We once thought he had to win Iowa to stay alive," this Clintonite says. "We now think that we might have to win to stay alive." Will the fight get even more nasty as Iowa approaches? "There's still plenty of time for that," this person says. "And that's how things go in politics. There may be no choice."

From a politico's point of view, sure. But in the context of this race, doesn't going negative, especially by the book, feed right into Obama's narrative? Voters are always fed up, but this year seems worse than usual. Obama is telling them he's the one who can change that for good, that there is a choice in whether a candidate has to attack.

Of course, it depends on which attacks voters believe are unfair. It appears Iowans believe Obama and Edwards were on the right side of the line with theirs. Clinton's have sounded harsher, and she also faces a problem that plenty of voters think she's a bit nasty underneath anyway.

Little doubt she's tough as her campaign sells her. How much toughness will voters want?

Democratic Nightmares of Huckabee?

I first saw Mike Huckabee in person at the Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 11. So did a lot of other people, who took notice of his moderately-surprising second-place finish. A rise in the polls did not follow, however, and few took him seriously.

Later that month I followed him to a meet and greet at a pizza restaurant in Pella, IA. Only about 50 people came out to meet the man, but most were blown away. They loved the guy. That event, and the reasons they love him, more than anything made me think if Huckabee could somehow, some way get some traction, he could easily be the toughest opponent for Democrats in 2008.

Chris Cillizza examines that premise here. He lists some good reasons Huckabee may be tough, including his media savvy and facility with debates.

Here was my thinking at the time, and it hasn't much changed:

  1. He's a New Testament conservative. It's the Old Testament guys (and they are almost all guys) that tend to dominate religious conservative discourse, the kind that tends to be more about punishment for the guilty and fear of great social change and creeping immorality (aborition, gay marriage, etc.). The Old Testament rhetoric, and fundamentalism that often goes with it, scares a lot of Independent voters. Huckabee talks forgiveness, kindness and human potential. He doesn't scare people, he makes them feel welcome.

  2. Huckabee may be the only candidate who can hold together a GOP in danger of fracturing. Economic conservatives have their problems with the Other Man From Hope, but it's hard to see them abandoning the Party over it, especially since he's taken a pledge not to raise taxes. And while good-sized chunks of the religious right don't trust Giuliani, McCain or Romney, they're eating up Huckabee. That's where most of the Republican activists are, the ones who do much of the ground work in campaigns.

  3. I've talked to a lot of Republicans (mostly in Iowa) who have a soft spot for Obama. Some are going to vote for him. When talking to Democrats, Huckabee elicits the same sort of response. He's the guy in the GOP field they don't mind.
In a general election campaign, certainly partisanship would take over and opponents wouldn't feel as charitably toward Huckabee. But the man leads with compassion, and is hardly a doctrinaire economic conservative. He doesn't have the rough edges to turn Democrats off the way many of his Republican rivals do.

Of course, all this is based on what we see on the surface. The media is starting to vet Huck, importing whatever skeletons he may have from Arkansas. We don't know what we'll find or how the public will react. If he comes through relatively unscathed, though, he could be a formidable wild card for whom Democrats likely don't have a game plan.

Update: TNR's Barron Young Smith writes for the opposition.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wonkin' Out on Obama's Health Plan

That now-ubiquitous figure that Barack Obama's health plan would leave 15 million uninsured? Apparently Jonathan Coen put it out there, and he writes today on how he came up with it, and how he still thinks it's about right.

Slate's Tim Noah argues that's ok, because Obama's plan makes the most sense politically.

Noam Schreiber essentially agrees, but has something in the back of his mind. A doubt, I think:

As I say, this argument comes pretty close to convincing me that Obama has the right approach. On the other hand, it's Obama who tells us that if we want to win the next election, we can't be afraid of losing it. If you accept Cohn's claim that his plan leaves millions of people uninsured, and Noah's claim that it's nonetheless the more politically viable way to structure a non-single-payer plan, then this seems like precisely the kind of overly-cautious thinking Obama was warning us about.

Point taken, but it's also arguably one of those bipartisan situations Obama has been talking about. Major health care reform would be landmark legislation, and if he believes using this approach will achieve a strong plurality in Congress, he may have a case.

I haven't heard him do it, and both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards may have even stronger points when they say a mandate is necessary. But there are a lot of times in politics when two principles come into conflict, and that's one reason ideologues don't get elected president.

NIE and the Race

In what amounted to a bombshell to most everyone today, the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003-4, and the White House had tried to block its release for nearly a year to get them to change their assessment.

Things like this make Ron Paul's constant state of incredulity perfectly understandable to me. But others will write on such things.

How will the revelations affect the presidential race? Do things like this even shock Americans anymore? Getting to 30 percent approval may be about as low as a president can get already, and Republicans aren't exactly trying to identify themselves with the administration.

Hillary Clinton got a lot of heat starting in October for her vote to mark the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Whether it is or not likely hasn't changed. But John Edwards loves to point out that in imposing the resulting sanctions on Iran, President Bush listed as a reason that the country is a "proliferater of weapons of mass destruction."

The NIE may give more ammunition to use against Clinton, although the issue is admittedly a bit arcane. But as they say, as close as Iowa is, any edge may turn out to be important.

The 5587th Insult to Intelligence Already This Month

If you watch the NFL you can't avoid the ridiculous New Orleans Visa commercial (sorry about the weird quality of video) unless you mute it like I obsessively do.

Look, I understand marketing. It's like being a defense attorney; you're making the best case you can for your product, not a balanced presentation of the facts. But the Visa campaign is intellectually insulting.

The ads all show intricate dances of humans (possibly Cirque du Soleil members on their off days) engaging in commerce, only to have the finely-tuned machinery break down when some moron tries to pay with...CASH. Does anybody remember that cash is faster than paying by credit card? It's not like we all haven't tried both options and don't have a frame of reference. Even when you don't have to sign a receipt on some smaller transactions, it's not like it's faster. How does this make any sense?

The New Orleans commercial is by far the worst, though, because the subhuman that screws up the line is wearing a pink polo shirt with a sweater tied around his shoulders while manly Saints fans wait behind him to make their purchases of, I don't know, giant foam fingers perhaps. That's right, little prissy boy is demeaning men everywhere! Please avoid rolling your eyes until he leaves!

The oddest things get my blood to boilin'.

Reich Rips Clinton Strategy

There's nothing like a devastating critique from a friend:

I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the stridency and inaccuracy of charges in Iowa -- especially coming from my old friend. While I’m as hard-boiled as they come about what’s said in campaigns, I just don’t think Dems should stoop to this.


Yesterday, HRC suggested O lacks courage. "There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," she told reporters in Iowa, saying Iowa voters will have a choice "between someone who talks the talk, and somebody who's walked the walk." Then asked whether she intended to raise questions about O’s character, she said: "It's beginning to look a lot like that."

I just don’t get it. If there’s anyone in the race whose history shows unique courage and character, it's Barack Obama. HRC’s campaign, by contrast, is singularly lacking in conviction about anything. Her pollster, Mark Penn, has advised her to take no bold positions and continuously seek the political center, which is exactly what she’s been doing.

All is fair in love, war, and politics. But this series of slurs doesn't serve HRC well. It will turn off voters in Iowa, as in the rest of the country. If she's worried her polls are dropping, this is not the way to build them back up.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Obama's Iowa Trench Warfare

MSNBC's Carrie Dann says she's become convinced of Barack Obama's organization in Iowa.

Being skeptical of it makes some sense. Obama has little national campaign experience, and Howard Dean's collapse in part from over-reliance on young voters is still fresh in peoples' minds.

What I've seen over the last four months in Iowa, though, is that Obama's structure is first-rate. His many staffers in the state have impressively executed every event I've attended, and generally exceeded expectations in head-to-head matchups with other campaigns. The turnout they delivered at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner was no fluke.

Make no mistake, Hillary Clinton's and John Edwards' are also formidable, but they underestimate Obama's at their peril. Clinton's got a great machine, but Obama's supporters are more enthusiastic. Many of Edwards' proponents are too, but at big events like J-J, his lack of money is evident, and he can't scale his efforts the way Clinton and Obama can.

There are too many unknown variables to predict the outcome of the caucuses. Especially with students, I bet none of the campaigns really has a good idea who is going to show up on Jan. 3.

David Redlawsk, political science professor at the University of Iowa, told me recently that the campaigns that exceed expectations at the caucuses almost always have significantly better organizations than most of us so-called experts knew about. From everything I've seen, this year I'd bet Obama will pick up that award after the dust settles.

Clinton Begins Heavy Shelling

There was a a little-noticed moment in the Las Vegas Democratic debate in November. You know, the one where Hilary Clinton came out fighting back hard again Barack Obama and John Edwards. Clinton took direct aim at Obama's health care plan, saying "the most important thing here is to level with the American people."

She wasn't just presaging her line on their policy differences, she was going after Obama on character, his greatest strength and perhaps her greatest weakness. And in doing so, she brazenly appropriated a line he had been using in his own speeches about her.

Now Clinton is coming after Obama even harder, and from multiple directions. Over the past few days, Clinton's campaign has stepped up attacks on health care, and essentially charged Obama with laziness and lack of fight in the Illinoins legislature. And how thick must be the opposition research file they have when they quote a former teacher talking about him wanting to be president in kindergarten?

The whole "turn up the heat" on Republicans thing lasted about a week, yes? Clinton's campaign is arguing it has been under constant attack for a month, and needs to respond by "drawing distinctions."

That's a valid reason, and Clinton's attacks are at least plausible. The problem is, Obama never made the argument that going after other Democrats to draw distinctions was a bad thing. Clinton did in order to try to defang her challengers. When it didn't work, she revealed her original contention was nothing but posturing.

David Weigel over at Reason sums it up well while investigating Clinton's charges of Obama's PAC acting unethically. He argues Clinton's PAC disbursed money to potential presidential allies in exactly the same way Obama's did, and simply shut it down a bit earlier. The same pattern is evident:

That's what this is all about, of course: A Rovian attack-from-weakness ploy. The Clintons have played faster and looser with fundraising and donating-for-influence than any Democrat in history, so an attack on Obama's funds is unexpected, the sort of thing that could muddy both of their images—although he would have more to lose.

And that's the point. Even if Clinton is sullied by going negative, Obama's got farther to fall. It's cynical, often effective, and will likely remain a big part of her campaign until the nomination is decided.

Romney's Faith, Out Front

Via Mark Halperin (more here), Mitt Romney will make his "religion speech" Thursday in Texas, after apparently much internal deliberation.

Romney is hoping voters see it much like JFK's 1960 speech, also given in Texas, about Catholicism. Paraphrased, that means, "I know you haven't elected someone of my faith before, but I'm not a religious nutjob even if what you may have heard about Mormonism sounds that way. Nothing to worry about here."

It's now, and will be, almost impossible to figure how big an issue Mormonism will be in the election since even if it is, voters aren't likely to say so. I don't think it's his big problem, though. It's that voters don't know what they'd really be getting with a Romney-marked ballot. He's not the personality type that can sell a life-changing transformation to a mass audience, as impressed as they may be with him in person. He looks too much like he's executing a marketing plan.

It seems hard to imagine the decision to give the speech wasn't heavily influenced by Mike Huckabee's dramatic rise in Iowa, especially since his support has come from giant chunks of the evangelical Christians Romney needs to beat Rudy Giuliani.

Romney has been telegraphing his strategy the last few days. He's making the explicit case that if GOP religious voters want to stop Giuliani, they would be wasting their vote on Huckabee. I don't buy the idea that Huckabee doesn't have a chance at the nomination, but the caucuses, and Romney's campaign, may come down to whether Iowans do.

Is There a Democratic Huckabee?

At an event in Des Moines two weeks ago, I asked Joe Biden if this could be the first presidential election where being a white male is a disadvantage. He laughed and said the whole idea of having a woman and African-American in the lead was pretty cool (well, maybe he used slightly different words), but that in these dangerous times, people would go with experience.

Jonathan Alter says Hillary Clinton may be touting hers, but the second-tier Democrats are the ones that really have it. And one of them might make a surge as a result:

If Clinton wasn't worried about Obama in Iowa, she wouldn't be bashing him every chance she gets. Should she lose there, the door might open for a second-tier candidate to get competitive. You think I'm crazy? That's what they said when I wrote about Mike Huckabee in August.

Biden does get similar reaction to Huckabee at the events I've seen in Iowa. The relatively few people who see them come away loving both. So why hasn't Biden gotten the uptick Huckabee has in the last month?

The problem with Alter's analogy is that in general, Republicans don't like their field, but Democrats do. The GOP contenders, especially in Iowa with so many Christian conservatives looking for a better choice, was wide open for a guy like Huckabee.

Both Bill Richardson and Biden have made mini-surges in Iowa, but Richardson has never gotten beyond about 12, while Biden peaked around six percent. It's possible John Edwards could tank and one of the other two sneaks into third, but even that won't put them in position to win the nomination. They're cursed with front-runners that haven't disappointed primary voters.

Speaking of Edwards, Alter slips in this surpriser without fanfare:

Edwards may yet prevail; Iowa is once again as fluid as ethanol. But if he doesn't win the Jan. 3 caucuses—he's been steadily losing altitude since early summer—he says he'll drop out.

Plenty of people have speculated that very thing (and one wonders how Edwards would be doing without all that speculation, actually), but I've never heard anyone report him saying it. The nightmare for Clinton would have to be Edwards dropping before New Hampshire, and his support largely going to caucus-winner Obama.