Mitch McConnell: smarter than the average bear

Not surprisingly, I’m no big Mitch McConnell fan, but I do admire his ability to realize the basic contours of how ordinary people and the media think about politics and use it to his advantage.  Yglesias points this out in a nice post:

There are many words in Josh Green’s profile of Mitch McConnell and many of them are good, but these are the most important:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.” …

That said, McConnell’s insight is not only impressive, it’s a problem for the country. The basic mechanics of his insight are clear. Most people don’t pay attention to politics very much, and don’t have detailed informed opinions about politics. But most people do have reasonably strong feelings about political parties and about political leaders. So most people reason about issues backwards from what elites are doing. Thus if you see Barack Obama propose something and then that something attracts bipartisan support, people generally conclude that it’s good. Conversely, if you see Barack Obama propose a series of things that meet with universal GOP condemnation, people generally conclude that these proposals are partisan and extreme. Logically, then, the opposition party should uniformly oppose the President’s ideas.

Being “bipartisan” is held up as an important value by media elites, and thus many ordinary people.  There’s a knee-jerk assumption that if some policy is not bipartisan, it is not good.  McConnell’s insight is that people gauge bipartisanship not by actually policy content, but by simply how united the opposition party is on the matter.  By keeping the Republican Senate caucus in line, he’s taken a lot of legislation that is truly bipartisan in a policy sense and made it look very partisan (nothing more so than health care reform).  In a counter-factual world, it would be really interesting to see how much more popular health care reform might be if half a dozen Republican Senators and 15 or so House members had gone along.


Yes, corporations are evil

The information in this 60 Minutes feature has apparently been around a while but was new to me.  Apparently, GSK was made aware that one of their manufacturing plants was producing tainted prescription drugs as well as mixing different drugs together in the same packaging and they kept selling the stuff anyway! The story features the GSK official who tried to get the company to clean up its act and was fired for her efforts.

It is absolutely depressing and abhorrent what people will due in pursuit of the coroporate bottom line.  We are most definitely talking about peoples’ lives here.  Alex is on the generic now, but for some time was on GSK’s Lamictal.  Alex currently has 0 seizures per day.  If some other drug, an antacid perhaps, had been mixed into his bottle, he surely would have rapidly started having multiple seizures per day.  With a true lack of medication, his life would actually be at risk.  Okay, none of that happened, obviously, but that is exactly the sort of outcome you can expect when you start filling bottles labelled with one drug with another and don’t do anything about it because it might affect profits.  Just watch.

“For the cure”

Susan G. Komen Foundation has been suing other organizations that use “for the cure” in fundraising efforts to combat cancer.  Colbert sticks it to them as only Colbert can.  As for me, I know one organization which will not be getting charitable contributions from me.

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Incumbency advantage

Stephen Ansolabehere, who happens to be an outstanding political scientist, has a really interesting piece in the Boston Review about the decline in the incumbency advantage in House elections.  The dominating feature of Congressional elections– especially the House– is the huge advantage incumbents have.  In 2010, this advantage was much smaller than typical:

In 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008, incumbents in both parties ran considerably ahead of their parties’ presidential candidates in their districts and ahead of the vote received by their parties’ candidates running for open seats in similar districts. In those elections the incumbency advantage ranged from 9 to 15 percent, a level comparable to the incumbency advantage from the 1970s through the end of the 1990s.

Although Democrats expected to lose at least 25 seats in the House last November, their low rate of retirements seemed to buoy their chances. Democrats had only twenty open seats; in 236 districts, an incumbent stood for reelection. Republicans had 21 open seats and 158 incumbents running for reelection.

Forecasting models that considered the usual factors—partisanship, the economy, and a ten-point average incumbency advantage—predicted at most a 45- or 50-seat gain for the Republicans. Instead, they gained more than 60.

What the forecasts got wrong was the incumbency advantage. Rather than the usual ten points, the advantage last year collapsed to just five points—as low as it has been measured since the 1960s. Strangely, the drop was the same for both parties in the House. Neither party’s incumbents performed at their usual level.

Quite notably, this seems to be part of an ongoing trend.  I suspect the chart below will be showing up in my classes until 2012:

Is this going to be an ongoing trend?  Are we simply at a new lower level?  Will2010 prove to be an anomaly?  Nobody knows, of course, but Ansolabehere speculates:

Yet 2010 also could portend a more lasting change in congressional elections. The infusion of party and independent expenditures has lessened the long-held campaign-spending advantages of incumbents, especially in competitive districts, and the rise of partisan discipline in the House has made congressional elections increasingly national affairs. Historically, incumbents have staved off the effects of national campaigns and ideological shifts by tending to a variety of needs of their constituents. But in 2010 voters were focused on national issues.

I’m going to be really curious to see how this develops in the next few elections, but I strongly suspect that 2010 will represent a nadir of the incumbency advantage.  There’s just far too many advantages for incumbents for it to continue to decline.  On the other hand, I think that would be a good thing as more competitive elections make for a healthier democracy.

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