No Panaceas

Friday, April 04, 2003
New Template: I found the old template made my blog hard to read. I thought I'd try this one for a while.

Rally update: The latest Gallup poll has Bush's approval holding at the same 71 points that they found right after the war began.

Does this mean Bush's approval has topped out? If so that's a pretty anemic rally effect given the significance of the war. I suspect he'll get more of a boost if the war ends soon. I earlier talked about the dynamics of rally events here and here.

Pardon me, your blue slip is showing: A while back I wrote a series of posts on blue slips and Senate obstruction of judicial nominees. You can find them here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Senate Judiciary chair Hatch is now making good on his promise to ignore single blue slip rejections. In this case California senator Barbara Boxer refused to return a slip for 9th circuit nominee Carolyn Kuhl. (In fact she's been refusing for quite a while, but Hatch has decided now was the time to make a move.)

As I said before, both sides are completely hypocritical on this. Though I think it's fair to say that Hatch's actions are pretty breathtaking given that he's the one who first started allowing single blue slip rejections back in 1995. Now suddenly he opposes them and it's hard to see any reason for his change of heart other than a change in the president. It's too bad because Hatch is one senator who occasionally exhibits the inclination and ability to build creative cross-party coalitions (e.g., the Child Health Insurance and Lower Deficit Act). More than any other senator, Hatch could lead the way on reforming the confirmation process. But to do it he has to reach out to the Democrats and offer them something concrete, immediate, and valuable for their cooperation. Otherwise we are dooming ourselves to more tit-for-tat in the future. That means more filibusters in the short run, and big trouble for the next president that faces divided government.

Hatch is clearly angry about the Estrada filibuster, I'm sure he's furious over the hypocrisy charges, and I know he honestly believes that the Bush nominees are good for the country. All of this makes it hard for him to stomach cooperating with the Democrats right now, so I don't expect to see him take the lead on reform. In fact, I don't see how the Democrats can do much in response. Beyond the committee, of course, the Democrats can use the filibuster, but as I noted in one of the above linked essays, the filibuster is a less effective way to obstruct nominees.

Thursday, April 03, 2003
Sophisticated Voting: Senate Democrats pulled off a strategic coup last week by reducing the Bush tax cut from $700 billion to $350 billion. The contest (I hesitate to say war) over tax cuts is far from over, but the Dems made some progress towards their goal of reducing the package.

What makes this case interesting is how the Democrats did it. What occurred is a form of "sophisticated voting." In short, a group of Democratic senators voted against their "sincere" preferences (i.e., actual preferences) for strategic reasons. Three basic numbers were involved: $700 billion (the Bush number), $350 billion (a number preferred by some moderate Republicans and Democrats), and $0 the number preferred by some deficit hawks and most liberal Democrats.

What happened is that some of the Democrats who strongly preferred no tax cut to any tax cut nonetheless voted for the $350 billion alternative. Why? Because they knew that they could peel off enough moderates who supported the smaller cut -- but who preferred the big tax cut to no tax cut. The coalition proved large enough to win. So by voting against their sincere preferences the liberal Democrats effectively reduced the size of the tax cut.

Sophisticated voting can be hard to pull off in effective numbers because it's sometimes politically risky. Constituents might not understand the strategy behind the move and thus accuse the legislator of voting against constituent interests. It also means holding your nose and voting for something that you find noxious, as seems to be the case here. See this article. Note especially the quote from Sen. Durbin.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003
Just call me Azazel: If you haven't seen it yet, Seymour Hersh's piece on Rumsfeld is pretty amazing, and it fleshes out some of the conflict I was referring to yesterday. As I said yesterday, a major victory will cause a lot of this hyperventilation to fade. But if we have further setbacks then the groundwork is now in place for Rumsfeld's expulsion to the wilderness.

Monday, March 31, 2003
Roosting Chickens: It’s impossible to spend much time around D.C., and especially where I live in Northern Virginia, and not quickly realize that Donald Rumsfeld is a decidedly unpopular Secretary of Defense among military personnel, especially Army personnel. Part of it is Rumsfeld’s personal style but it is a mistake to chalk this up to mere brusqueness. More fundamentally this is a replay of the type of bureaucratic infighting that goes on anytime a political appointee attempts major reform at a large bureaucracy.

Part of it is about ideas and part of it is about interests, and, as is often the case, the ideas and the interests are enveloped together in ways that makes them hard to disentangle. Reforms reallocate power and resources and thus, virtually by definition, those who benefit from the status quo oppose the reform. But publicly battling political appointees who are backed by a popular president is tough, especially in the current post-September 11th context, and especially because the bureaucrats we are talking about here are military officers who are commendably loath to undercut their civilian bosses.

But something about the war in Iraq has really popped the cork. By Saturday night the airwaves were full of retired military officers heatedly lambasting Rumsfeld – and it’s mostly directed squarely at Rumsfeld, not Pres. Bush and not Gen. Franks, at least not yet – for undersizing the effort in Iraq. And it’s not just about Iraq. They are talking about Afghanistan too and directly contradicting the conventional wisdom of success there by claiming that undersizing the effort led to the escape of the Al Qaeda and Taliban top echelon. Meanwhile it appears that elements within the White House are trying to buffer Bush from blame. To do this the White House needs a scapegoat…

My point is simply that this is a lot of heat for what so far has been a relatively minor setback for the war effort. Some of it is natural media hyperventilation that is sure to go away when the U.S. and British forces achieve a major victory. But I think we just got a public inkling of how much Rumsfeld is despised and if things start to go really badly...

Insert the appropriate April Fool’s joke here: Tomorrow the Supremes hear the long awaited Michigan affirmative action cases. In Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court considers the legality of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions program and the university’s law school admissions program, respectively. Let’s look at the actual policies. First, here’s the undergraduate program. As the chart indicates, Michigan uses a point system where potential students receive a set number of points from different categories. These categories include GPA, School Factor (quality of high school), Curriculum Factor (did the student take advanced courses in high school), Test Score (SAT, etc.), Geography (e.g., in-state), Alumni Status (legacies), Required Essay, Personal Achievement, Leadership and Service, and Miscellaneous.

It is this final Miscellaneous category that attracted the legal claim. Here applicants can receive points from just one of the following: Socio-economic disadvantage (20 points), Underrepresented Racial/Ethnic Minority (20 points), Men in Nursing (5 points), Scholarship Athlete (20 points), Provost’s Discretion (20 points). So, an applicant who identifies as African-American, for example, receives an automatic 20 points. However, that same applicant does not get 25 points if he is an African-American and wants to be a nurse.

How many points get you into Michigan? According to this highly critical article by Benjamin Rousch, 100 points just about assures your acceptance, while 90-99 probably means you are wait-listed. Less than 90 likely means rejection. (I have trouble believing that Michigan would really reject a blue-chip football player just because his score was, say, 85.)

So, if 100 is the magic number then the affirmative action component gets you one-fifth of the way towards acceptance. A perfect SAT score, in contrast, only gets you slightly more than one-tenth of the way there. More to the point, the system can lead to differential treatment for two students with equivalent pre-Miscellaneous totals, e.g., Applicant A receives 100 points once race is considered while Applicant B remains at 80.

Michigan’s law school uses a much more informal system. As I understand it the university uses LSAT and undergraduate GPA to segregate applicants into three tiers. In trying to differentiate among members of the second tier the admissions committee looks at factors like life history, references, and, of course, race and ethnicity (see page 13).

In Bakke the Supreme Court declared quotas unconstitutional, at the same time the Court said that race could be a criteria in making admissions decisions. Is the undergraduate system a quota? No, not in any meaningful sense of the word “quota.” In contrast to the Cal-Davis policy that led to Bakke, Michigan’s policy does not guarantee that a particular portion of acceptances go to minorities. It does give minority applicants an explicit boost. The law school policy appears similar, but is far more informal. Does that make it more or less immune to the challenge?

What will happen? Beats me. Bakke was a very fractured decision, and I cannot see it affecting the behavior of those on the Court who believe race should not be a criteria in admissions decisions. Almost certainly we are talking about two 5-4 decisions and it's possible that it will be two different coalitions making up each five (with O'Connor the likely common element).

If both policies are declared unconstitutional then it seems likely that many universities will start down the Bush-supported Texas path of accepting the top ten-percent of high school classes. It’s hard to even fathom the level of irony involved in such a policy. In short it relies on high school segregation to create college integration.

Read the Michigan Law School document carefully. It nicely captures the difficulty that admissions committees face in trying to develop a pool of the “best” students. It’s a highly subjective process. No process can be completely fair and attempts to formalize or mechanize admissions lead to their own distortions. Take the Texas policy, for example. In that state high school quality varies dramatically. So, a student who finishes in the 9th percentile of the worst school in the state gets a boost, while a student who finishes in the 11th percentile of the best high school in the state does not.

Check out How Appealing and SCOTUSBlog for lots of interesting links and commentary on the case. Note especially How Appealing’s comments on O’Connor. Note also Michigan’s site on the case.