Monthly Archives: June 2010

What Markos Could Learn from Ronald Reagan

I  want to comment briefly on the recent dustup in the blogging and polling world caused by DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas’ accusation that “the weekly Research 2000 State of the Nation poll we ran the past year and a half was likely bunk.”  Markos links to an independent analysis he sponsored that points to anomalies in the Research 2000 survey results and strongly suggests the results had to be manipulated.  He goes on to say, “I hereby renounce any post we’ve written based exclusively on Research 2000 polling.”

Research 2000 had been hired by Kos more than a year ago to provide polling in races that weren’t often surveyed by mainstream pollsters, and to provide national tracking results as well.  Some websites, like RealClearPolitics initially avoided using Research 2000 results presumably because they feared the results would be driven by DailyKos’ ideological leanings. Others, like TalkingPointsMemo and incorporated Research 2000 results into their composite tracking polls and other analyses.  Presumably they will now drop Research 2000 from their websites until these charges are resolved.

I don’t know if Markos’ charges are true.  We will certainly know more after other analysts begin sifting the polling results and the independent analysis.  In any case, this is clearly going to result in lawsuits on both sides.  Markos is going to charge Research 2000 with fraud, and the polling firm will likely countersue for libel.

Mark Blumenthal here and Charles Franklin here have good discussions of the controversy from a polling perspective. For my purposes, however, there is a broader point to be made – one that I’ve argued before when discussing opinionated blogging sites such as Markos’ DailyKos.  Because they have such a strong world view, these are wonderful sites to visit when you need to commune with like-minded people.  But you shouldn’t go there for objective analysis! They are churches that nurture the soul – they are not intended to give you an unvarnished take on the political world.

The problem on these sites becomes separating out spin, or opinion, from fact-based analysis.  I don’t mind the opinion – it is often provocative and entertaining. But the Research 2000 polling results were presented as fact, not opinion.  In acknowledging that the surveys that figured prominently on the DailyKos website for almost two years were possibly fraudulent, Markos’ defends himself by noting, “I want to feel stupid for being defrauded, but fact is Research 2000 had a good reputation in political circles.”  He then lists some of Research 2000 clients.

This is a weak defense. The reality is that it was quite clear to anyone who had an open mind that Research 2000 survey results of individual races were often off the mark in a particular direction, and that their national tracking polls consistently showed higher approval ratings for Obama than did other polls.  But there was no indication that this bothered anyone at the DailyKos website, because the results typically slanted toward what they wanted to believe!  Now they are shocked – shocked! – that Research 2000 might have been skewing the polling results.

In looking over their results during the last year, I did not have access to the internal sampling data on which Research 2000 based its analyses. But it became clear to me, when I compared its results to multiple others polls, that they were often outliers in one direction and after a while I simply discounted their results.  Consider, for example, the recent Arkansas Democrat primary between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter.  Research 2000 posted the last survey there, and they had Halter up 4%.   Here’s what I wrote on this blog on election night: “Finally, one thing to keep in mind when we look at the polling in Arkansas, which shows Lincoln losing to Halter: most of those polls are by Research 2000, a polling firm closely tied to the Daily Kos website which has come out strongly for Halter.  Unfortunately, Research 2000 polls have been very inaccurate, in large part because their voter sample over represents younger voters.”  Later that night, in analyzing returns, I wrote:  “I just took another look at the final Research 2000 Arkansas poll – it had Halter up over Lincoln by 49-45%.  With a 4% margin of error, and the additional bias built into the Research 2000 survey, I think that means Lincoln goes into this with a very slight lead.”

Lincoln, as you know, went on to win comfortably.  And it appears that I may have been too charitable to Research2000, if Kos is to be believed – it wasn’t simply that they oversampled younger voters.

My point here is not to tout my own forecasting skills (anyone remember my Scott Brown-Martha Coakley prediction one week before that special election?)  It is to remind you – particularly my students who frequent websites like Kos, or DailyDish, or Michele Malkin – not to confuse advocacy with analysis.  The great danger of lurking on a site with a uniform perspective is the echo chamber effect; you begin to substitute the prevailing world view for fact-based analysis.

Let me be clear: no analyst is bias free.  But some at least try to discipline their analysis by sticking with the facts and noting when their analysis strays from the data into the realm of conjecture.  Kos and his followers are clear that their views skew Left.  That’s fine. But I think that the strength and uniformity of the DailyKos world view made posters and readers there susceptible to accepting the data manipulation that they now accuse Research2000 of engaging in. They wanted to believe, and Research 2000 fed into those preconceptions.

And that’s my worry about the blogosphere: that students will gravitate to those sites that reinforce their ideological or political predispositions, and accept uncritically what passes for fact-based analysis there.  It is important to maintain a healthy skepticism when entering these sites. Your role model should be Ronald Reagan.

Reagan, in presenting an arms agreement he had negotiated with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, noted that he acted according to this Russian proverb, which he translated as, “Trust but verify.”   Gorbachev responded, “You repeat that at every meeting!”

And with good reason.

I’m not saying you should not visit sites like DailyKos, or their counterparts on the Right. When you do, however, remember Reagan’s “Russian” proverb.  Had Kos done so, he might not have found himself in the current predicament.

Making His Presidency McChrystal Clear

What is presidential leadership?

I think it is this. Almost all presidents reach a point when they are faced with choosing among unpalatable alternatives under conditions of great uncertainty and with potentially great consequences, both for their own political future but also for the nation.  It is at these times that presidents must decide: what are my core beliefs – my bedrock principles that help me decide when there are no good choices and no sure outcomes? What sustains me when events go wrong – when I am surrounded by doubt and there is no consensus on what to do? What am I about?

This is the essence of leadership: defining those values on which one is willing to stake one’s presidency. For Lincoln, it was to preserve the Union. Franklin Roosevelt believed government could protect citizens against capitalism’s worst excesses. Reagan sought to restore Americans’ faith in traditional values of individualism, small government and free enterprise at home, and defend against communism abroad.  Again and again, when offered opportunities to back away from these fundamental beliefs, these presidents refused to do so, even when it cost them politically.

What defines Obama?  To this point I don’t think anyone knows – including him. He won the presidency largely by saying what he was not, and that he represented change – but change to what?  As president he has faced policy choices of immense complexity and significance – a deep economic recession, historic health care reform, an unprecedented oil spill – but none of these have as yet forced him to define his presidency in terms of articulating core beliefs. Instead, the dominant characteristic of his response to these issues is political pragmatism – choosing policy responses primarily on the basis of what he believed possible, as opposed to what he aspired to do. If national politics was a courtroom, Obama’s preferred approach has been to settle rather than go to trial.  His solutions are not based on ideology – there is no right or wrong, no guilty or innocent – there is only a dollar figure.  Politics, to Obama, is the art of closing the deal – not choosing sides.

The virtue of this approach is that he has accomplished a great deal.  Congress passed an $800 billion stimulus bill. It enacted health insurance reform.  BP has agreed to establish a $20 billion escrow fund.  We are on the cusp of reforming financial regulation. These are important accomplishments whose significance should not be diminished.  But they are accomplishments in which Obama chose from a menu of alternatives largely drawn up by others, and when there existed a consensus – not always a strong one, to be sure – to move in a particular direction.  Under these circumstances, Obama’s job has been to sound out the litigants, see who was willing to cut a deal, and negotiate the final price.

This lawyer-like approach, I think, is about to be tested in Afghanistan in a way that no other issue has tested it to date. The reason is that there are no good options there, there is no certain outcome associated with any single option and thus there is nothing remotely resembling a consensus pushing in a particular direction. Progressives think it is the wrong war and are agitating for a complete withdrawal.  Conservatives want Obama to come out and state what they see as both strategically preferable and inevitable: that circumstances come July may dictate a troop increase, not a drawdown, and that no bets are off the table.  The public, unsure, waits for some sign of success while fearing the cost of staying.

That is why I believe Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal is so potentially revealing – not because it signaled that he was “in charge” (as Martin’s comments imply, by overreacting to a perceived slight it may in fact signal just the opposite).  Rather, it is potentially significant (and I stress potentially) because it may force Obama to begin confronting the inherent tension in his politically pragmatic but ultimately untenable decision made last December to build up the American military presence in Afghanistan so that we could draw it down 18 months later.  By coupling the firing of McChrystal with a strongly-worded recommitment to the counterinsurgency policy McChrystal championed, Obama has made it that much harder, come next July, to begin that drawdown if the counterinsurgency goals – giving the Afghans the time to develop the capability to govern themselves and to prevent that country from providing a haven for terrorists – do not yet appear in reach.  As I noted in my comments during his speech announcing McChrystal’s resignation, Obama had doubled down on McChrystal’s strategy, making it in essence his war.

Is this the first step toward defining his presidency?  Note his recent statement that “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us” come next July and that instead this date is best viewed as the time to begin transfering responsibility to Afghan forces. This is the first signal from him that U.S. military forces may remain in significant numbers long past the July 2011 drawdown date.  But it is not the first such indication from his administration; just last week General Petraeus expressed a similar sentiment in his Senate testimony, and he will almost certainly repeat that refrain during his confirmation hearing this Tuesday.  It will be interesting to see how far he is willing to go in public to push Obama toward stepping back from the drawdown date.

It is unclear to me, based on Obama’s comments during the McChrystal firing, whether he is deciding what he wants to do in Afghanistan, or that he continues to make policy by combining elements from others’ preferred options.  Whatever the McChrystal decisions portends, I see no good reason for Obama to publicly clarify his war aims until after the November midterms. That is why, after all, he scheduled the first review of the counterinsurgency effort for December, when there will have been enough time to begin evaluating the COIN strategy and, not incidentally, when the political landscape will be better defined.

I do believe, however, that the run-up to December, and then the July drawdown date, offers an opportunity for Obama to elucidate – in his own mind – what his presidency is about.  He may as Tom Ricks suggests here, use the July deadline to say “I tried the surge. It didn’t work. We are leaving.”

In this respect, these deadlines offer an opportunity to lead – but it does not mean he will do so. For all the talk about Obama’s “Truman moment” in sacking McChrystal we forget that Truman’s firing of MacArthur did nothing to bring the Korean War to a resolution.  Indeed, Truman’s “take charge” moment obscures the more important failure of his Korean policy: that he allowed his war aims, which initially centered on re-securing the 38th parallel as the boundary between North and South Korea, to expand in the first heady days after MacArthur’s Inchon landing.  That prompted the Chinese counterattack, and led to the stalemate that persisted until Truman left office as one of the least popular presidents in the modern era.

Let me be clear: to define one’s presidency as I suggest Obama must do is no guarantee of success. Bush’s embrace of the surge did not, as yet, guarantee peace and stability in Iraq.  Nor did it secure, as yet, his historical standing.  We honor Lincoln for his single-minded commitment to saving the Union, but without military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg we very likely would be debating President McClellan’s choice to seek a negotiated peace with the South after 1864.

No one can predict what will happen if we abandon Afghanistan – nor if we build up our military presence there. There is surely risk in either option.  The greater risk, however, is not to choose. By taking that route – by continuing to seek the settlement point rather than go to trial, Obama risks having his choices in Afghanistan determined by others: his military commanders, Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun, the Pakistanis, the progressive wing of the Democratic party and, not least, the American public.  The danger in the strategy of pragmatism is that Obama will continue to do just enough not to lose Afghanistan, but not enough to win there – if winning is possible. It was precisely this politically pragmatic strategy adopted by LBJ that led to disaster in Vietnam.

In what does Obama believe?  What is the essence of his presidency? At this point, it’s McChrystal clear.

It’s Now Obama’s War

Obama, for those of you who did not witness his just concluded speech, has fired General McChrystal, and replaced him with Petraeus.  At the same time he reaffirmed, with unusually strong language, that McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan will not change. (When I get access to the transcript I’ll add the direct quote).

I normally hesitate to make snap judgments, and I am only too willing to hear some pushback from all of you, but I thought this was an extraordinarily risky move by Obama. Call it ballsy.  Call it foolhardy.  Call it leadership. Or call it classic Obama – but my first reaction is that he has managed to split the difference again.  In effect, he jettisoned the General, while doubling down on the General’s strategy.  The immediate consequence in my view is that he’s now lost all political cover on this issue. At one point he could potentially say we tried it McChrystal’s way, and it’s not working.   That becomes harder to do with McChrystal gone – now if things go sour the refrain from the Right will be “Why didn’t you keep McChrystal?”

And that means he has a difficult decision to make if, and when, it becomes clear next July that the scheduled draw down probably can’t happen.  Do we stay or do we go?

For better or for worse, this is now Obama’s War.


(Note: Martin has an interesting take in the comments to my previous post on this topic).

2:57 Addendum:  Here are the direct quotes from Obama I referenced above, taken from the New York Times website, that indicate it’s full steam ahead with the McChrystal strategy, if not with McChrystal:

“So make no mistake. We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on Al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.

That’s the strategy that we agreed to last fall. That is the policy that we are carrying out in Afghanistan and Pakistan…

Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy. General Petraeus fully participated in our review last fall, and he both supported and helped design the strategy that we have in place.”

Does that sound like a President who is using this as an opportunity to reconsider his strategy?  I think not.

To Fire or Not to Fire McChrystal? That’s NOT the Question!

A week ago, in reaction to General David Petraeus’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee (the hearing in which he nearly collapsed), I had begun writing a post arguing that the Gulf Oil spill was obscuring a far more pressing policy issue: the lack of success in the war in Afghanistan, despite Obama’s decision last December to support a military “surge” there. With more than 90,000 U.S. troops now fighting in a war that has lasted longer than the American involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. appears bogged down in a counterinsurgency strategy that may take many more years, or even decades, to achieve its goal of a stable Afghan government.

That issue is obscure no more, thanks to comments attributed to General Stanley McChrystal and his aides in this Rolling Stone interview.  Many critics are interpreting the comments as bordering on military insubordination, and suggesting (see here and here) that Obama will appear weak by not firing McChrystal. Others disagree, claiming the real weakness will come if he appears overly sensitive to comments that, in the end, provide no evidence that McChrystal is undermining Obama’s military strategy (see, for example, here.)

Historical analogies – Truman and MacArthur! Lincoln and McClellan! – are being tossed about as commentators try to put Obama’s decision in some sort of context.

What are we to make of this?  I want to take a third perspective here and argue that McChrystal’s comments are, politically speaking, largely meaningless, and that it doesn’t really matter how Obama responds. His best course of action, I suppose, is to bring McChrystal to the proverbial woodshed, give him a well-publicized but largely meaningless spanking, and send him back to Afghanistan.  After all, there’s no reprise of MacArthur or McClellan here – nowhere does McChrystal question Obama’s strategy. The current press leaks suggest, however, that Obama is positioning himself to do more – that McChrystal has offered his resignation and that Obama may very well accept it.  This will, of course, do nothing to appease critics on either side, but that’s hardly the issue here. Instead, there is a more fundamental problem that will remain no matter how Obama reacts to McChrystal’s comments: last December, after a three-month review, Obama signed on to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan and agreed to send an additional 30,000 troops there.  He did so, I argued then, without fully understanding the ramifications of his decision.

In announcing his decision to increase the U.S. military presence, Obama promised to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by July, 2011 – a deadline that almost everyone with knowledge of the Afghan war thought hopelessly unrealistic. Even if McChrystal is fired, the policy dilemma remains: how do you extricate yourself from Afghanistan per an unrealistic timetable when there are likely to be few positive benefits showing from the counterinsurgency strategy when the drawdown begins?

Look again at the Rolling Stone article. The underplayed but arguably more important portion in it is not the locker-room-style comments of McChystal’s aides – it’s the tension-filled meeting between McChrystal and the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, many of whom believe the surge is not working in part because of the U.S. rules of engagement designed to protect the Afghan population.  They complain bitterly that they are not allowed to fully engage suspected Taliban who are free to move among civilians.

The exchange points to a larger issue not fully addressed by Obama’s lawyer-like military decision to build up and then draw down.  Will the strategy work? In short, it’s not McChrystal’s comments that are the real problem here. As I wrote in my initial post on Obama’s decision to reprise a version of the Iraq “surge” in Afghanistan, Obama took the lawyer’s approach and split the difference between the Biden withdrawal option and the McChrystal “all-in” strategy. In so doing, however, he essentially boxed himself in on terms very close to what McChrystal wanted all along.  With the U.S. military forces mired in what is shaping up to be a very long struggle in Afghanistan, and with U.S. casualties continuing to mount, it will be very hard for Obama to stick to the unrealistic timetable.  If he does adhere to it and begins the drawdown a year from now before the “surge” begins to bear fruit, critics will quite correctly ask: then what was accomplished by sending in the additional 30,000 troops?

Make no mistake about it: for the next few days the pundits will have a field day dissecting Obama’s reaction to McChrystal’s impolitic remarks.  But this says more about the state of today’s media than it does about the importance of the comments, the most damning of which were not even McChrystal’s. The more fundamental issue here is that Obama has mortgaged his presidency in part to a counterinsurgency strategy that has no guarantee of success without an additional contribution of troops and money and a commitment of years, not months, by the United States.  No one believes the surge will have accomplished its goals in the 18-month timetable laid out by Obama before the troop drawdown begins. And so he has left himself with two unpalatable options: remaining in Afghanistan far beyond his deadline for withdrawal, or leaving on terms decidedly less attractive than what he could have achieved by following Biden’s advice six months ago.

To Fire or Not To Fire McChrystal?  That’s not even the question. Instead, Obama should ask: What does it mean to “win” in Afghanistan, and how do we achieve that victory? Those are questions worthy of real debate.

11:12 a.m. Addendum:  For more on whether the counterinsurgency is working on a tactical level, see here.

Why Obama Should Not Sweat the “Little Spills” (and Politically, They Are All Little Spills)

The relatively disappointing reaction to Obama’s prime time Oval Office address, against the backdrop of BP CEO Tony Hayward’s Sergeant Schulz-like testimony (“I see nothing! I hear nothing!”) before a congressional committee, and the seemingly nonstop coverage of the spill itself, have collectively contributed to the impression that we’ve reached an “inflection point” in the Gulf oil crisis – but not the one for which the White House hoped.  Instead, critics (see here and here and here) are suggesting that Obama’s handling of the crisis is threatening not just Democrats’ fortunes in the 2010 midterms, but Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.  Perceptions of his leadership are rapidly approaching Carteresque territory, with the daily headlines – Day 59 of the Gulf Crisis! – reminding viewers of Nightline’s nightly announcement of how long Americans were held hostage in Iran during Carter’s presidency.

To support the claim that the Gulf oil spill is in danger of becoming Obama’s hostage crisis, critics note that public support for Obama’s handling of the spill has dropped. In this regard, Tom Bevan posts the following poll results at RealclearPolitics:

According to Bevan, that’s a drop in the public’s approval of Obama’s handling of the oil spill of 18 points in the latest AP/GFK poll, 21 points according to Fox News and 13 in CNN’s polls. As Bevan notes,  other polls find a majority of Americans criticizing the President for his failure to act quickly enough in responding to the crisis, and for being too lenient on BP.

Perhaps most alarming, the latest USAToday/Gallup poll indicates a majority (51%) of all adults (not just likely voters) now believe Obama should not be reelected in 2012.  All this has not been lost on the White House, which explains, I think, the concerted public relations efforts in recent weeks to show that Obama is on top of the issue; he has made four trips to the Gulf coastline, in addition to his nationwide address, and his top aides have fanned out to news shows defending the administration’s response.

At the risk of heresy, let me make the following assertion: politically speaking, the oil spill is not that big a deal. Note: I’m not trying to minimize its environmental implications, nor the urgency to cap the leak.  But politically it should not be Obama’s top priority.  Indeed, rather than pursuing a no-win strategy of appearing to be on top of an issue over which he has no control, Obama would be far better off by distancing himself from the spill.  The reason is that the public is smart enough to realize he’s not responsible for the initial explosion at the oil rig, and they still believe BP should take primary responsibility for the cleanup.

But what about these disastrous poll numbers?  It’s true that the public doesn’t think Obama has handled the spill very well – but that’s because Obama continues to insist that he’s in charge, and yet the oil continues to spew.  If we step back from oil spill, however, and look at Obama’s overall approval numbers (see the polls above), they’ve barely budged from what they were before the spill, suggesting that the public is fully capable of separating their judgment of his reaction to the spill from their overall evaluations of him as president.  Bevan suggests that Obama’s numbers should have gone up after the spill as the public rallies behind the President.  I’m skeptical – the oil spill is not the same rally-round-the-flag type event that normally boosts a President’s poll ratings.

Instead, I think the lesson from these polls is that the public is quite capable of distinguishing Obama’s reaction to the spill from his overall performance as president. This distinction is easy to lose if one focuses solely on the daily diatribes about the oil spill that continue to dominate cable shows and opinion columns.  But we shouldn’t confuse the punditocracy’s need to fill airtime with the real concerns of  most Americans.

What about those reelection numbers?  Same thing: they haven’t changed from what they were before the spill.  Here’s the Gallup poll data showing that despite the perception that he’s mishandled the spill, support for his reelection hasn’t changed from what Gallup was recording before the explosion:

In short, there’s no evidence yet that the public’s overall assessment of Obama’s presidency is being eroded by his ham-handed reaction to the oil crisis.  The reason why, I think, is because when prioritizing their concerns, the public is far more interested in jobs and the economy.    Oil spewing from a broken pipe may make for great visuals, and it certainly affects the livelihood of the Gulf coast residents.  It may even be one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history (although at this point it’s not even the biggest oil spill).  But for most Americans, it’s an abstraction – something they see on their television screens but which doesn’t affect them directly.  Indeed, a slight majority of Americans continue to favor off-shore drilling for oil (although there is less support for expanding those efforts beyond current levels).

Given these dynamics, Obama would be far better off stepping back from the Gulf spill and turning over daily responsibility to a cabinet secretary, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, or some other figure. Let Salazar become the administration’s public face of this disaster.  Obama should move on to those issues – jobs, the economy, Afghanistan – that are of greater concern to voters, and over which he may have greater influence.  The alternative – repeated shots of him expressing concern about the spill interspersed with video of crude bubbling to the surface and images of oil-slicked seagulls – simply reminds voters of how little he can do to stop it.