Quick Thoughts: Cantor Loses Republican Primary

Eric Cantor (R-VA) was roundly beaten 55.5%-44.4% by Tea Party challenger David Brat in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Here are some first impressions of the result:

  • A couple of weeks ago the media were calling the Tea Party “dead.” The basis of this claim was that the Republican mainstream has shifted far enough to the right to pick up Tea Party endorsements and voters. The results of last week, with Thad Cochran (R-MS) going to a runoff against Chris McDaniel, and this week show that shifting in the wind isn’t always good enough. The Tea Party’s politics of logical conclusions and opposition to any compromise with Democrats still have a hold on a substantial part of the Republican party — and a part that votes in low turnout elections. Essentially the Tea Party has taken over the Republican party, and it still has enough of a draw to knock off “establishment” figures.
  • A quick bit of political geography: Cantor won the northern three counties of the district plus the city of Richmond. Brat won the rest (the southern six counties). I need to dig into the numbers here a bit more, but I believe the northern counties + Richmond were tighter in the 2012 presidential race than the counties won by Brat. This might mean what is commonly understood: the bigger the Republican margin, the more likely a portion of the Republican electorate will cut off to the right. Not shocking, but some more evidence to suggest that establishment candidates in very safe seats (safe from Democrats) will remain under threat, particularly if they touch a third rail issue like immigration.
  • Here are Cantor’s margins of victory (by percent) since he was first elected to the House: 2000 – 52; 2002 – 39; 2004 – 52; 2006 – 30; 2008 – 36; 2010 – 25; 2012 – 17.  Cook Political Report has the district as R+10. I don’t know the Democratic candidate, but with a good one, this district might just be in play in November, especially if Cantor runs a write-in campaign.
  • The Republican party is going to continue to tear itself apart on immigration. The hard right won’t give an inch on this issue, and is ready to devour anyone who tries to compromise. This is both bad for the country (the current system is obviously not functional) and bad for the Republicans. It is very unlikely that they will be able to hold back the dam in the red states that are going purple much beyond 2020 — those state legislature elections will be very significant — and, if the Democrats don’t mess things up as they usually do, the House could be back in their control with a substantial majority.

That’s all for tonight. More on this in the coming weeks.


The Number One Criticism of Financial Fair Play is Wrong

Financial Fair Play is a burden on those poor suffering clubs that were bought up by billionaire owners who have poured money into them. It’s a heartbreaking story of UEFA oppressing some of the world’s richest people and most successful football clubs.

Right? Wrong.

FFP will have a number of results, but keeping the pitiable Roman Abramovich from spending as he would like is no tragedy. Yes, it will prevent massive injections of cash from outside investors. Shrewsbury Town or Fortuna Köln won’t be able to rocket up the divisions and join the elite clubs in the Champions League courtesy of a wealthy backer. And that’s good.

The idea that an owner bankrolling a relatively less successful club is a great story of self-improvement is simply stupid. It isn’t. Winning the lottery can happen regardless of one’s personal qualities. You can be responsible with money or not, you can work hard or be shiftless. In football, clubs could spend recklessly or be responsible, put time and investment into developing players and engaging with their fanbase, or ignore these areas – it doesn’t matter, either way a club could be the beneficiary of an external capital injection.

What is common to most of the clubs that have benefitted from these owners is that they are clubs in big markets: Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG, and (to a lesser extent) QPR. (The main exception would probably be Wolfsburg.) Well-managed? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. These aren’t clubs that worked hard and made good. They got lucky, and are happy to join with the pre-existing elite in removing the route they took to the top.

While it is true that FFP may ossify the elite of European football, its critics ignore three facts. First, the top clubs have been entrenched for between twenty and fifty years, and barring colossal failures of management, most of them will retain their current lofty position. There is an element of kicking away the ladder (of external investors injecting capital) in FFP, but no mention of the self-perpetuating system for distributing television money. Why should a sugar daddy owner be the only way for clubs to be transformed?

Second, FFP begins to address some of the rampant inflation in transfer fees and wages of the last five to ten years, and this matters for fans. Keeping up with the sugar daddy clubs requires maximizing revenue, which is a further impetus for clubs to increase their ticket prices. It also encourages them to use leverage in order to compete with clubs that have benefitted from rich owners. Reining in the spending of the top clubs should, over time, lead to a reduction in wages as a percentage of costs, and keep top-flight clubs from suffering significantly due to relegation (especially in England, where the financial drop-off is steep). It almost certainly won’t reduce costs for fans, but it may relieve some pressure on clubs to keep pushing prices up, and it should reduce the incentives for clubs to place themselves in perilous financial situations.

Finally, the system does not close off the one route to the top that we should be encouraging: managed, sustainable growth over time. Clubs can still build up academies, find, shape, and train players, create good teams and grow their fanbase, and make sensible capital investments. Is it a quick route to the top? Absolutely not. Football is a peculiar business in this way; it just isn’t possible to smash the market open with a new innovation or product. At the same time, football fans are very loyal customers and it is possible to cultivate a large following over a long period of time. This isn’t as sexy as the meteoric rise of Manchester City, but it is financially prudent.

FFP is flawed in that it doesn’t account for leverage. Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, and others should be punished for taking on excessive debt without a legitimate economic reason (e.g. building a new stadium or training ground). However, to pretend that it unfairly targets certain clubs who have been driving inflation in football is just wrong. It targets one aspect of football’s financial problems – excessive spending on medium-term investments in players – and is a step towards making the game a bit more fair for all clubs.

Cricket Needs the Mankad

Jos Buttler was run out as the non-striking batsman in the 44th over of Tuesday’s final ODI between England and Sri Lanka, and absolute pandemonium broke out on the cricket interwebs. Buttler had backed up too far, Sachithra Senanayake broke the bails with Buttler a yard out of his crease, and he appealed to the umpire for a dismissal. After consulting with Sri Lanka captain Angelo Matthews, umpire Michael Gough raised his finger and England subsided to 199 for 7.

Others have written very well on Tuesday’s circumstances and the curiosity of asking the fielding captain to uphold the appeal, but there is more going on in this debate. At root, it’s about an essential element of sport: balancing risk and reward.

Cricket can be distilled to the following: the movement of humans and objects around a space that has certain regulated parameters and rules that control the movement of the humans within the space as they aim to achieve set goals (scoring runs and taking wickets). When a batsman backs up, leaving his crease before the ball is bowled, he gains an advantage not explicitly granted to him in the Laws of the Game or the ICC playing regulations, as this movement makes it easier for him to complete a run.

The mankad allows some balance between the batting and fielding sides. Any sportsperson must judge the risks and rewards of an action before taking it, whether making a long crossfield pass in football, raising the pace on a leading group in cycling, or attempting to clear the fielder on the boundary in cricket. Without the potential of being mankaded, batsmen will only be rewarded from backing up; there will be no risk of dismissal. How could this be fair to bowlers or fielding teams?

It obviously is not. Yet every time there is an incident of this type (the two most recent have been R Ashwin’s withdrawn appeal against Lahiru Thirimanne and Murali Kartik’s mankad of Alex Barrow in the County Championship), many people leap to criticize the fielding side! But as Angelo Matthews said today, what else are they to do? There is no sanction imposed upon batsmen who back up to far – except the mankad. In Buttler’s case, they had offered him repeated warnings, and he continued to walk a yard down the pitch by the time Senanayake released the ball. The Sri Lankans were faced with choosing between opprobrium from the sanctimonious British press if they ran Buttler out (see CricketingView’s blog, the first link above, for a sample) or allowing the opposition to steal quick runs by gaining an unfair advantage.

The fielding side needs a deterrent to keep batsmen from walking yards down the track, and the mankad is that deterrent. Quite a few batsmen will get mankaded in backyard and Sunday league cricket after bowlers have seen this week’s reminder of that option – and it’s a great thing for the sport. To maintain (or restore) balance between bat and ball, which is fundamental to cricket, batsmen like Buttler have to be reminded to stay in their crease until the ball is bowled. The threat of being mankaded will keep them there.

The Party is Over: How Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats went from Heroes to Zero

Four years is an extremely long time in politics. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, wiped the floor with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron at the first debate before the 2010 general election. A few polls in the following weeks showed the Lib Dems leading the two big parties overall, and they did claim a very creditable 23% of the total vote at the polls in May.

The trouble for Clegg & co. was that their 23% only produced 57 seats — five fewer than they had won in 2005. First-past-the-post was their biggest enemy, far more significant than either of the other parties.

Their other, much-commented-upon problem, was one of credibility. The last Liberal participants in a peacetime government ministry were members of Lloyd George’s coalition government from 1918-1922. The Liberal Democrats, as they now are, couldn’t really be considered a party of government.

But that is what they have become in the last four years. And at what cost. At the European elections, they claimed 6.61% of the total vote, falling behind the Greens and becoming just the fifth largest party by vote share. The multi-member proportional system did them no favors either, as they ended up with a single MEP, which was fewer than the Greens or the Scottish Nationalists.

The English local election results were better – 13% of the overall vote – but a similar performance next year could be catastrophic. Polls commissioned by the (now former) Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott indicate that Clegg, Business Secretary Vince Cable, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander could all lose their seats at the next election in May 2015 (there is some dispute about the accuracy of the polls, but there will certainly be a swing against the Liberals no matter what happens in the next year). These were three very safe Lib Dem seats in 2010, and a swing big enough to knock out even one of the three could leave them with a rump of fewer than 30 MPs at the next Parliament.

Why have the last four years in government been so damaging to the Liberals? I would argue that Clegg entirely misplayed his hand and misjudged the political landscape in 2010, binding himself and his party into a near-fatal embrace with the Conservatives. Perhaps the desire for power and hubris played a role, but I think it is much more likely that Clegg and Cable thought they were taking the best option for their political futures.

There were three benefits that the Lib Dems would have expected to gain from joining the Cameron ministry: 1)Credibility as a government party; 2)The Alternative Vote referendum; 3)Avoiding being the scapegoat for a chaotic minority government.

On the first point, in the medium term they have been significantly harmed rather than helped by being in government. It may have been pleasant to drive around in ministerial cars, but the Liberals pushed through only a few of their manifesto pledges and the broader party (their council seats, MEPS, and expected 2015 vote share) have taken huge hits because the parliamentary party joined with the Tories. The core Lib Dem support may straddle the left-liberal divide, but probably 60-70% of their 2010 vote share came from leftists and those frustrated with politics as usual. Joining with this Tory government was, for that group, a betrayal of their campaign pledges, and it’s unlikely many of those people will return. Social Democrats will vote Green or return to Labour, while those dissatisfied with politics will slide into apathy or shift to the newest protest party, UKIP.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier dispatch, the AV referendum could have transformed the status of the Liberal Democrats. It didn’t, of course, because it failed (the only areas that voted in favor were Oxford, Cambridge, and central London – the classic “metropolitan elites”). While there weren’t any public polls on AV available during the coalition negotiations, it would have been a serious mistake for Clegg to expect a the kind of cataclysmic referendum result he would have needed to make the coalition worthwhile. Broadly speaking, populism wins in referenda, and AV is not a populist policy. It is less intuitive than FPTP and can easily (and wrongly) be misconstrued as unfair. Any more radical options, such as the Single Transferable Vote or pure Proportional Representation, were absolutely impossible – the Tories never would have accepted a referendum on either.

On the third point, avoiding blame for the turbulence of a minority government, I suspect that this would have been a less damaging price than the one they have had to pay for being in government. While we will only know for sure if gaining the credentials for being in government with the Tories will pay off in the next 10-15 years (they won’t – voters don’t like politicians who make policies that the voters dislike, but more on this another time), it is clear that the medium-term costs have been significant. Clegg did not campaign as a center-right leader, but he joined with the Tories anyway, alienating many people who swung to the Liberals in 2010.

Of course, there would have been costs to avoiding coalition. There were three possibilities: form a government with Labour (unlikely, impossible with Brown staying as Prime Minister, but probably less damaging in the medium term if Labour changed leader); leave a Tory minority government (I would regard this as their best option, it would have been a tricky governing situation for Cameron but the Liberals wouldn’t have been seen as sell-outs); leave a Tory minority to call another general election that summer (possibly damaging from a vote share perspective, but unlikely to cost many seats in a second 2010 election or in 2015).

In short, Clegg took the worst option in 2010. It looked like a brave option, but this view takes the wrong perspective on what voters want. Yes, voters want politicians to get things done, to pass legislation, to solve problems. But they don’t want politicians for whom they voted to go back on their promises or principles! Inaction is better than the perception of betrayal. (This is not a reassuring view for people who want government to function, but it tends to be true.)

What’s next for the Liberals? They could be in government again this time next year. Nick Clegg will probably not be their leader for long after the 2015 election, making a LibLab coalition a reasonable possibility – if Labour can overcome Ed Miliband being Ed Miliband to be the largest party.

Still, it should feel like the last few years have been a missed opportunity for the Liberals. For a few weeks in spring 2010, Nick Clegg was a rockstar, a fresh new face on the scene with straight talk and better ideas. Now he is reviled as a representative of duplicitous politicians, and his party is back to late 1990s levels of support. They can recover, but it will take time. The Liberals have lost the mainstream protest vote and the disenchanted social democrats. To rebuild, they will need to rid themselves of Clegg and show themselves as something other than a prop for one of the major parties.