Monday, November 26, 2012

Wildrose 2013

For the past few years, I've given a run down of what I found noteworthy at the provincial party's AGM.  That won't be happening this year, because I didn't go.  I can, however, comment based on what I've seen reported.  Since this post is directed at current Wildrosers, I will be calling attention to some local constituency details that won't be of interest to a wider readership, and I'll be stepping back into my old shoes as a party activist to speak to social conservatives from an "us" perspective, issues I wouldn't say I've since "evolved" on but I would say would require more discussion of what things look like from the libertarian perspective were I addressing a broader audience.

First of all, I'll note that there seems to be a continuation of the mentality I took exception to at previous AGMs, namely, that the party's MLAs in particular seem to be of view that the party's popularity challenges are best overcome by making policy concessions as opposed to advocating for the party's policies more effectively.

The best example of this is not "conscience rights" since there is little room to advocate more effectively and convincingly on life issues.  Most people are already informed enough in that area to make a decision, rightly or wrongly, and it's a decision that is typically based upon an ingrained world view.  However, even here it could be pointed out to the media that anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage planks have been shot down continually by the party membership ever since "Wildrose" was first attached to a provincial political party name more than five years ago.  All that's left today is a plank that is consistent with a pluralistic society wherein a significant minority does not support either abortion on demand or state-approved gay marriage..  In theory, access to abortion or a marriage certificate could be constrained by finding that one's first point of contact is declining to offer the service.  But if my local medi-centre declines to perform brain surgery on me and I end up having to head down to the university hospital, have I been really been denied access to this surgery?  In a free society, coercion is a last resort and if someone is modestly inconvenienced by someone's freedom to decline a service, that may seen as a reflection of the fact that it's one thing for a society to come to a conclusion about a contentious issue and another to coerce conscientious objectors into helping implement that conclusion.  Surely the manpower of the dissidents is not necessary if community consensus is in fact so decisive.  The real problem for those requesting the service is not the inconvenience of moving on to the next provider but the audacity of the refusant to not recognize their entitlement.  If we can tolerate cops declining to ticket someone even though the letter of the law calls for a ticket, I should think we could allow some room for other representatives of the state to exercise their personal judgement.

But if the "conscience rights" clause must go nonetheless, the party would still have a raison d'ĂȘtre without it, even just on social conservative grounds (properly construed).  I've long been of the view that narrowing one's advocacy down to a pro-life agenda often ends up undermining the larger conservative social agenda, because, to take an example, it may end up increasing out-of-wedlock births instead of decreasing them.  I understand that the ends don't necessarily justify the means, but if one person is trying to get a guy to take more responsibility for his partner and his children and another is trying to convince him of the need to obey Levitical prescriptions concerning the eating of pork, do we decide which person we should ask to stop talking over the other so a single, less confusing message can get through based solely on who makes more references to Scripture?  I'm not trying to trivialize abortion by talking about clean and unclean food, I'm rather noting that not everything in the Bible is treated, or can be treated, as a litmus test.  What matters is whether the candidate's approach to public policy will advance or retard God's will for the family and society.  It's not impossible that an atheist could be used by the Lord.  Once a particular theological point assumes dealbreaker status, where you do you stop?  We saw the logical conclusion of how the issue plays out politically south of the border when GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri were pressed on how far they would go in their opposition to abortion.  With respect to gay marriage my primary objection has been to the characterization of the matter as a "rights" issue when such characterization ought to be reserved for a call for the state to step out, not for a call for the state to step in.  And a "step in" is indeed the issue here because the issue is not striking sodomy laws off the books but recognition of gay marriage as a social norm.  It's the difference between the freedom to deviate and whether it's deemed deviant in the first place.  There's a fundamental difference between approving gay marriage via the legislature or by referendum, in other words, and approving it via courts citing "rights."  Once democratic support for gay marriage has been established, that may make no difference in terms of its rightness theologically or metaphysically, but it does make a difference in terms of the return one is going to get on one's political advocacy going forward.  I am not so much saying that social conservatives need to move on from the issue so much as I am saying that social conservatives need to look at advocacy holistically and the breakdown of the nuclear family in particular is an issue that not only provides more fertile ground for moving public opinion but has consequences that do not presume a particular metaphysical view to be identified as negative.  Even atheists can lament the number of single parent households.

So if abortion and gay marriage are not the best examples of where the party should dig in and just fight harder, how about the human rights commission plank?  I'll repeat here what I said after the 2010 AGM:
The question for me, however, was why there was any need to finesse this policy plank when even the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, which draws its name from a former Liberal MLA [photo at right from Foundation website], thinks a simple repeal of section 3 acceptable.
Here we have the best illustration of why the call by party poohbahs to move closer to the "centre line" represents a lack of creative thinking.  On abortion, OK, the lines have been set for a long time; - if someone had an idea about how to bust open that issue to new movement in public opinion, someone would have surely thought of it by now.  But this human rights commission issue is highly susceptible to framing.  The left has been dragging the centre line their way for a while now and the current situation calls for yanking on the other end of the rope, not capitulation.  The spectrum here consists of the left, the libertarians, and the conservatives.  On this matter it's already been dragged well into libertarian territory such that current policy can be, and should be, entirely defended on free speech grounds.  I call attention here, again, to the fact that Janet Keeping, president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation, took exception to how this issue has been framed:
Here's one that especially rankles. The Alberta legislature recently confirmed the provincial commission's jurisdiction over offensive speech, but [chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Jennifer] Lynch notes "not without a chorus of 'boos' from the far right." The Chumir Foundation, other organizations and individuals presented carefully constructed arguments against Alberta's hate-speech provision. It is disrespectful to dismiss our reasoned objections as "boos"...

Our most prolific provincial pundit, David Climenhaga, is of the view that it wasn't a "couple of candidates mak[ing] controversial comments" that brought Wildrose up short in April's election but "Wildrose policy".  Aside from the fact that Mr Climenhaga's thesis isn't supported by the polls ( it wasn't previously undisclosed policy that grabbed headlines late in the campaign but "comments") it requires far less reaching to contend that what voters took issue with was not the fact that Edmonton South West candidate Allan Hunsperger wasn't legally prosecuted by the human rights commission for referring to the "lake of fire", it's that he was a party candidate.  I assure you, dear reader, that "lake of fire" does not appear in the party's policy platform.  It's one thing for the party to defend Hunsperger's right to free speech as a private citizen and another to make him a potential legislator in a Wildrose government.

Tom Flanagan [photo at right from] says Wildrose should have been spent more money on oppo research, digging into the background of both Wildrose candidates and PC candidates.  Is it not a little odd that a prescription to spend more money is coming from someone seen as a conservative ideologue?  Is it not oddly ironic that someone with such a (well deserved, in my view) reputation for cynical, hardball politics, ended up the lamb before the lion of the PC's political attack machine?  Flanagan repeats the call for softening the party's policy book, when in fact it was the party's campaign tactics that were the problem, and if anything the tactics weren't hardball enough, substituting shrillness and sheer volume for sophistication in its criticisms of the governing party.  The idea of paying out energy revenue directly to Albertans didn't come from the policy book, or the grassroots, anyway.  This was entirely a creation of the head office brain trust.  One of the biggest arguments for conservative taxation and spending policies is that incentives matter and should be rewarded.  Paying out unconditional cheques for simply existing does pretty much zero in terms of creating additional incentives to work or otherwise add value to the economy.  Consigning entitlement schemes like this to the dust bin, in other words, would move policy to the right, not left.  The problem with the policy book is not that it is too right wing but that it isn't smart and innovative enough.

From: Brian Dell
To:  Wildrose VP Policy
Date: Tue, Nov 17, 2009
subject: Re: Making Policy
"We cannot simply call on... people that do not have a connection to us..."
Now where's that "can do" attitude, [...]?  If say, getting someone from the U of C's School of Public Policy to speak to the membership about trends in tax reform or an Edmonton-based academic economist to provide input to a policy task force is truly mission impossible, why not suggest to the policy committee that they consider and come to a consensus about whether to give me, or anyone with a public policy background, authorization to try and make it happen?  After all, I would only be failing where others have failed before, no?  Just be sure to have that Mission Impossible theme music in the background! ;)  If it is a requirement that the invited person be sufficiently "connected", just get specific about that in the mission details.  I don't think a "connection" of comparable strength to whatever the connection was that brought someone to speak to the membership twice this year about privatizing healthcare would be impossible to find or create.

I think you've struck upon precisely what I see as the issue, namely, that the people that have a "connection" to "us" are Calgarians, media people, oil patch lobbyists, or all of the above.  We can either move beyond that, or we can take that attitude that we can't build new "connections"....

For all of my frustrations about policy, I might have been able to deal with it, had it not also been for other factors including what seemed to me to be a shortage of professionalism when it came to local organization.  I lobbied for the early creation of a southwest Edmonton constituency association that I and others could work with in anticipation of Edmonton Whitemud's split and I couldn't find any takers at the stage when the association could have avoided ending up a runt. This brings us back to Hunsperger, the party's ultimate nominee for the new riding of Edmonton South West.  According to the Journal, "[Danielle] Smith repeated her stance that it was largely up to local constituencies to weed out problematic nominees."  But of course.  This means, however, having a developed local constituency association early in the game.

From: Brian Dell
To: [select local riding people from the southern part of Edmonton Whitemud]
Date: Tue, Nov 24, 2009
Subject: anticipated division of the Edmonton Whitemud provincial constituency
I'm Brian Dell with the Wildrose Alliance.  I may have left a message for you or sent you an email in recent weeks.

The Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission is scheduled to release their preliminary report with respect to redrawing the province's ridings in late February.  Public hearings will be held in April, and a final report presented to the Legislature in July for the Assembly to consider and enact as law.

During preliminary hearings last September it was apparent that of the 4 ridings to be added to the province (for a new total of 87), at least 1 would be going to Edmonton and the #1 priority for placing this new riding would be Edmonton's southwest; - the Whitemud riding is currently the most overpopulated riding in Edmonton and one of the 2 or 3 most overpopulated in the province.

It follows that the chances of you gentlemen... remaining in the same constituency as those up in Brookside or Rhatigan Ridge is close to nil.

The two main proposals under consideration would either divide the constituency more or less east-west (as proposed by Edmonton's PC Party VP) or north-south.  See attached maps....
...the south of the riding will likely be in need of another individual or two who could be called on to form a nucleus for the new constituency in the south and east of Edmonton Whitemud.

... If you are interested in helping guide the development and success of the Wildrose Alliance in southwest Edmonton generally we encourage you to stand for a position as soon as possible on the executive to be established...

By meeting each other... we could become briefly acquainted and could have something of a game plan for avoiding the scenario whereby only 1 or 2 people from the south volunteer to serve on the [Edmonton Whitemud CA] executive or the south's representatives consist of self-promoters and/or oddballs who popped up out of the weeds.

From: Brian Dell
To: Eleanor Maroes
cc: [Edmonton Whitemud CA Assoc]
Date: Wed, Dec 2, 2009
Subject: a modest proposal re Edmonton Whitemud
Could we perhaps constitute the board with northern people and then just have it understood that the south is in development?  The idea here is that the north continues without so much as a hiccup post-split because it is the heir of the pre-split riding while the south formally launches upon the split, with people expected to be on the southern board having been meeting separately on an unofficial basis prior to the official division.  The south could conduct its own fundraising, general meetings, etc and have its own bank account.  For Elections Alberta purposes it would not be an official constituency bank account, of course, but that should not matter to the bank.
...The reality is that the south of the riding is going to be more of a challenge developmentally and I think southerners will be confident that there will be no conflicts of interest with respect to that development by having southerners handling it from day 1. 

From: Brian Dell
To: Link Byfield
Date: Sat, Dec 5, 2009
Subject: Fwd: Wildrose Alliance - Edmonton Leaders SAT DEC 1 may end up hearing on the grapevine that my view of the success of Edmonton Whitemud's founding deteriorated within a day or two of my talking to you on the phone and [X] and I are a little at odds over what happened.

Fact is, me and another organizer took to facilitating board nominations like we were a recruiting committee for a corporation, meaning skill sets and where vacancies existed in the board mattered and personal relationships didn't matter, [X]'s friend went and surprised us by nominating directly or indirectly about half a dozen people she was friends with and sit on James Rajotte's federal board.  There was a glaring omission in the minutes released after I talked to you that suggested that not only did this group not cooperate with the idea of ensuring representation from the south of the riding, the one southerner who nominated (another southerner) had his nomination fail to appear in the minutes.  I in turn ended up nominating this nominator because he was a month-long organizer who even went down to Calgary on the 29th but only when forced to because no one else would, and he later said that he wasn't surprised because for weeks now it was apparent that [X]'s friends were not interested in his input (or mine, in my view).  So he's actually quit the board before it even got started, costing us our most motivated volunteer in the riding.
This compromises the viabiltiy of the new southern Whitemud riding post-split and, re the "triage" argument, the polls here went 58.8% PC in 2008, which in my amateur strategizing indicates an area that should not be written off as unwinnable [especially with no PC incumbent].

From: Brian Dell
To: Eleanor Maroes
cc: Jane Morgan
date: Mon, Dec 7, 2009
subject: Re: comments
"Creating division at this point is not helpful to getting a strong CA executive."

WE ALREADY HAVE A DIVISION!  Sorry for the caps but in my opinion I was as accommodating as possible until the minutes came out and somebody resigned as a consequence. ...The message that his input would be routinely ignored could not have been clearer.  By proposing a division I am proposing a mechanism to keep this asset ("[Y]") engaged.  Now maybe he is a liability we are better off without.  But if that's the case I would like to see an argument since we are very short volunteers from the southern part of Edmonton Whitemud as it is.  And I have already received a complaint to the effect of why raise money in the south if the money is going to end up in a bank account controlled by northerners.  I am reacting to the division here and am trying to figure out a way to make the best of it. ...

The point of the above is to note that just "calling on local constituency associations to ask tough questions of anyone running to be a nominee in 2016" isn't going to cut it.  The local CAs have to be both able and willing to ask those "tough questions" and if they are not, vetoing the CA nominee treats the symptom, not the disease.  Is it going to go like this?
Local CA player #1: Danielle says our nominee is unacceptable!  Apparently they were suspicious that a person who has spent most of his adult life lobbying for home schooling might have said something eyebrow raising about the insidious corruptions of secular society at some point and apparently HQ indeed ended up finding something problematic.
Local CA player #2: No complaints here!  Nothing undemocratic about that!  Both we and the nominee himself are going to just nod and sit back down.
Local CA player #3: So else do we nominate?
Local CA player #2: How about approaching that business owner, you know, the one that's prominent in the community? That lady who also sits on the hospital board?
Local CA player #1: Of course, that's why we passed her over the first time!  Because that was just a practice run!
A problem CA is going to nominate a problem candidate.  Head office has to get involved in local CA politics by ensuring that every CA has a minimum number of volunteers and money.  The strategy of focusing resources on "winnable" ridings can be unraveled by having a fringe candidate emerge out of neglected riding.  You can't hide that person's record and trying to hide the policy book instead just creates suspicions about your agenda.  Stop apologizing for the policy book and get your hands dirty by intervening in local constituency politics.  Of course a group of friends is going to nominate each other to the board and then nominate one of their own to be the candidate!  Rubber stamping that sort of thing is respecting the local cabal, not the local grassroots.  If there's a controversy in the local CA the party needs to step in and adjudicate, and adjudicate with an eye to whether the procedure that was followed was appropriate, not whether it was followed or not.  It's easy to argue that you've followed the local rules when you're the one who made them up.

I might add that even if the Edmonton South West CA was a gong show, all head office had to do was ask me to throw my hat in the ring and I would have rigorously contested the nomination (if the nomination period was open more than just a few days) and I would have pointed to Hunsperger's blog, even if it was just to a tiny crowd at the nomination meeting.   I'm a graduate of Briercrest Bible College and accordingly wouldn't accept any Wildroser's contention that I was attacking Hunsperger because he's a believer.  "Lake of fire" may be biblical, but Hunsperger's view that public education is inherently evil is not part of the evangelical mainstream, never mind the secular mainstream.  Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson once wrote to the Legislature Offices Committee requesting authorization for his office to post MLA financial disclosure statements on internet and the PC members on the committee said no.  That didn't stop me from physically going down to the Leg Annex to take a look at Dave Hancock's file, and I didn't bill Flanagan for doing oppo research.  All of this stuff is just a matter of making use of your motivated volunteers.

To anyone concerned about my quoting from email exchanges, you needn't worry about me not respecting expectations of privacy.  What I've repeated here is what I've wrote, except for a few phrases the attribution of which I've left ambiguous.  I'll repeat the most important bit that I said in those emails again: "me and another organizer [sic] took to facilitating board nominations like we were a recruiting committee for a corporation, meaning skill sets and where vacancies existed in the board mattered and personal relationships didn't matter."  I didn't feel that head office was going to back up those of us who had this view by intervening in CAs to ensure that that principle was followed, and so it was that I was essentially on my way out the door at that point.  If the party's floor crossing MLAs are too scared of special interests like the teachers' unions, perhaps their influence could be diluted by electing some longer serving party members.  But that requires professionalization of the how the constituency associations are staffed, as these CAs in turn "staff" the candidate slate, and it didn't appear that that was going to happen.  Would I do what I did again if I had the chance?  I'm not entirely sure about that because I alienated a lot of people by complaining to anyone that would listen that there was too much nepotism going on at the constituency level.  A person may consider himself a righteous crusader or whistle blower when reality he's just a pain in the buttinski!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why Benghazi matters

On September 26, Eli Lake's article, U.S. Officials Knew Libya Attacks Were Work of Al Qaeda Affiliates within 24 hours appeared on the Daily Beast.  In the graph below of RCP's polling average from September 1 to election day, September 26 is highlighted:
Was Lake's article a poll mover?  Maybe!  Obviously, the first presidential debate is what gave serious momentum to whatever gains Romney started to make in the week before that October 3 debate.  The conventional wisdom is that after a summer of attack ads that defined Romney negatively, seeing Romney "unspun" on millions of TVs provoked a popular reassessment.  That's a thesis I'd agree with, however as an aside I'd ask a question here that I haven't seen asked, and that's where was the media?  The Obama campaign's "not one of us" ads created a caricature, but isn't it the media's job to create an accurate one?

If there was systemic media bias against Romney, Romney nonetheless had another chance to move the polls at the second debate.  Should he fail to do so, he'd be out of catalysts, because the third debate offered little opportunity, designated as it was a foreign policy debate coming at a time when the great majority was quite comfortable with the incumbent's foreign policy.

Just prior to the second debate was Obama's most precarious moment in the months-long campaign.  Democrat partisans at the Daily Kos complained of feeling "sick to [their] stomach," such were the stakes.  Having been widely panned for being too passive in the first debate, Obama was expected to come out swinging.  But how to go on offence with regard to the inevitable question about Benghazi?

With respect to what happened in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, you see, the administration's ongoing efforts to manage the message had hit a snag.  Normally, the objective truth doesn't matter.  It exerts a magnetic force on the media, but the administration exerts its own magnetic force.  It's like walking a dog without a leash, whereby it's the relative distance to the dog that is of concern from the administration's view.  You get the media to run with you, but if the media stubbornly insists on going its own way, you reluctantly run with them, in an ongoing dynamic.  Here, there were concerns that later developed into a very specific question, to whit, why "security at the consulate was so lax that protesters literally walked in and set fire to the facility" when 
  • an August 15 cable to Hillary said "RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack"
  • in the weeks before his death, Ambassador Stevens sent the State Department several requests for increased security for diplomats in Libya
  • there had been repeated attacks on western targets in Benghazi over the summer, including an IED explosion on that very same U.S. diplomatic mission on June 6 and a RPG attack on the British ambassador's motorcade on June 11
The dog was off the leash, running back to an earlier point in time and obsessed with digging into what it smelled there, and couldn't be coaxed to come back.  The administration then tiptoed back to the site of the digging as one would expect, but what to do about the footprints left behind?

Obama ended up deciding to try and cover the tracks in a high stakes gamble, by insisting that he had been at the same site all along.  You see, Obama had been dropping "restore points" along the way, for possible future use in narrative reversal.  If you find "restore points" dubious, you can just call it political speech that is deliberately ambiguous in order to allow for multiple narratives.  Politicians do this all the time, but they don't jump tracks back to another "forgotten" narrative like Obama later did here.

Had the ambassador perished accidentally in a protest that got out of hand, it'd just a bad news item.  You can only anticipate a "spontaneous" development so far.  But as Susan "give the finger to Richard Holbrooke" Rice so boldly stated on September 16,  the administration line was "We've decimated al Qaeda," such that a successful al Qaeda take-out of a sitting ambassador in the midst of an election campaign would have been "off message."  

But immediately or even during the Benghazi attacks, it was brought to Obama's attention that it might not be possible to just blame an American (uploading videos to Youtube) for what happened.  So at 4:17 of this clip of his 10:43 am September 12 Rose Garden remarks, Obama placed his "restore point" with the statement, "[n]o acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." 

Compare it with what he said at the Pentagon just the previous morning: "No act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for."  See the difference?  In both speeches the lines are similarly placed, coming near the end.  But the removal of "-ism" together with adding a "s" to "act" created enough ambiguity in the Rose Garden speech for The Hill to repeat "no acts of terror" and then promptly state that "[t]he attack occurred after an angry mob swarmed the U.S. consulate" and that "[t]he impetus for the attack appeared to be anger over a U.S.-financed film..."  The Hill had no reservations about associating "no acts of terror" with a description that applied equally to what happened in Cairo, minus the fatalities.  

One could argue that the addition of "s" to "act" was carefully chosen to create generality about what Obama was referring to, such that he could be referring to both Benghazi and Cairo, thereby emphasizing the similarities, but Obama did drop the plural after jetting to Nevada to campaign there later that same day, saying "[n]o act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world..." and in Colorado the next day, saying "... no act of terror will go unpunished."  The fact remains that he could be referring to every "act of terror" that had been committed against the U.S. over the last two decades or more, such that there was no specific reference to Benghazi at all.  The most telling fact is that he could have referred to "this" act and didn't.

What did Obama know on September 12?   We know that on September 11 "by 5:10 EDT an unarmed surveillance aircraft was on station over the Benghazi compound" providing video feed back to Washington and it was several hours later, "at 11:15 p.m. -- around 5 a.m. Sept. 12 in Benghazi -- the second U.S. facility there, an annex near the consulate, came under mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire."  The White House had reason to be watching the feed, since the Situation Room received an email at 6:07 pm stating "Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack."  The London-based Quilliam Foundation had already announced that "[t]he military assault against the US Consulate in Benghazi should not be seen as part of a protest against a low budget film which was insulting Islam... [rather it] was a well planned terrorist attack that would have occurred regardless..." by the time of his Rose Garden speech on the morning of the 12th.  CNN reported within two hours of that speech that "[yesterday]'s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was planned in advance, U.S. sources told CNN" and just four hours after the Rose Garden speech said "U.S. sources say they do not believe the attacks that killed Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, were in reaction to the online release of a film mocking Islam, CNN's Elise Labott reports.  'It was not an innocent mob,' one senior official said."  As you can see by my edit of Wikipedia to reflect this information, this blogger was aware within 18 hours of the attack that at least "one senior U.S. official" knew that "it was not an innocent mob" and that "U.S. sources" knew that it was "planned in advance."   Within 14 hours of the attack Obama had told CBS' "60 Minutes" that "this is not a situation that was exactly the same as what happened in Egypt and my suspicion is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start."

So how could Susan Rice do a Full Ginsburg (appearing on all five of the major English language Sunday talk shows) four days later to claim that there was a "spontaneous protest" that "escalated": 
BOB SCHIEFFER: But you do not agree with [Libyan President, Mohammed Magariaf, who just preceded you here on this show] that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?
SUSAN RICE: We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al Qaeda had some part in this?
SUSAN RICE: Well, we'll have to find out that out.

In the past couple of days, there's been questions about why "references to 'Al Qaeda involvement' were stripped from [the CIA's] original talking points," but the fact that there was a conflict between what those at the off-the-record, non-partisan civil service level were saying and what those at the political appointee level like Rice were saying ought to have been obvious on September 16 to anyone who paid attention to what unnamed "U.S. officials" had said to the media prior to that Sunday.

When the Rose Garden remarks had come and gone with the media having demonstrated that it would do its part by declining to link "acts of terror" to Benghazi at that time, Obama clearly reckoned that he was free to indulge his preferred scenario for what happened in Benghazi.  As one can see from an American Crossroads' ad, this was still going on on September 20.  See the following exchange (from 2:02 remaining in the video) with Univision in Miami regarding "the attacks in Libya":
THE PRESIDENT: ...What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests --
Q Al Qaeda?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we don’t know yet...

Note that Obama didn't find anything unreasonable about raging in the streets about a Youtube video that the U.S. government had nothing to do with.  The only problem was that these "natural protests" "were used as "an excuse by extremists."  What's particularly headshaking here is that Obama was still insisting on "extremists" despite his own official spokesman having already stated that "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."

Key to the capacity to minimize the significance of any later backtracking to the "restore point" was the slapping of the "best available information at this time" caveat to every instance of narrative pushing.  But there's still a difference between minimization and a wholesale cover, which a triggering of the "restore point" would involve.  As I noted earlier, going into the second debate, Obama was under more pressure than he had been all year.  Evidently he concluded that he could and should try to sweep the entire matter through the loophole of an ambiguous reference.  To play a bit of amateur psychologist, it appears that Obama either consciously or unconsciously knew how dodgy it was of him to declare during the debate that "the day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror..." because he immediately proceeded to work himself into tone of high dudgeon, thundering that "the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive."  Obama reprised this indignation on November 14 with the fury with which he defended Susan Rice in his first press conference in eight months.

Now most of America knows what happened next.  Romney said "I think it's interesting the president just said... that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror" and instead of moderator Candy Crowley fact checking the word "this", Romney got fact checked on "act of terror."  Never mind that Crowley was wrong even there, because Obama didn't actually say "act of terror" either, he said "acts".  The damage was done.  The takeaway for millions of viewers not particularly interested in policy was that for all of Romney's rhetoric of moderation, he believes in "wingnut" conspiracy theories and was accordingly disqualified as a candidate.  The normally even-handed media watcher Erik Wemple of the Washington Post quoted a Twitter claim that Romney had "confused conservative spin for the truth" and concluded that Romney had, indeed, been "confused" by the "conservative media" bubble.

Romney's rise in the polls hit the wall, and he subsequently couldn't get around it to the finish line (if one wants to call attention to the last minute surge towards Obama in the polling graph above, I suggest looking at this study of media bias in the last week of the campaign).  The highlight point of the second debate was like the "show cards" scene in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.   Like then, there was cheating involved, but unlike then the pot here was the White House.

Now the media could have pointed out a glaring weakness in the wingnut echo chamber theory, and that's that it wasn't just Romney that got caught up in it, but the White House's own spokesman!
Q    No, I just hadn’t heard the White House say that this was an act of terrorism or a terrorist attack.  And I just --
JAY CARNEY:  I don’t think the fact that we hadn’t...

The media's sins of commission were various (such as Slate journo David Weigel's claim that that "On those Sunday shows, she said that extremists used a protest as a cover for their planned attack" when Rice not only made no claim that any element was "planned" but specifically rejected such a contention saying "we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned") but more grievous were the sins of omission.  Instead of reminding readers of Mr Carney's "we hadn't," for example, the New York Times told its readers that "some administration officials" "appeared to have forgotten" Obama's earlier references to "terror"!   How about actually naming those officials, which clearly included the White House Press Secretary as well as Rice, so that readers can decide for themselves whether there is just innocents"forgetting" here or whether there is something more Nixonesque at work.  In the case of Obama himself, on September 20 he not only would he have had to have "forgotten" his own references to "terror" on September 12 and 13, he would have had to then remember again between September 20 and the time of the second debate.

I've noted before that in 2009 a NPR journo viewed the administration's conduct as "Nixonesque," but he in fact wasn't the only one.  Anderson Cooper of CNN also asked at that time "do you see shades of Nixon here?" and Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, who occasionally appears on PBS Newshour as the "left" voice to David Brooks' "conservative" voice, thought that the White House might have been giving off "a distinct Nixonian - Agnewesque? - aroma..."  Surrogates for the White House complained loudly about the comparison at the time, but I pointed out even then that there seemed to be a pattern developing, saying "[t]hat suggestion of mine that FOX will be frozen out in terms of participation has come true more thoroughly than I expected."  Now guess who was frozen out of a briefing on Benghazi...

UPDATE November 21:
Some have argued that I'm making too much out of "decimate," such that a contemporaneous acknowledgment of a terrorist attack with an al Qaeda link wouldn't have been significantly "off message."  Here I could point to the sentence immediately preceding Rice's claim here where she herself connects it to the campaign trail: "I think American people know the record very well. President Obama said when he was running for President that he would refocus our efforts and attentions on al Qaeda."  I could also note the sensitivity of administration officials elsewhere, such as the ferocity with which Hillary spokesman Philippe Reines went after CNN and, subsequently, Michael Hastings of Buzzfeed for being too nosy (as an aside, what happened in Benghazi doesn't seem to have stuck to Hillary at all, perhaps because so many State Department sources blamed Petraeus' CIA).  But Exhibit A here is New York Times' opinion pages editor Andrew Rosenthal trotting out the following as "The Benghazi Conspiracy":
[McCain] and other Republicans seem to think that the White House, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, played down the possibility that Al Qaeda operatives were behind the attack, so that President Obama could boast on the campaign trail that his policies had decimated the terrorist organization. In other words he lied to the American public so that he could win re-election. 
Rosenthal seems to be of the view that his second sentence would readily follow his first if only there were some truth to the administration having having claimed that they had "decimated the terrorist organization."  Point being here that whether this blogger is using using the word "correctly" or not is beside the point because it is Susan Rice who is using it, and using it in the way a NYT editor believes would prove a "conspiracy."
I"ll also note here another support point for my thesis that "the takeaway for millions of viewers not particularly interested in policy was that for all of Romney's rhetoric of moderation, he.. 'confused conservative spin for the truth'" in the form of Joe Klein's TIME magazine piece.  What jumped out at me was: 
the President called the Benghazi attack an 'act of terror' the day after it took place – which proved a rather embarrassing moment for Mitt Romney in the third debate, when Candy Crowley corrected him on the point (Romney’s information throughout the campaign was defective, having been sourced by right-wing fantasy reports).

Would "right-wing fantasy reports" include the CNN-cited September 12 Quilliam report that directly contradicts your claim that "there would have been no terrorist attack if the film hadn’t provided the opportunity for mayhem," Joe?  I take it you'd rather believe that the attack was coincidentally on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and that there were coincidentally no other "protests" in Libya regarding the film.  Perhaps, Joe, you should talk to you own colleague at TIME, James Poniewozik, about the dangers of "right-wing fantasy reports" given that Poniewozik linked to CNN's story "Pro-al Qaeda group seen behind deadly Benghazi attack" when the issue was whether "the deadly attack in Benghazi was planned independently of the movie protests" or not.  I suppose the report of a Libyan officer who was there for the attack on the safe house saying "I don't know how they found the place to carry out the attack. It was planned, the accuracy with which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary revolutionaries," is yet another "right wing fantasy report."  Joe Klein pops the right wing media bubble to advise us that not only was the "first [attack] a spontaneous response to the anti-Islamic film that had caused similar protests in Cairo and elsewhere," but the second attack raining precise mortar fire down on the secret safe house was also executed by "protesters."  Even the administration doesn't believe this anymore, Joe.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

the real problem with Nate Silver's election prediction model

note: I've got an extended preamble here about the debate regarding modeling in general.  If you want to get straight to my particular issues with the FiveThirtyEight prediction model, scroll down to the bolded text.

Just before the Alberta provincial election in April I left for China, and a couple weeks ago I arrived back in Edmonton, in time for another election south of the border.

In the last week before Tuesday's vote, it seems that one of North America's most popular pastimes is poll watching.  This has created a significant, albeit temporary, demand for online one stop shops that aggregate the polls, and the most popular sites add value by assessing how each poll should be used to make a prediction. 

This means modeling.  You take the data, run it through the model, and out pops a prediction.

Most of these modelers are predicting a solid Obama victory (i.e. with several dozen electoral votes to spare).  Sam Wang's "Princeton Election Consortium", for example, is of the view that the "Bayesian Prediction" of Obama's re-election chance is 98.1%.  Now this particular site is partisan, so partisan, in fact,  that he's using his site to raise money for Democrat candidates.  The site that's getting the most attention, though is Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog which is now hosted by the New York Times.  Silver is also an Obama supporter, but doesn't have the incumbent as quite such an overwhelming favourite, pegging Obama as a 3 to 1 favourite to win the popular vote and slightly more of a favourite to win the Electoral College (and thus the election).

After Josh Jordan wrote a piece titled "Nate Silver's Flawed Model" for the National Review (no link as NRO's servers are in NYC and are under water) the liberal economists Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong weighed in, with Krugman insisting that this challenge to Nate Silver's model be seen as part of a "War on Objectivity" assuring us that "if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible."

I'll leave aside the irony of Krugman declaring "if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign" while he smears the critic of Nate Silver's model without specifically taking issue with so much as a single word of the offending post, stating simply that the criticism amounts to a "disgraceful episode. And the fact that the National Review ran with this tells you all you need to know about the publication."

What stuns me is that these liberals riding in to defend the honour of Nate Silver and his modeling are the same crowd that insists Wall Street's wizards are the cause of America's ailments.  Now there are exceptions.  Dean Baker is another leftist economist and he's of the view that "We would be in pretty much the same place today even if the financial crisis had not happened."  That's a view I happen to agree with, after all, the fancy derivative products that overcompensated financial engineers came up with are just that, derivative, meaning they are dependent upon and derive their value from what's happening in the underlying "real" economy.  But that doesn't mean that these people didn't obscure the price signals in such a way as to aggravate the misallocation of the capital that was occurring in the real economy.  How did these hot shots get away with it?  Because people treated them like Krugman is demanding we treat Nate Silver, that's why!  Silver uses exponential smoothing with a decay factor and Monte Carlo simulation!  Do you plebes understand that stuff?  No?  Then sit down and show some respect!

This is, of course, why hedge fund managers are so grossly overpaid.  There is no clear need for a finance industry beyond various straightforward functions such as putting people with business ideas together with people with capital but we've got these great towers of High Finance because, well, it's fueled by flows of money that get directed at whoever appears to be the smartest, and that generally means whoever's got the most complicated sounding model.

The economic consequence of Krugman stepping up to praise Silver is that the market will conclude Silver deserves a million dollar salary.  Yet Krugman's "liberal conscience" will of course soon compel him to turn around and complain about income inequality!  Dean Baker has figured out how dumb this all is:
Progressives... have been losing not just because conservatives have so much more money and power, but also because they have accepted the conservatives’ framing of political debates. They have accepted a framing where conservatives want market outcomes whereas liberals want the government to intervene to bring about outcomes that they consider fair.
This "loser liberalism" is bad policy and horrible politics. Progressives would be better off fighting battles over the structure of markets so that they don't redistribute income upward.

Baker has noted that part of the reason U.S. doctors and lawyers make so much money is because they have monopolies.  More international competition (i.e. free trade in professional services) would lower prices for ordinary Americans, and the people hurt would be people who are doing very well already.  Trying to instead move the money around via the tax system buys into the argument that these service providers rightly own the fruits of their monopoly power.

I could go on here but this preamble is already quite lengthy so I'll turn to my particular objections to Silver's model.

I'm not going to take issue with Silver's prediction of who will win the electoral college except to note that a lot of people are wrongly interpreting the slide in Romney's probability of winning as Obama momentum.  This is in fact just a consequence of Silver's model having a time decay.  If the home team is down 3 to zero in the third inning, if they are still down three zip in the bottom of the ninth that doesn't mean the away team has scored any more runs, but it does mean that the behind team is running out of "at bats."  In Silver's line graph there is therefore a force that pushes in both directions away from the 50% line.  The fact Romney was able to move up closer to the centre line earlier in October was all the more impressive because it was pushing up against this time gravity.

What I will take issue with is Silver's prediction that the odds of Obama winning the electoral college and losing the national popular vote are just 5.1%.  A big driver of this is Silver's skepticism that Romney will win the popular vote, pegging as he does Romney's chances at that at 24.3%, little better than Romney's 21% chance of winning the electoral college.

How can they be less than 25% when Rasmussen's national poll has Romney ahead by two points and Gallup has Romney up by five?  There are other national polls, of course, but almost all of them have Romney either tied, ahead of Obama (albeit by less), or at worst behind just 1 point.

Silver's response would be that there is other data out there.  There are state polls and these can be used to supplement the national polls for a more accurate prediction of the national popular vote.  Now this is perfectly sound in theory but how exactly does he do this?  Silver went into detail on this back in July.  One of Silver's critical beliefs here is that "the relative order of the states [i.e. how they line up relative to the national trend in terms of "redness" or "blueness"] is extremely consistent from year to year."  Now right there you have the weakness of most models: the assumption that the future will continue to be like the past.  It is not irrelevant to note that a split between the popular vote and the electoral college verdict has been historically rare, but it should be tested against various narratives that might explain why this time it's different.  

The fact is that Silver makes some adjustments based on considerations unique to each cycle anyway, so the "extreme consistency" is limited even in his own eyes.  An example of this is his "adjustment for home state effects."  "On average, a presidential candidate gets a seven-point push in his home state," he observes, and he therefore has the model push Massachusetts somewhat redder in "the relative order of the states" because Romney's from there.  Now this is where you need to start asking yourself if Massachusetts is really going to go redder this year.  Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, no?  Don't "identity politics" apply in other aspects as well?  One has to stop somewhere, of course, and that's my point: Silver stopped too early when it comes to considering what's different about 2012.

According to Silver's "FiveThirtyEight Presidential Voting Index - 2012" Pennsylvania is seven states bluer than Ohio in the state order.  If Obama is ahead in Ohio by 2, then he should be up in Pennsylvania by more than 8 points.  Wisconsin is even bluer; Obama should be ahead in Wisconsin by 9.5% if he's up in Ohio by 2%.  If Obama is just 2 points back in North Carolina, then Obama should have an 9.6% lead in Pennsylvania and have a full 11% lead in Wisconsin.  Thus spake the model.  But this doesn't square with what we are seeing on the ground.  David Axelrod may have promised to shave his mustache if Obama loses any of Minnesota, Michigan, or Pennsylvania, but that doesn't change the fact that the Obama campaign is committing resources to these states.  The liberal leaning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says that Pennsylvania is being "flooded with television ads."  Now maybe Romney and his allies have decided to go after Pennsylvania because they've been banging their heads against the wall in Ohio for a long time with little progress and so now they're making the Hail Mary pass next door.  But that doesn't explain why the Obama campaign is spending money to counter this; - after all, didn't Nate Silver say that "the relative order of the states is extremely consistent from year to year," meaning that the "battleground" states don't change?  If we turn to Michigan, there are no less than 14 states between Michigan and North Carolina in Silver's rank index.  If we check against the current polling, we see that Realclearpolitics (RCP) has Romney just 3 points behind while Silver's index says that if Obama is 2 points behind in North Carolina  (which is how Silver currently rates the situation in NC) Obama should be a whopping 13.9% ahead in Michigan.  If we turn to Wisconsin, we see that instead of that 11% lead for Obama in this state that I noted above, RCP's polling average says Romney is just 4% back.  Despite these underestimates of Romney's support when using the "battleground states" of NC and OH to predict the not-so-battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin "we can use this index to calculate an implied national popular vote," Silver insists.  

Silver addressed some of these concerns Wednesday (October 31):  
Michigan is probably not as close as two or three points right now: most polls released after the first debate in Denver suggested a lead for Mr. Obama in the mid-to-high single digits. Usually, states do not shift all that much relative to others in their region. The fact that Mr. Obama’s polling has held up reasonably well in Ohio and Iowa, for example, is reason to suspect that some of the movement in the poll represents statistical noise, even if it comes from a good polling company.
Does anyone else see the circular reasoning here?  Michigan can't be that close because "states do not shift all that much relative to others in their region."  In other words, Michigan can't be that close because my model says it can't be that close!

Now it should be acknowledged here that Silver doesn't just use the "battleground" states to predict the national vote.  He does use the other states.  So wouldn't that balance things out?  It could, if weighted by expected 2012 turnout and we had good up-to-date polling of those other states.  But Silver doesn't do that.  Take Utah, for example.  Silver gives it a weight of 0.05, while Florida gets a weight of 1.58.  Florida thus gets more than 30 times the weight of Utah.  But Florida's population is less than 7 times Utah's.  Utah has only been polled twice since June, but both of these Utah polls were from mid-October and they've got Romney ahead by 51% and 53% for an average of 52%.  That's 14.7% ahead of where Silver's "index" says Romney should be, and that's relative to the United States (meaning Romney is even farther ahead in Utah of where he should be relative relative to NC or OH).  While Romney's Utah support gets underweighted (and this doesn't even go beyond the relative population difference to note that people who lean Republican turn out more frequently than people who lean Democrat), Obama's Florida support gets overweighted, where Romney is running 3.6% behind where Silver's index says Romney should be.  I could make the same point here using Michigan instead of Utah and North Carolina instead of Florida.

Silver calls this weighting a "wrinkle" that is not "that important."  He says that he cannot weight just by turnout because the "quantity and quality of polling" varies from state to state.  As Silver put it in July, "So — although technically it determines an implied national popular vote for South Carolina — the South Carolina value receives very little weight in the overall calculation since the only poll there was conducted months ago."  In response to this, allow me to quote from this article titled, "Why Scientific Studies Are So Often Wrong: The Streetlight Effect": 
The fundamental error here is summed up in an old joke scientists love to tell. Late at night, a police officer finds a drunk man crawling around on his hands and knees under a streetlight. The drunk man tells the officer he’s looking for his wallet. When the officer asks if he’s sure this is where he dropped the wallet, the man replies that he thinks he more likely dropped it across the street. Then why are you looking over here? the befuddled officer asks. Because the light’s better here, explains the drunk man.
So in order to predict the national vote, Silver upweights "battleground" states like Ohio because the "light's better there."

Can anybody guess why Romney might be doing better in Utah than your typical Republican in the past?  I'm sure you can come up with a theory there.  Why might he being doing worse in Ohio?  Perhaps the "Not one of us" ads that Obama swamped the state with all summer in order to paint Romney as hostile to the working man brought Romney's support in blue collar Ohio lower without hurting Romney's support in the rest of the country (where the ads weren't aired) in the same proportion.

I'll make one final note here.  In his October 31 post Silver pointed at some other modelers and noted that they generally agreed with him.  As someone who works in finance I feel compelled to note that this is why so many supposedly brilliant hedge fund managers have their funds go bust.  They build these impressive appearing models that attract capital by virtue of their impressiveness without much consideration for the fact that the other hedgies are doing the same thing.  So when there is a market shock of some sort, these guys all end up trying to go in the same direction because their models are similar, and then they can't get out of their positions because there isn't anybody to take the other side of the trade!