EARTH TO A PATRONIZING PLANET


The Netroots Nation conference has traditionally been an occasion for mainstream media types to take a whack at the unreasonableness of the left. Michael Grunwald offered up, if not a classic, a fairly representative example of the genre on Swampland yesterday. Take this paragraph designed to dispatch left criticisms of Barack Obama with patronizing parentheticals:

It’s true that President Obama is not as liberal as some Daily Kos bloggers would like him to be. (Although he has blogged at Daily Kos.) He continued some of President Bush’s national security policies. (Although he did end the war in Iraq.) He ignored left-wing calls to nationalize troubled banks. (Which turned out to be the right call.) He’s pushed for middle-class tax cuts and public-employee wage freezes that his base dislikes, and he’s outsourced most of the Republican-bashing that his base craves. (Which may be why he’s way more popular than his party.)

Let’s take the parenthetical potshots one at a time:

It’s true that Obama has posted on Daily Kos – although the most prominent instance was when he took to Daily Kos to criticize progressives for being too hard on senators that backed John Roberts (more on that one here and here).

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MAJORITY AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Now that the Senate has voted for cloture on the stimulus, I gotta say it’s striking how the goalposts have moved in terms of what the media consider a majority out of 100 senators. The dominant sense you’d get from following mainstream media coverage of the debate is that 61 Senators is the cut-off for a Senate majority, and if Obama’s initiatives don’t make it past that post he hasn’t garnered that much support (and he isn’t really that bipartisan). That’s not how I remember things being covered during the Bush administration, when the same talking heads did their talking about the filibuster as though it was an extreme measure.

Put differently, with a Republican in the White House the onus was on Democrats to justify why anything would be worth a filibuster; with a Democrat in the White House, the onus is on Democrats to scare up 61 votes.

When John Kerry talked about filibustering Sam Alito’s Supreme Court nomination (which, compared to the stimulus package, is also far-reaching in impact but most would agree was less time-sensitive to get done), that was covered as an antic from the fringe. But amidst the veneration of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the starting assumption seems to be that the very most moderate members of the Senate GOP Caucus by default will filibuster the President’s bill unless they get to rewrite it.

Is this an unfair comparison? And if not, then do we blame the media, or blame the Democrats for having lacked the parliamentary-style party discipline to better control the media narrative?

That said, I don’t think there’s much evidence that the public cares terribly much about what Nancy Pelosi rightly called “process arguments” – who’s obstructing who, who’s more bipartisan, etc. And the latest polling suggests that as with the Presidential election, the GOP may be capturing media cycles without capturing voters. Another reason to hope the Conference Committee leaves the Nelson-Snowe crew with a token accomplishment or two but otherwise churns out the bill best designed to actually stimulate the economy – whose success or failure is what voters will actually remember a year from now.

THE DEMOCRATS’ MISSING LINC

With all the ink spilled over the Chafee-Laffey primary last Tuesday, and the inevitable comparisons made to the Lieberman-Lamont primary last month, you could almost lose track of one of the critical ways in which the two primaries are not parallel at all:

Joe Lieberman is a not-so liberal Democrat from a strongly-Democratic state.

Lincoln Chafee is a not-so conservative Republican from a strongly-Democratic state.

That’s the difference: Lieberman evoked so much opposition within his own state because the median Connecticut voter is a Democrat well to the left of him. Chafee would have lost his primary had only Republicans participated, but he drew many of the GOP votes he did based on the recognition that the median Rhode Island voter was a Democrat to the left, not the right, of Chafee.

Joe Lieberman isn’t the Democratic equivalent of Lincoln Chafee. Ben Nelson is more like it. As for the Republican equivalent of Joe Lieberman, there just isn’t one. No state as red as Connecticut is blue has a Republican senator as close to the center as Joe Lieberman is. John McCain isn’t even close.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”