Liberal pundits are embarrassing themselves over Bernie Sanders

I remember how I became a hard-core Richard Dawkins fan in college. I thought (and still think) The God Delusion was a merely OK book. And his comments comparing religion to child abuse were pretty cringeworthy.

But then I started reading Dawkins’s critics. They hated Dawkins for reasons that had nothing to do with the reasons I was “meh” on him. “Dawkins says the God of the Old Testament is a homophobic bully, therefore we don’t have to take him seriously.” What? Had these people read the Bible? I would hope so, since many of them were purportedly experts on religion, but I had to wonder, given that what Dawkins said about the Old Testament was just obviously true.

I’m reminded of this seeing how too many liberal pundits are covering Bernie Sanders’s campaign. It’s a very weird experience, because my policy views are closer to say, Paul Krugman’s view than those of Bernie Sanders. But many pundits who I normally respect seem to have become detached from reality in their treatment of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Consider:

I. “Bernie Bros”

CW: misogyny, transphobia, suicide

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary of this issue, but in a nutshell: some Bernie Sanders supporters are misogynistic jerks online–calling Clinton supporters slurs among other things. That’s awful. But some journalists decided to spin this into a narrative of Sanders supporters being especially or uniquely awful online, which there’s no evidence at all for.

The sad reality is that online abuse is a huge problem, especially for women. Both victims and perpetrators can be found among people of pretty much every political persuasion. In his post, Greenwald (who is gay and very much not a Clinton supporter) shares examples of the homophobic abuse he’s gotten on Twitter. He also points to actress Susan Sarandon getting called a “stupid bitch” for supporting Sanders.

In fact, other people have written in some detail about the abuse female Sanders supporters have experienced online. One particularly ironic (and nauseating) example I chanced about entirely by accident on Twitter involved a female Sanders supporter complaining about being told she’s not a woman because she supports Sanders… to which a male Clinton supporter responded with “Enjoy your vag” and “Not finished with your transition?” (the woman had given no indication she’s trans):

550

838

840

Mr. #IStandWithHillary’s premise seems to be that because only men support Sanders, anyone who claims to be a woman supporting Sanders must be lying (and that trans women are men pretending to be women). In reality, young women prefer Sanders over Clinton by large margins.

And now for the part I find most infuriating: when it’s pointed out that journalists and pundits have been pushing a narrative with no factual basis, some of them respond by treating the facts as irrelevant. For example, Vox.com ran one of their feature-length “explainers” on the “BernieBro” meme. Only halfway through does the author, Dara Lind, admit “Unfortunately, there just isn’t any evidence that can settle the question, once and for all, of whether Sanders fans are really more obnoxious online than fans of other candidates.” Yet then Lind dismisses the issue as “derailing”.

When individual women are complaining about harassment, changing the subject to how people on the other side of a debate have also been harassed is wrong. But when the media is pushing a narrative that one side of a debate is uniquely misogynistic, it matters whether this is actually true. If you’re a journalist who thinks there’s no evidence supporting the prevailing narrative, that should be the fucking headline of your article, not buried in the middle and then dismissed as unimportant.

Too many people in online liberal spaces have learned to treat “the other side is racist/sexist/transphobic/etc.” as a trump card in every debate. This norm contributes to a culture of abuse in many of these spaces. But if that wasn’t enough, the fact that they can be deployed to advance the agenda of a powerful and wealthy warmonger should indicate how broken those norms are.

Also amusing: in 2008, the anti-anti-Clinton narrative was all about Obama boys.

II. Single-payer math

I don’t have a ton to say about this that I didn’t say in my post on wonks and the Clinton campaign, but I want to highlight some things Vox’s editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, has been saying about Sanders’s health care plan.

Klein quotes a line from the Sanders health care plan that promises, “no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges”, and interprets this as meaning the plan will pay for any treatment people want, so it will be impossible to control costs (“everything will be covered, under all circumstances”, in Klein’s words). But a more natural interpretation is just that the government will tell people before they get treatment whether a treatment will be deemed medically necessary, so people don’t get surprise bills. This is something many other countries with government-run healthcare systems manage to do (source: my non-US friends on Facebook and Tumblr).

I have trouble understanding how Klein could interpret Sanders’s plan any other way. “Fail to pay for charges” implies the existence of charges, which implies you’ve already gotten treated and are being billed for it. Surprise medical bills are a thing people deal with in America (my partner and I have dealt with it ourselves). And it’s a solvable problem!

I guess some people think pointing this out is nitpicking? But I think if you’re going to attack someone for something they’ve said, you need to deal with the thing they said, and not like, reverse engineer what you think their position ought to be from how their words made you feel?

I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to deal with this without descending into several paragraphs of rambling snark. I feel like I’m being called on to prove that words with different meanings mean different things.

In case this isn’t obvious to people who don’t have experience with other countries’ health care systems–many people believe that the health care systems of other developed countries are much better than the US system in many ways. I’m one of these people. It was especially true pre-Obamacare, but Obamacare is a kludge that leaves a lot to be desired. Making our health care system much better in many ways is something we could do if Congress and the president both agreed to do it.

Klein could argue that by promising to make our health care system much better in many ways, Sanders risks misleading people into thinking the health care system can become perfect in every way–”puppies-and-rainbows” in Klein’s words. But expecting politicians to not only say true things about their plans but also issue extensive disclaimers about possible downsides is a standard no politician meets. A politician’s failure to meet that standard isn’t evidence that he’s uninformed or delusional.

III. Sanders and the Civil Rights movement

Some people were insinuating Sanders’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement was made up or at least exaggerated, even claiming a photo of Sanders at a Civil Rights protest was faked. I thought this was too absurd to mention at first but apparently TIME fell for it at one point.

(Yeah, TIME isn’t punditry–but this example was too rich to ignore.)

IV. Economic growth

When I wrote my post on wonks and the Democratic primary, I threw in a reference to Gerald Friedman’s report on Sanders’s economic plan at the last minute, because I was genuinely flabbergasted that people appeared to be trashing Friedman without actually reading what he had wrote. But let me talk about this in more detail.

Again, Friedman isn’t associated with Sanders’s campaign. Apparently he’s donated to both Clinton and Sanders, and describes himself as undecided on who he’ll vote for in the primary.

Sanders’s campaign, as far as I can tell, hasn’t actually said that much about Friedman’s report. Sanders’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, did tell the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that:

It shows that over a 10-year period, we would create 26 million new jobs, the poverty rate would plummet, that incomes would go up dramatically, and we would have strong economic growth… It’s a very bold plan, and we want to get this out there.

But that’s the extent of it. People are comparing this to Jeb Bush’s promise that he can deliver 4% economic growth, but that claim was central to Bush’s campaign, it was plastered all over his website (don’t know how long that will remain true now that he’s dropping out).

By contrast, Sanders has never talked about this, it’s not on his website, and Gunnels’ apparent endorsement may have been off the cuff. There’s no indication that Sanders’s team assumed 5.3% economic growth when drawing up their plan. It looks like they came up with a plan they thought was reasonable (after all, they’re describing things many developed countries manage to do), and then to their pleasant surprise an economist outside the campaign said the plan would be great for economic growth. So I think Paul Krugman, for example, is being seriously misleading when he claims this is evidence “Bernie Sanders’s economic program contains a very worrisome amount of voodoo”.

That said, Gunnels probably shouldn’t have talked as if Friedman’s report proved anything. A single report by a single expert rarely proves anything. Consensus judgements of experts are usually pretty trustworthy, but an individual expert can have idiosyncratic views. But unfortunately very few people understand this–which is why you also have Clinton supporters talking as if Kevin Thorpe’s report on Sanders’s single-payer plan is proof that the plan is unworkable. Clinton herself appeared to do this during one of the debates (when she said Sanders’s numbers “don’t add up”), and I think she was wrong to do that.

After looking at this debate more, it looks like Friedman’s projections are probably wrong–but also within the range of things I expect economists to argue over. His claims about lingering slack from the Great Recession look plausible to me. I’m more skeptical of his claims about productivity growth–but then, it’s a bit of a mystery why productivity growth has been so weak lately, and “we just haven’t had enough fiscal stimulus” doesn’t seem especially crazy as hypotheses about weak productivity growth go. I wouldn’t count on Friedman being right–but again, it doesn’t look like Sanders’s campaign was counting on him being right when they made their plans.

What worries me most here is the double standard. Clinton looks at things other countries manage to do and claims the math doesn’t add up. Not that doing them would be politically difficult but that they will “never, ever come to pass” and that even trying could cause people to lose access to health care. The policy in question is one Krugman himself supports. So why doesn’t Krugman call out Clinton as “not ready for prime time” (the words he uses to describe Sanders)?

V. Mission Accomplished

So far, the things I’ve talked about have been things that could be cases of mere sloppiness. This last one is more bizarre. After the Nevada caucuses, the instant consensus of punditry was that this was the end of Sanders’s campaign. Salon did a great job compiling a gallery of shame–actually, I had to read the article twice before I realized it doesn’t seem to have been intended as a gallery of shame, but uh, good job anyway Salon.

I gave the long boring version of why this is wrong a few days ago, so let me give the short version: Clinton and Sanders are exactly tied in pledged delegates, i.e. the ones people actually voted on. I mean, it’s one thing to argue that polls for South Carolina and Super Tuesday states spell doom for Sanders, but the idea that primary and caucus results so far are a disaster for Sanders has almost no basis in reality.

I say almost because there is one way losing Nevada could hurt Sanders: as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If pundits can convince Democratic voters that losing Nevada means Sanders may as well throw in the towel, Sanders’s supporters may become less likely to turn out, less likely to donate, less likely to campaign hard, and fence-sitters may vote for Clinton just to join the bandwagon.

That’s a truly nauseating thought. When influential journalists and pundits say things that are farcically absurd except (perhaps) as self-fulfilling prophecies, they forfeit any pretense that they’re seeking the truth. Rather, it’s an exercise of power, in this case an exercise of power on behalf of a politician who’s already had the deck stacked in her favor by the establishment to a ridiculous degree.

One entry from Salon’s gallery of shame deserves special mention–a front-page story from the New York Times that ran the morning after Nevada’s caucuses. It’s not punditry, but it sure reads like it. Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Senator Bernie Sanders vowed on Sunday to fight on after losing the Nevada caucuses, predicting that he would pull off a historic political upset by this summer’s party convention.

But the often overlooked delegate count in the Democratic primary shows Mr. Sanders slipping significantly behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the nomination, and the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote.

Okay, what is a claim like “the odds of his overtaking her growing increasingly remote” doing in a “news” piece? I think there are real flaws in American norms of objective journalism, but as far as I know the New York Times still claims to hold to them. Is the change in Sanders’s odds a verifiable fact? How did they go about verifying it? It would be one thing if they’d cited betting market odds–but they did not, it’s just been directly reported in the newspaper of record that Sanders’s odds are growing “increasingly remote”.

But this is actually less inexcusable than the claim that Sanders is “slipping significantly behind”. That claim is demonstrably false. In fact, the article does a great job of explaining why it’s false later on:

Mrs. Clinton already has a huge lead over Mr. Sanders in support from superdelegates — elected officials and party elders who each count toward the magic number of 2,383. But superdelegates could switch candidates if Mr. Sanders is the overwhelming choice of regular voters.

For now, Mrs. Clinton is focused on building her lead among so-called pledged delegates — those awarded proportionally by congressional districts from primary and caucus results. Mr. Sanders is aiming to score wins in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota while holding Mrs. Clinton to narrow wins elsewhere. Small margins of victory keep delegate allocations roughly even. A New York Times analysis found that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders are tied in the pledged delegate count, at 51 each.

You can’t be “slipping behind” if 100% of the reason you’re behind is that you started off with a massive disadvantage because you aren’t part of the establishment. Moreover, as a recent article on AlterNet pointed out, the fact that superdelegates can switch their votes means it’s arguably misleading to claim Clinton is ahead at all–in 2008, once Obama secured a majority of pledged delegates, many superdelegates who’d previously been supporting Clinton threw their support behind him.

I personally have little doubt that whoever wins the pledged delegate count will win the nomination, for the same reason I’ve never taken seriously speculation that the GOP would use procedural tricks to stop Trump from getting the nomination. For either party to deny the nomination to the candidate who won the actual voting part of the primary, whether through arcane procedural maneuvers or the more straightforward superdelegate method, would be signing its own death warrant.

At least that’s my opinion. What isn’t a matter of opinion is that starting out with a huge disadvantage in insider support isn’t the same thing as “falling behind”. That a front-page New York Times “news” story would suggest otherwise is shocking. I mean, this kind of screw up is what I expect from science journalists–but I expect journalists covering politics for the New York Times to understand politics.

All of this–but especially the Times story–makes it hard to avoid thinking that this primary season the journalistic establishment has been turned into an extension of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In the Democratic primary, every vote will count

I realized conventional wisdom was underestimating Trump way back in August. But for a long time, I was dismissive of Bernie Sanders. If you’d asked me, say, in December, why I was ignoring Sanders while being bullish on Trump, I would have said two things: first, the Democratic base just isn’t as angry at the Democratic establishment as the GOP base is at the GOP establishment. Second, I’d have told you, don’t compare Trump and Sanders in isolation: on the GOP side, insurgent candidates were doing well, while establishment candidates were doing poorly. But on the Democratic side, Clinton started averaging around 55% in polling once Biden made clear he wasn’t running.

However, in mid-January, I changed my mind. What did it for me was seeing Sanders dominating polls in New Hampshire, and neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa. Initially, I had bought into the story that Sanders just wasn’t going to be able to make inroads with non-white voters. But what if that wasn’t why Sanders was doing so well in early states, even as he trailed Clinton nationally? What if the reason for the discrepancy was just that that was where Sanders had been campaigning, and many voters in other states weren’t really paying attention yet?

Way more important than any blather you could get from me is this chart:

democratic-primary-polls

This is a static version, because a month from now I want to be able to link to this post and have people see what the chart looked like at the time that I wrote this. You can see an up-to-date version here. It’s a little hard to tell from this version, but at the beginning of the year Clinton was ahead of Sanders by 20% in the polls. Now her lead is down to 7.5%. Given another month, Sanders has a good chance of passing Clinton in national polls–at the very least, I expect that one month from now, the national race will look extremely tight.

After Sanders’s loss in Nevada, many pundits are already pronouncing his campaign dead. If there ends up being any truth to this, it will only be as a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy: the media uses Nevada as an excuse to go back to ignoring Sanders, or give his campaign much more negative coverage. Just two weeks ago, many were saying Nevada would show Sanders couldn’t compete among non-whites. Yet exit polls showed Sanders winning the Latino vote, casting serious doubt on that narrative.

Some pundits are arguing that the actual results of the Nevada caucuses suggests the exit polls are wrong about Sanders winning the Latino vote. However, the same exit polls that showed Sanders winning Latinos showed Clinton winning African-Americans by a truly enormous margin, and Clark County (the area around Las Vegas, where Clinton’s support was strongest) has both a high concentration of Latinos and a high concentration of African-Americans, making precinct results difficult to interpret in demographic terms (compare this and this).

The enormous support that Clinton enjoys among African-Americans is a real problem with Sanders. Sanders will likely have to do more to win over African-Americans to win the nomination. But the Nevada results are evidence of his success winning over Latinos. Whether Sanders can win over African-Americans remains, I think, an open question.

(An aside: though Sanders’s record on immigration is deeply flawed, I was impressed when, during the debate on February 5th, Sanders spoke out against the Obama administration’s deportation of child refugees. In the same debate, Clinton defended the policy as “sending a message”, the same justification given by Obama himself.)

Attaching great importance to the results of early states makes a lot less sense for the current Democratic race than it does for the GOP race. The battle royale for the GOP nomination means strategic voting plays a huge role: any candidate who has a disappointing showing in an early state risks having his supporters switch to their second choice. That’s not an issue in the two-candidate Democratic race.

Second, the GOP primaries are governed by arcane delegate rules that, for example, allowed Trump to get all 50 South Carolina delegates even though he got less than a third of the vote. These rules differ from state to state, but their ultimate effect is to create the possibility that a string of early victories could give a candidate an insurmountable lead in convention delegates. The Democratic primary, on the other hand, allocates delegates proportionately in every state. That means there’s a real possibility the Democratic primary might not be settled until the last set of states vote in June.

(Or even until the convention itself–but my guess is that if Sanders gets a majority of pledged delegates, a majority of the superdelegates will switch to supporting him.)

Sanders is still the underdog here. He will almost certainly lose South Carolina, and he’s unlikely to win more than a few states on Super Tuesday (March 1st). Not because of his national polling, but because Clinton remains much stronger in southeastern states (a majority of Super Tuesday states) than she is nationally. But because the Democratic Party allocates delegates proportionally, Clinton’s margin of victory will matter a lot. So if you live in any state that isn’t Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada, I’d urge to take this primary very seriously–it’s nowhere near being over yet.

The wonk case for Clinton is weak

In general, I’m a huge fan of policy wonks–people who love getting into the details of policy, and who know enough about economics and foreign relations and so on to make informed predictions about the effects of various proposals. But lately, some of my favorite wonky writers–like Paul Krugman and a number of folks at Vox.com–have been making arguments for Clinton that don’t make a great deal of sense.

This post is not a defense of Sanders. I think his views on trade and immigration don’t give enough credit to the enormous benefits trade and immigration can have for ordinary people in all the countries involved. I think a $15 minimum wage (which Sanders has proposed) would risk pushing too many people out of the work force, particularly in rural, lower-income parts of the country. And I’m pessimistic about many (though not all) of the things he wants to do to reform Wall Street and the Federal Reserve.

However, I don’t think Clinton comes out looking much better here, particularly on the two issues–Wall Street reform and health care–where Sanders has been taking the most heat recently from policy wonks. Clinton could make a wonky case against Sanders, but she hasn’t, instead going for a series of remarkably dishonest attacks that only give me more doubts about her.

For example, Clinton has been trying to deflect scrutiny of the money she’s gotten from Wall Street by saying that actually, she’ll be tougher on Wall Street than Bernie Sanders–even once going so far as to claim “Everybody who’s looked at my proposals says my proposals are tougher, more effective, more comprehensive.”

To say that “everybody” says this is a wild exaggeration, as the Washington Post has shown, but worse, the version of the “plan” posted on her website is very puzzling. In fact, when I first saw it, my reaction was, “wait, so where’s the actual plan?” I couldn’t believe that it was what everyone was praising as so detailed.

For example, consider this bullet point:

Impose a “risk fee” on the largest financial institutions. Dodd-Frank’s reforms and higher capital requirements on the largest banks are already helping address the problem of “Too Big to Fail.” But we need to go further to deal with the risk posed by size, leverage, and unstable short-term funding strategies.

Clinton would charge a graduated risk fee every year on the liabilities of banks with more than $50 billion in assets and other financial institutions that are designated by regulators for enhanced oversight. The fee rate would scale higher for firms with greater amounts of debt and riskier, short-term forms of debt—meaning that, as firms get bigger and riskier, the fee rate they face would grow in size. The fee would therefore discourage large financial institutions from relying on excessive leverage and the kinds of “hot” short-term money that proved particularly damaging during the crisis.[xii] Moreover, the strength of this deterrent would grow for firms with larger amounts of debt. The risk fee would not be applied to insured deposits and would therefore have no impact on traditional banking activities funded by insured deposits and equity capital.[xiii] In implementing the risk fee, Clinton would also call on regulators to impose higher capital requirements if she determines that such a step is a necessary complement to the fee.

The problem with this passage is it says nothing about the size of the fee. A small enough fee could wind up being a purely symbolic measure, while a large enough fee could be a de facto bank breakup move. It’s impossible to say what the effects of the fee would be without more policy details. And the entire “plan” is like this–the plan is “detailed” in the sense of having many bullet points, but each bullet has major blanks that would need to be filled in before anyone could analyze the plan’s likely effects.

Here’s what really has me scratching my head–see those little lower-case Roman numerals in brackets? They look like footnotes. But there are no footnotes at the bottom of the page. As far as I can tell, Clinton’s campaign didn’t post the footnotes to the document anywhere. My guess is that there was a footnoted version circulated privately, and not including footnotes in the public version was intentional–but if so, why not take the fifteen minutes to clean up the document so it doesn’t have these mysterious footnotes to nowhere? This looks awfully sloppy, like Clinton’s team doesn’t take presenting her policy proposals seriously. It also makes me wonder if some of the people praising Clinton have seen details in the footnotes that are being kept secret. Or maybe not–but it’s still weird.

If you have a generally favorable view of Clinton, you’ll probably assume that the blanks in her plan will be filled in in a reasonable way. That’s fair–but it requires Clinton’s good intentions as an assumption. The “plan” is not itself evidence that Clinton deserves anyone’s trust. People who think politicians that take in millions of dollars in Wall Street money are unlikely to regulate Wall Street effectively shouldn’t find anything about this plan reassuring.

In fact, if you’re worried about the influence of money on Wall Street, consider this: Wall Street is not a monolith. A regulation that’s bad for one firm could be great for another. A canny politician could put together a “get tough on Wall Street” plan that’s really a “get tough on my donors’ competitors” plan, and most people would be none the wiser (especially if you toss in a small fee on your backers for appearances’ sake).

The criticisms of Sanders’s health care plan are even more baffling to me. It’s been widely claimed that plan is impossibly expensive. Politifact for example, seems to think you’d have to cut health care costs 42 to 47 percent in order to make Sanders’s plan work. But this is, uh, exactly what would happen if you brought US health care spending as a percentage of GDP down to Western European levels. In 2013 the US spent 17.1% of GDP on healthcare, whereas the United Kingdom only spent 9.1%–which is about 47% less, according to my calculator. And most people seem to agree health outcomes in the United States aren’t any better than they are in Europe. Passing the necessary cost-control measures might be politically difficult, but that doesn’t make the plan voodoo economics.

Clinton, meanwhile, has only proposed a threadbare set of tweaks to the Affordable Care Act. I can imagine formidable alternatives to single-payer–perhaps involving a public option or one or more of these ideas. Clinton’s proposal ain’t that alternative. Instead, she’s made the absurd suggestion that trying to pass single-payer could lead to the Affordable Care Act getting repealed with nothing in its place–which is obviously false, as Sanders would just veto that bill if Congress sent it to him.

One other thing: Gerald Friedman, an economist who isn’t affiliated with the Sanders campaign, analyzed his proposals and said he believed they could produce 5.3% economic growth. This led to some Clinton supporters jumping on Sanders for promoting voodoo economics. However, based on Friedman’s interview with Chris Matthews, it looks like the critics didn’t even read Friedman’s report before attacking.

I don’t expect Friedman’s arguments to convince every economist, but they aren’t obvious nonsense either. Basically Friedman thinks we’re still a far way away from the pre-Great Recession trend, and demographic trends only explain a small part of the decline in labor force participation rate. Other economists think–and Friedman acknowledges this–that the demographic effect on labor force participation rates is larger and that we’ve run out of low-hanging technological fruit that could cause big worker productivity gains. But Sanders’s critics are wrong to equate Friedman’s view with the Republican view that tax cuts are the solution to every economic problem.

(For what it’s worth, the Financial Times’s Alphaville blog, which caters to people who want to be financial big-shots, has come to Friedman’s defense, even though they’re the last people you’d expect to be rooting for Sanders.)

Part of the problem here is that Clinton is running an incredibly risk-averse campaign. Providing an actual wonky alternative to Sanders would require proposing some ideas that voters may or may not like. So instead we get deeply silly attacks. What’s really disappointing, though, is seeing people who should know better jumping on the anti-Sanders bandwagon.

Trump and Sanders are entirely electable

After New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, Republicans are panicking that Trump could win the nomination and then go down in flames in the general election. At the same time, Democrats are also panicking that Sanders could win the nomination and then go down in flames in the general election.

I think fears on both sides are unfounded. To the extent you think that Trump and/or Sanders would be terrible presidents, the thing that you should be afraid of is that either of them could actually become president. And not just in a head to head matchup. I think Trump would have a good chance against Clinton, while Sanders would have a good chance against Kasich, Bush, or Rubio. I have two reasons for this.

First, charisma. I didn’t use to think of this as a major factor in who wins elections, but after reading Paul Graham’s essay “It’s the charisma, stupid”, this seems kind of obvious:

Clinton didn’t represent any national shift leftward. He was just more charismatic than George Bush or (God help us) Bob Dole. In 2000 we practically got a controlled experiment to prove it: Gore had Clinton’s policies, but not his charisma, and he suffered proportionally. Same story in 2004. Kerry was smarter and more articulate than Bush, but rather a stiff. And Kerry lost.

As I looked further back, I kept finding the same pattern. Pundits said Carter beat Ford because the country distrusted the Republicans after Watergate. And yet it also happened that Carter was famous for his big grin and folksy ways, and Ford for being a boring klutz. Four years later, pundits said the country had lurched to the right. But Reagan, a former actor, also happened to be even more charismatic than Carter (whose grin was somewhat less cheery after four stressful years in office). In 1984 the charisma gap between Reagan and Mondale was like that between Clinton and Dole, with similar results. The first George Bush managed to win in 1988, though he would later be vanquished by one of the most charismatic presidents ever, because in 1988 he was up against the notoriously uncharismatic Michael Dukakis.

In 2016, if you ask which candidates have managed to generate the most excitement, the answer is hands-down Trump and Sanders. The fact that they have come this far, when most people were dismissing their campaigns six months ago, suggests that they’re probably doing many other things right as well.

But can charisma overcome extreme policy views? I think the answer might be yes, which is one reason I was warning people early on that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Donald Trump could be president next year. (I was slower to catch on with Sanders.) But there’s a second factor at play here: conventional wisdom likely mis-judges where the true center of American politics is.

For example, Americans know they dislike “Obamacare”, but it’s not clear that they have any real problem with universal health care in general. Republican politicians often say they want to “repeal and replace Obamacare”–a promise whose vagueness is probably intentional. Even many “conservative” voters probably wouldn’t respond well to GOP politicians openly announcing, “if people can’t afford health care, too bad.”

Ironically, Sanders’s proposal for single-payer is technically consistent with “repeal and replace”. It’s not at all clear to me that Sanders’s position is a tougher general-election sell than Clinton’s approach of incremental improvements to Obamacare: every nasty thing you can say about single-payer has already been said about Obamacare, but Sanders will be able to make his case afresh, without the negative associations that have been attached to the current system.

Sanders is pitching single-payer as “Medicare for all”, which is probably smart because Medicare is extremely popular with voters, even consistent Republican voters. The same is true of Social Security. Ideological Republicans would love to get rid of them, but they know they must tread carefully. Even Ted Cruz, the most ideologically “pure” of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, has vowed to preserve these programs for older Americans, and only gradually replace them with something else for younger workers. This is another example of the disconnect between elite ideology and voter preferences.

If you want decisive evidence of how little GOP voters care about small government ideology, look no further than Trump’s campaign. Trump does not seem to care at all about that ideology, and GOP voters love him anyway. In the first couple months of his campaign, he was even talking about raising taxes on the wealthy. He flip-flopped and now has a fairly standard Republican tax-cutting platform, but this flip-flop seems to have been driven by pressure from elite GOP advocacy groups, not voters.

Meanwhile, Clinton is promising not to raise taxes on anyone who’s “middle class”, using the absurdly out-of-touch definition of “middle class” as “anyone who’s making less than $250,000 per year.” I mean c’mon. Which do you really think is closer to the center of American politics: “we must rule out tax increases on people making $200,000 per year” or “it’s OK to pass a small tax increase on middle-income people if the program it funds has big benefits”?

Everything I’ve just said should thrill progressives, but they should be less happy with another way conventional wisdom misjudges the center: Americans are a lot more xenophobic than conventional wisdom admits. As I’ve pointed out before, if you reject Trump’s claim that Mexicans, Muslims, and other foreigners pose a grave threat to America, our immigration laws become nothing but pointless cruelty. In fact, it annoys me when people harp on Trump for perceived racism, because while he may be racist, focusing on that angle obscures the fact that, in America, racism is taboo but xenophobia is mainstream.

This is not just good news for Trump, but good news for Sanders, because his record on immigration gives him a way to credibly swing right during the general election. The current version of his immigration platform on his website at first glance reads like an immigration activist’s wish list. But it also treats fewer immigrants as a desirable goal, which he plans to achieve by making it harder for employers to hire foreign workers and by rolling back free trade agreements.

You’re probably wondering what rolling back free trade agreements has to do with immigration. Sanders’ view appears to be that free trade agreements are a tool greedy corporations use to profit at the expense of ordinary people in all the countries involved. This, Sanders seems to think, is the reason why so many people want to immigrate to the US from other countries.

In fact, Sanders seems to believe that immigration is also a tool that greedy corporations use to profit at the expense of everyone involved. People have accused Sanders of flip-flopping, but to me it seems like more of a shift of emphasis. He can embrace many demands of immigration activists because he sees undocumented immigrants as victims, but he’s still anti-immigration at heart.

I don’t think Sanders’s view of trade and immigration makes any sense whatsoever. But I expect well-educated people in coastal states to underestimate how well it will play among large swaths of the country. (Note that Trump is, in addition to being anti-immigration, anti-free trade–another heresy GOP voters don’t seem to mind at all.)

Surprisingly, if you accept that Trump has an excellent shot at the White House, all this means is that you could make a case for supporting Sanders as the more electable “lesser evil” candidate.

Sanders bet

I made a bet with Jai Dhyani about the outcome of the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primaries. In Jai’s words:

You get $10 if Sanders gets more than 45% in both NV and SC, I get $10 otherwise.

My reasoning: Sanders has been polling way behind in these states, but the available polls are quite stale–all the ones I can find were conducted before the Iowa caucuses. Sanders’ near-win in Iowa and landslide win in New Hampshire are getting him a ton of favorable media coverage, along with an inpouring of donations he’ll use to campaign aggressively in the next states.

The “moderate” presidential candidates would risk nuclear war

meme (1)

I’m still struggling with how to process this. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the Cold War (if you’re interested, I recommend Arsenals of Folly), so intellectually I know how insane the Cold War was. But to see similar levels of madness coming from allegedly “moderate” politicians in 2016 is still difficult to process.

Here are the facts: out of the ten major-party presidential candidates still in the race, seven have explicitly called for a no-fly zone. This includes Clinton, all four of the allegedly moderate “establishment” GOP candidates (Bush, Rubio, Kasich, and Christie), as well as Carson and Fiorina. Trump has talked about establishing a “safe zone” in Syria, which would realistically entail a no-fly zone, though it’s not clear he understands this. Cruz has said he’s generally opposed to US intervention in Syria, and Sanders has specifically rejected a no-fly zone.

A no-fly zone means a commitment to shooting down planes that violate it. This is not controversial. And because Russia is currently flying bombing missions in Syria to support Assad, a no-fly zone over Syria is a threat to shoot down Russian planes. I had trouble believing this when I first heard it–I assumed there must be some nuance to the candidates’ positions that was being left out of the headlines. But the seven candidates who’ve called for a no-fly zone really do seem to be saying we should threaten to shoot down Russian planes.

For example, here’s what Clinton said in a Democratic debate in December (Raddatz is the moderator):

CLINTON: Martha, that — you know, one of the reasons why I have advocated for a no-fly zone is in order to create those safe refuges within Syria, to try to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who are continuing to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS. And of course, it has to be de-conflicted with the Russians, who are also flying in that space.
I’m hoping that because of the very recent announcement of the agreement at the Security Council, which embodies actually an agreement that I negotiated back in Geneva in June of 2012, we’re going to get a diplomatic effort in Syria to begin to try to make a transition. A no-fly zone would prevent the outflow of refugees and give us a chance to have some safe spaces.

RADDATZ: Secretary Clinton, I’d like to go back to that if I could. ISIS doesn’t have aircraft, Al Qaida doesn’t have aircraft. So would you shoot down a Syrian military aircraft or a Russian airplane?

CLINTON: I do not think it would come to that. We are already de-conflicting air space. We know…

RADDATZ: But isn’t that a decision you should make now, whether…

CLINTON: No, I don’t think so. I am advocating…

RADDATZ: … if you’re advocating this?

CLINTON: I am advocating the no-fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians; I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia.

Now that Russia has joined us in the Security Council, has adopted an agreement that we hashed out a long day in Geneva three years ago, now I think we can have those conversations. The no-fly zone, I would hope, would be also shared by Russia. If they will begin to turn their military attention away from going after the adversaries of Assad toward ISIS and put the Assad future on the political and diplomatic track, where it belongs.

Clinton’s answers here are extremely evasive, but it’s hard to read her as saying anything other than, “yes I’ll be threatening to shoot down Russian planes but I think I can get the Russians to back down before I have to carry out that threat.”

Now I’m going to make some judgement calls. It could be that the candidates calling for a no-fly zone have no intention of even trying to make good on this pledge. But I would not count on this. Apparently there’s a fair amount of research showing candidates generally try to keep their promises. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these candidates originally signed on to the no-fly zone idea because they thought it would make them sound like serious foreign policy types. Even if that’s the case, they may feel compelled to keep the promise once in office. Even more frightening, some of them might actually think it’s a good idea. Clinton, after all, has reputation for having been the hawk in the Obama administration when she was Secretary of State.

Whether or not a candidate endorsed the no-fly zone for political reasons, I bet they all believe it’s at least a non-disastrous idea. I bet Clinton really believes the Russians would back down before she had to shoot down a Russian jet. I expect candidates who endorsed the no-fly zone for political reasons to be very good at rationalizing it, telling themselves even if it won’t really solve the problem it at least won’t be a disaster.

But it very likely would be a disaster. To imagine Russia’s response, imagine if Russia unilaterally declared they were going to start shooting down American planes doing bombing missions against ISIS. We would think that was insane and probably most American leaders would want to push back hard–perhaps by carrying on what we were doing and daring Russia to stop us.

Now if America shot down a Russian plane, how likely is it that it would lead to nuclear war? Some people have argued that even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the risk of nuclear war was small. However, I’ve argued this is wrong, and surviving the Cuban Missile Crisis involved a good dose of luck. Even though both Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to avoid war, there were points where either could have lost control of the situation. Furthermore, last summer Vox.com’s Max Fischer argued in a series of articles that the risk of nuclear war is the highest it’s been since the Cold War. Fischer focused on the possibility of a crisis in Eastern Europe, but some of the same dynamics would be in play in Syria.

I know spy planes sometimes get shot down without that escalating into war, but I don’t think that’s a good analogy for shooting down Russian bombers over Syria. Everyone seems to recognize that countries get to shoot down spy planes over their own territory. But Russia probably does not think the US is entitled to establish no-fly zones wherever it wants.

Another observation: from the reading I’ve done on the Cold War, my sense is that there were two kinds of people (on both sides of the conflict) who drove nuclear escalation. One was people who had lived through World War II planning for World War III on the assumption it was basically going to be World War 2.5. On the American side, General Curtis LeMay, who had organized the mass-firebombings of Japanese cities like Tokoyo, argued nuclear war was not fundamentally different from the mass bombings that had happened in World War II. On the Russian side, some Russian leaders reasoned, “well, nuclear war would be terrible, but getting invaded by Hitler was also terrible, and we survived that, didn’t we?”

But the World War 2.5 crowd at least did things that made a kind of sense from within their questionable worldview. Some of the other decision makers, however, did things that made no sense whatsoever from a military point of view because it was good politics. If someone said, “we’re falling behind in the arms race, we must build this new weapons system to catch up,” it was often very difficult to explain we were not in fact falling behind and/or the proposed weapons system served no conceivable military purpose. Therefore, such claims made good politics even when totally detached from reality. (If you want to watch how this works first hand, just watch the GOP debates where the candidates compete to exaggerate the threat of ISIS to ridiculous extremes, even claiming ISIS is an “existential threat” to the United States.)

The men who escalated the Cold War for personal political gain probably told themselves that their actions didn’t really significantly increase the risk of war. And in a sense they were probably right: probably no one thing any one person did increased the risk by that much. But taken together, their actions created a very dangerous situation. Indeed, it seems likely Putin’s recent escalation in Eastern Europe is driven largely by domestic political considerations.

Because of this, I cannot vote for any candidate who so much as suggests they might shoot down Russian planes in circumstances where those planes clearly do not pose a threat to the US or any country we have pledged to protect. Even if it seems unlikely that the threat would be carried out, the potential consequences are too grave for us to be taking any chances. This means that although I am pretty unhappy with Sanders’ record on immigration, I’d vote for him if the California primary were held today.

One other thing: how crazy is it that it’s the “extreme” candidates (Sanders, Cruz, maybe Trump?) who have resisted calls for a no-fly zone over Syria? I suppose this is because Trump and Cruz’s nationalistic bonafides are not in doubt, so if they feel like rejecting a particular ridiculous policy proposal they can. Meanwhile Sanders actually has a principled commitment to avoiding needless military actions. I think this says something very disturbing about what it means to be a “serious” or “moderate” American politician nowadays.

Note: I created the meme at the top in part based on this conversation between Clinton and Rachel Maddow.

Iowa caucus hot take

On Twitter and Facebook, people are debating what the results of the Iowa caucus mean. My take? The results were entirely unsurprising and mostly mean nothing.

On the Democratic side, Hillary and Bernie had been statistically tied in the polls since early January, and the end result of the Iowa caucuses was a statistical tie. Bernie will go on to win New Hampshire, and then we’ll see if he can win over voters who up until now haven’t been paying much attention.

On the GOP side, I think the results are basically unsurprising. Trump had been leading Cruz in the polls slightly, but not by enough to make it possible to call the caucuses. Rubio enjoyed a late polling surge, enough to let poll-watchers guess he’d do even better in the caucuses, but probably not by enough to take the caucuses. And indeed, Cruz was first, Trump second, and Rubio third.

I do think the GOP results matter a little more than the Democratic results, because they mean Cruz is still in this. If Cruz had lost, I think many of his supporters would have taken it as a sign that it was time to defect to Trump, but Cruz’ Iowa win stops that.

However, I don’t think it matters that Rubio’s third-place finish was a less-distant third than he seemed headed for two weeks ago. Rubio’s appeal to the hardcore xenophobes in the GOP (i.e. a majority of primary voters) is still fatally impaired by his past support for comprehensive immigration reform. The GOP primary is now a two-man race between Trump and Cruz–no matter how hard people who still believe “the party decides” want to avoid seeing it.