Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2008

POST-DEBATE OPEN THREAD.... Well, wasn't that pleasant? No Wal-Mart, no Rezko, no race-based disputes. I can't help but think that the last debate, the ugliest of the campaign, annoyed so many people, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama came into tonight knowing they had to be on their best behavior. They had plenty of opportunities to take some shots, but both carefully avoided confrontation.

I can never tell how people are going to respond to these debates -- in terms of who "won," or who had the best "zingers" -- but my first-blush reaction is that these two seemed to be at the top of their game. I thought Clinton was stronger on discussion of healthcare policy, which dominated the first hour, while Obama was stronger on Iraq, which dominated the second. (What's the old expression? "If you're explaining, your losing"? Clinton still seems awkward talking about her 2002 vote. She doesn't want to admit a mistake, but she also doesn't want to stand by her previous position. It leaves her in a tough spot, politically and rhetorically.)

I also noted repeated references to John McCain -- by my count, four from Obama and two from Clinton. They're already laying the groundwork for the general election, which is encouraging. (Obama also got a nice dig in on Romney, though at this point, it's probably unnecessary.)

So, what did you think?

Post Script: By the way, did CNN really need all of those cut-away shots to movie stars? Yes, it's Hollywood, we get it.

Steve Benen 10:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (189)

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MANO A MANO.... The final debate for the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates is about to get underway in Los Angeles, but before the event begins, David Kurtz points out to a tidbit that I found amazing.

CNN just reporting that tickets to tonight's L.A. debate between Hillary and Obama are going for upwards of $1,000 apiece.

Now, I like to think that there's more interest in the presidential campaign this year than in previous cycles, and I'm delighted by the excitement surrounding the Democratic field.

But I never thought I'd see the day in which people paid in upwards of $1,000 to see a political debate, which is going to be televised anyway.

All of a sudden, I guess it's cool to be a political junkie. I knew if I waited long enough....

Steve Benen 7:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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ANOTHER AL QAEDA NO. 3.... Stop me if you've heard this one: al Qaeda's #3 man has been killed.

A senior al Qaeda terrorist who allegedly plotted and carried out attacks against U.S. and coalition forces was killed in Pakistan, a knowledgeable Western official and a military source told CNN Thursday.

He was identified as Abu Laith al-Libi, 41, who was on the military's most wanted list.

Al-Libi was thought to have been involved in the February 2007 bombing at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan while Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting.

The knowledgeable Western official said al-Libi was "not far below the importance of the top two al Qaeda leaders" -- Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

CNN Middle East analyst Octavia Nasr called al-Libi the third-ranking terrorist in al Qaeda and fourth in the world.

This is certainly welcome news. I'm curious, though, if anyone has a list of al Qaeda #3s who've been captured or killed recently. I was keeping a list for a while, and I think al-Libi is the seventh, following Hamza Rabia, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Saif al-Adel, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Sheikh Mohammed, and a senior operational leader identified in court documents as "C-2."

You'd think, after a while, al Qaeda's #4 guys would stop seeking promotions.

Steve Benen 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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OBAMA'S THE #1 LIB?....Be prepared to hear about this, over and over again, for quite a while. If Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, it will be the staple of every Republican stump speech between now and Election Day.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was the most liberal senator in 2007, according to National Journal's 27th annual vote ratings. The insurgent presidential candidate shifted further to the left last year in the run-up to the primaries, after ranking as the 16th- and 10th-most-liberal during his first two years in the Senate.

If all of this sounds a little familiar, it's because in 2004, National Journal named John Kerry the most liberal senator of 2004 (John Edwards was fourth), which became one of the principal talking points of the Bush-Cheney campaign, repeated at literally every campaign rally for months.

Already, this is getting plenty of play, and for all I know, this might even help Obama in the primaries, because there are plenty of liberal Democrats out there who want some reassurance that Obama really does stand with them.

But before anyone takes the National Journal rankings at face value, it's worth noting how very flawed the methodology is. Indeed, it was misleading in 2004, and it's equally misleading now.

Taking a closer look at this year's results, Obama and Joe Biden were both considered more liberal than Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders. This, alone, should make one wonder about the reliability of the rankings.

Better yet, National Journal's press release on the rankings noted the criteria was based on 99 key roll-call votes last year: "Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 votes in which he participated, while Clinton voted the liberal position on 77 of 82 votes." So, Clinton voted for the liberal position 77 times, Obama voted for it 65 times, which makes Obama the chamber's single most liberal member. Got it.

What's more, Obama was the 16th most liberal senator in 2005, and the 10th most liberal in 2006, before racing to the front of the pack in 2007. National Journal suggests this has something to do with Obama moving to the left to curry favor with Democratic primary voters.

But there's a more logical explanation: Obama missed a whole lot of votes in 2007 -- he's been on the campaign trail -- but was on the floor for many of the biggest, most consequential votes. In nearly every instance, he voted with the party. And with that, voila! The most liberal senator in America.

Except that's not much of a standard. The rankings use an amorphous meaning of the word "liberal," and the percentage doesn't take missed votes into account at all (which also helps explain why Kerry nabbed the top spot four years ago)

But none of that is going to matter for the rest of the campaign. The Republican National Committee has already issued a statement and, one assumes, every far-right outlet in the country will soon do the same.

That, of course, doesn't make it legit. As Brian Beutler noted, [T]his is philistinism masquerading as social science -- it's the U.S. News College Guide of Washington politics. Journalists ought to understand that. And those of conscience ought to ignore it, or lay it bare, but certainly not feed into it."

I think that's right, but there's just one catch: the Obama campaign needs to be cautious in how it responds. If the senator pushes too hard to distance himself from liberalism, it will backfire and hurt his campaign. Maybe something like this would work: "If finishing #1 means I stood against the Bush agenda more than anyone else, then I'll consider this an honor."

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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'SLOW DOWN OUR ECONOMY'?.... ABC News' Jake Tapper has caused quite a stir with an item this morning about a speech Bill Clinton delivered yesterday in Denver.

In a long, and interesting speech, he characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: "We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions 'cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren."

At a time that the nation is worried about a recession is that really the characterization his wife would want him making? "Slow down our economy"?

I don't really think there's much debate that, at least initially, a full commitment to reduce greenhouse gases would slow down the economy....So was this a moment of candor?

Actually, no, it's a moment taken out of context in such a way as to change the meaning of the sentence. Consider what Clinton actually said.

"And maybe America, and Europe, and Japan, and Canada -- the rich counties -- would say, 'OK, we just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions 'cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.' We could do that.

But if we did that, you know as well as I do, China and India and Indonesia and Vietnam and Mexico and Brazil and the Ukraine, and all the other countries will never agree to stay poor to save the planet for our grandchildren. The only way we can do this is if we get back in the world's fight against global warming and prove it is good economics that we will create more jobs to build a sustainable economy that saves the planet for our children and grandchildren. It is the only way it will work."

Tapper appears to have gotten the story backwards. He wrote that Clinton "characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: 'We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions 'cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.'" Clinton actually argued the opposite.

But Tapper's mistake is spreading quickly.

The Republican National Committee, among others, are making hay of the ABC report. "Senator Clinton's campaign now says we must 'slow down the economy' to stop global warming," Alex Conant, an RNC spokesperson, said. "Clinton needs to come back to Earth. Her 'tax-it, spend-it, regulate-it' attitude would really bring the economy crashing down."

Please. How misleading was Tapper's report? Far-right blogs are criticizing it. The Corner's Iain Murray wrote:

[The ABC] video is actually (and again, I can't believe I'm saying this) really unfair to Bill Clinton. The biter bit, you may say, but I don't believe this sort of manipulation by the media is in any way helpful. The clip is out of context.... That's not good journalism in any sense.

Hot Air added:

I have to say, as much as I loathe Billy Jeff and all, ABC is misrepresenting what he said. Sure, he uttered the line about slowing down the economy, but he followed that with an explanation of why that's a bad idea.... The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, ABC actually played Clinton's "slow down the economy" line unfairly.

When conservative bloggers are defending Bill Clinton against bad journalism, you know the journalism has to be really bad.

Nevertheless, I'm afraid with the RNC and Townhall.com pushing the bogus story line, we may be looking at media malpractice along the lines of "inventing the Internet." How soon until pundits are simply asserting, as fact, the notion that Bill Clinton wants to "slow down our economy"?

Steve Benen 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....Hello all. Just wanted to let everyone know that Marian and I are fine and I'll be back on the blog tomorrow. More later.

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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AN 'UNEXAMINED' DYNASTY?.... The NYT's Nicholas Kristof, who usually doesn't write too much about domestic politics, today tackles the question of family dynasties and the White House.

In a presidential campaign that has involved battles over everything from Iraq to driver's licenses, one sweeping topic has gone curiously unexamined: Does it diminish American democracy if we keep the presidency in the same two families that have held it since 1989?

If Hillary Rodham Clinton serves two terms, then for 28 years the presidency will have been held by a Bush or a Clinton. By that point, about 40 percent of Americans would have lived their entire lives under a president from one of these two families.

Wouldn't that make our democracy seem a little, er, Pakistani?

People can certainly draw their own conclusions about the two-family phenomenon -- I've heard Clinton respond to questions about it many times -- but how on earth is this a "curiously unexamined" question? The NYT itself has written about this many times.

In fact, I checked Google for the words "Clinton dynasty" and found over 400,000 results.

I get the sense Kristof is bursting through an open door on this one.

Steve Benen 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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MUKASEY'S TOLERANCE FOR LAW-BREAKING....When Alberto Gonzales would periodically stop by the Senate Judiciary Committee for oversight hearings, it was extraordinarily painful. The bulk of the poor schmo's answers, when he wasn't feigning a faulty memory, were so breathtakingly dishonest, it was almost comical.

Michael Mukasey, in this sense, is a breath of fresh air. His callous disregard for the rule of law comes across as far more competent and direct. After yesterday's hearing, Dahlia Lithwick had a gem.

...Mukasey is only willing to make and defend his decisions without explaining them. Still, he is very convincing in asserting that even though his decision is secret and its rationale is secret, and all future applications are secret, he is nevertheless confident that it's the right decision. [...]

More and more frequently, we hear members of the Bush administration crying about the evils of "lawfare" -- the notion that foreign policy gets decided in courts, and government actors are paralyzed by future legal liability and unable to act boldly to protect us. You'd think the answer would be to clarify for those government actors what the rules are, so they might conform their behavior to protect themselves. But in the new Bush/Mukasey construction, rules tip off the enemy, so it's better to make them up in secret as you go along.

At one point, Mukasey argues that he "can't contemplate any situation in which this president would assert Article II authority to do something that the law forbids." When Arlen Specter points to specific instances in which Bush has done just that -- including laws banning torture, FISA, and the National Security Act -- Mukasey takes a pass.

Apparently, for the nation's chief law-enforcement official, what's done is done.

Steve Benen 11:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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MAKING THE CASE FOR A MCCAIN MATCH-UP....Now that Democrats feel confident about which Republican they're going to face in November, the race for the Democratic nomination appears poised to enter a slightly different phase: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will start making the case that they can beat John McCain in a general election, and their rival can't.

To be sure, electability has been a part of the campaign process from the beginning, but it was always more of a broad, general pitch about the candidates' appeal. Now, it's going to get focused -- Dems aren't just talking about taking on a generic Republican opponent anymore; they're talking about a specific, known quantity.

For his part, Obama seized on a perceived opportunity at an event at the University of Denver yesterday.

"It's time for new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq," Mr. Obama said, "who agreed with him in voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like."

He added, "We need to offer the American people a clear contrast on national security, and when I am the nominee of the Democratic Party, that's exactly what I will do. Talking tough and tallying up your years in Washington is no substitute for judgment, and courage, and clear plans. It's not enough to say you'll be ready from Day One -- you have to be right from Day One."

As it stands, I actually think this is a healthy development. Clinton and Obama agree on most policy issues, and it gets tiresome to hear them argue about peripheral points. Having a GOP rival in mind should help focus the debate between them, with each able to make the case for how and why they can win the election.

As far as I can tell, the basic pitch from Obama's perspective will be: He appeals to more independents and frustrated Republicans than Clinton; he represents a better contrast (old vs. young, new vs. stale); and he unites the left and divides the right, while Clinton divides the left and unites the right.

And the basic pitch from Clinton's perspective will be: She has better support among independents and frustrated Republicans than the conventional wisdom suggests; McCain will make Obama look young and inexperienced -- especially on matters regarding the military and national security -- a line he can't use against her; and the right may rally against her, but she knows how to deal with their attacks, persevere, and come out ahead. Can we say the same about Obama?

We'll probably see quite a bit of this at tonight's debate on CNN, the first head-to-head debate of the year. Should be interesting.

Steve Benen 10:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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MCCAIN'S MENDACIOUS MEMORY....In 2001 and 2003, Bush pushed two massive tax-cut packages through Congress, with near-universal Republican support. Indeed, it was something akin to a GOP fealty test -- to vote for the White House tax cuts was to be a good Republican.

In the Senate, two GOP lawmakers balked -- Lincoln Chafee, who later left the party, and John McCain, who no longer wants to talk about his votes.

When pressed, McCain usually argues that he rejected Bush's tax cuts because there were no accompanying spending cuts to prevent massive deficits. The defense has always been largely incoherent, for at least two reasons. First, McCain now believes tax cuts can pay for themselves (aka, the "Tax Fairy" theory), so there was no need for spending cuts. Second, McCain, at the time, said quite clearly that his opposition to the cuts had nothing to do with spending, and everything to do with Bush's policy being excessively skewed to the wealthy.

At last night's Republican debate in Simi Valley, the LAT's Janet Hook asked for an explanation. McCain responded:

"I was part of the Reagan revolution. I was there with Jack Kemp and Phil Graham and Warren Rudman and all these other first that wanted to change a terrible economic situation in America with 10 percent unemployment and 20 percent interest rates. I was proud to be a foot soldier, support those tax cuts, and they had spending restraints associated with it.

"I made it very clear when I ran in 2000 that I had a package of tax cuts, which were very important and very impactful, but I also had restraints in spending. And I disagreed when spending got out of control, and I disagreed when we had tax cuts without spending restraint. And guess what? Spending got out of control.

"Republicans lost the 2006 election not over the war in Iraq; over spending. Our base became disenchanted."

Does this make any sense at all? The question was rather straightforward: what McCain said in 2001 and 2003 doesn't match what McCain is saying now. He had one rationale for his position then, and a different rationale for his position now. That's not necessarily the end of the world -- candidates can change their mind -- and this was a chance for McCain to explain the pretty obvious inconsistency.

But he responded with a garbled and incoherent mess. Noam Scheiber said McCain's answer was "one of the most incoherent answers I've heard at a presidential debate this campaign season." I'm hard pressed to disagree.

The point I can't get around, though, is that McCain had to realize a question like this was coming. Indeed, after a year of campaigning, he's probably heard it before.

Maybe McCain's vaunted political skills have been exaggerated a bit?

Steve Benen 8:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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DEBATE OPEN THREAD....Kevin had to step away unexpectedly for a day or two, but in the meantime, I thought I'd open the floor for some discussion about the Republican debate at the Reagan library.

Did Romney do anything to slow McCain down? Did McCain do anything to undermine his frontrunner status? Did Huckabee have any success gaining ground? Did Paul get a chance to talk at all?

The floor is yours.

Post Script: For what it's worth, Arnold Schwarzenegger was in attendance tonight (seated alongside Nancy Reagan), and he's poised to back McCain.

Steve Benen 12:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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January 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SIGNING STATEMENT FRENZY....George Bush's signing statement frenzy has now reached epic proportions:

President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent US military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill.

....One section Bush targeted created a statute that forbids spending taxpayer money "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq" or "to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

The Bush administration is negotiating a long-term agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The agreement is to include the basing of US troops in Iraq after 2008, as well as security guarantees and other economic and political ties between the United States and Iraq.

As recently as a year ago the White House at least acknowledged that Congress had the power to defund military activities if it wished. In fact, their argument, essentially, was that funding was pretty much the only power Congress had over military and foreign policy. Now, apparently, they think Congress doesn't even have that.

Kevin Drum 7:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

ANYBODY BUT McCAIN....I happen to think that hard-right conservatives are crazy for working themselves into such a tizzy over the possibility of John McCain as the Republican presidential candidate. But then, I think hard-right conservatives are just crazy in general. So my opinion hardly counts.

That said, I love this anti-McCain ad. It's just so.....Republican. It attacks viciously, it smears without compunction, and the production values are first rate. It's great. The question is, will $20 million worth of airplay (or whatever it's getting) be enough to save Mitt Romney's skin?

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

HI-DEF IN EVERY POT....James Joyner thinks he knows why Fox News' ratings are down:

It had been quite some time since I'd watched cable news, since I find the Internet much more efficient for information gathering, but I finally turned back to it for the New Hampshire returns and was shocked to find that Fox was still broadcasting in standard def, which looks especially bad on a large screen plasma. I switched over to CNN, which has a crystal-clear hi-def signal, and never flipped back.

Really? Even election returns have to be in hi-def? Wow.

In any case, if this is true it's bad news for the conservative movement. If a sharper TV image is all it takes to get wingers to switch over to one of the hated liberal news channels, then I predict great success this November for our side. All we have to do is promise a hi-def chicken in every pot and the couch potatoes of American will flock to our banner. Who cares if Hillary killed Vince Foster as long as she promises crystal-clear teevee that makes you feel like you're right in the newsroom?

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

PATENT WARS....I've argued before that basic economics suggests that, one way or another, both profit levels and risk-adjusted returns are bound to remain more or less constant in the pharmaceutical industry. Thus, if prices fall in the U.S., they'll rise in Europe. The alternative is that European national governments are both so stupid and such ruthless bargainers (!) that they'll literally drive the pharmaceutical industry into the ground rather than pay higher prices.

Megan McArdle is decidedly of the opposite opinion. And who knows? Maybe she's right. But although I don't feel like arguing the entire big picture question right now, this particular passage struck me:

We cannot forbid pharmaceutical companies to sell into [European countries] at discount prices, because those countries can break the patents and license generic manufacturers to manufacture the drugs. All we would end up doing is removing a small source of profit from the pharma company's books.

It's true that we can't forbid pharma companies from selling into Europe at any price they want, if only because about half the pharma industry is based in Europe in the first place and therefore outside even our theoretical control. But what's this about European countries getting pissed off and just breaking patents willy nilly? That happens occasionally in third world countries, especially with expensive HIV drug cocktails, but has it ever happened (or been threatened) in a developed country with an ordinary pharmaceutical product? Wouldn't that (a) be suicidal (American drug companies would abandon your market), (b) violate all sorts of trade agreements, and (c) set off a massive retaliatory trade war (if they can break Merck's patents, we can break GlaxoSmithKline's)? Maybe I'm missing something here, but a massive, global patent war seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEXT STOP: RECESSIONVILLE....Fasten your seatbelts. Economic growth is tanking and inflation is spiking:

Gross domestic product rose at a seasonally adjusted 0.6% annual rate October through December, the Commerce Department said Wednesday in the first estimate of fourth-quarter GDP.

Aside from the housing slump, slowing consumer spending, inventory liquidation and lower overseas sales restrained the economy. The 0.6% pace wasn't only much slower than the third-quarter's racing 4.9%, it was far below expectations on Wall Street.

....The price index for personal consumption expenditures rose by 3.9% after increasing 1.8% in the third quarter. The much-watched PCE price gauge excluding food and energy increased 2.7% after rising 2.0% in the third quarter.

It looks like Alan Greenspan was right: his successors are going to have a much harder job than he did because they won't have the luxury of working in a low-inflation environment. Greenspan could focus on economic growth without worrying much about stoking inflation, but Ben Bernanke can't. He's got a housing bubble that's blown up, a credit crunch, slowing consumer demand, and rising inflation. The right policy response is tricky and delicate.

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

US AND THEM....You already knew this, but the Bush administration is nuts. Here's exhibit #3,886:

America's sometimes-freewheeling ambassador to the United Nations ran afoul of his superiors by taking part in unauthorized debate with two high-ranking Iranian officials during a conference of world leaders last week in the luxury Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland.

Zalmay Khalilzad made an unscheduled appearance Saturday at a World Economic Forum discussion of Iran's controversial nuclear program, whose participants included Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Mojtaba Samare Hashemi, a top advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

...."Ambassador Khalilzad's appearance with the Iranian foreign minister and presidential advisor was not authorized," said a State Department spokesman, who declined to be identified while discussing a personnel issue. He said officials would speak to Khalilzad about the infraction.

It's dumb enough that we have a policy of refusing to speak to Iran in the first place, as if merely talking to them would give us geopolitical cooties. But to repeatedly get bent out of shape by the mere possibility of an American diplomat saying a few words to an Iranian even in an unofficial setting is stark raving mad. Tell me again how many days are left until next January 20th?

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

EDWARDS OUT....Everybody who lives in a more favorable time zone than me already knows this, but here's today's campaign news:

John Edwards will end his presidential bid today, a source close to his campaign confirmed, effectively narrowing the Democratic field to two contenders less than a week before the Super Tuesday round of primaries.

....According to aides, Edwards will not endorse Clinton or Obama today and has no plans to weigh in for either candidate in the immediate future.

I'm genuinely surprised. Dropping out after South Carolina would have made sense. Dropping out after Super Tuesday would have made sense. But why today? More on this later, I'm sure.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (148)

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By: Kevin Drum

VISIONS OF THE PRESIDENCY....Over on the left sidebar we have a new web-only piece by Sean Wilentz that takes a look at historical governing styles and proposes three different models of presidential leadership. First are the "strong presidents," who usually have lots of Washington experience and act as hands-on executives. Second are "advisory presidents," who generally rely on a circle of counselors for basic information and guidance on major policy decisions. Third are "engineer presidents," who base their leadership on competence, technical skill, and moral purity. But not every president falls neatly into one category:

As Johnson and Reagan showed, individual presidents can, at different points in their administration, exhibit aspects of more than one of these presidential models. Some candidates, likewise, may promise to combine diverse elements of what they see as leadership, such as Obama's blend of the aide-reliant advisory mode and the post-partisan purism of Hoover and Carter.

Wilentz's examples of both the advisory mode and the engineer mode are uniformly disastrous, so this is a fairly unsubtle way of telling us that he's pretty unenthused by Obama's potential. And not for the first time, either.

But your mileage may vary. Wilentz, I think, engages in some sleight of hand by basically blaming every presidential failure of the past century on bad staff advice. But there's a mighty big thumb on that scale. After all, FDR listened to his Brain Trust, Truman had Clark Clifford and George Kennan, and Reagan had Jim Baker and Donald Regan. Surely those count on the plus side?

But hey — give it a read and decide for yourself. Whether you agree with Wilentz's specific examples or not, he provides an interesting framework for viewing presidential leadership. And especially on the Democratic side, where Obama and Hillary Clinton have largely similar substantive views, the race is all about models of leadership.

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE....I realize that this is going to sound painfully patronizing, but seriously, I want to congratulate the rank-and-file voters of the Republican Party for their performance so far. Obviously I'm not planning to vote for any of the Republican candidates myself, but some are worse than others: Giuliani is a creepy one-note screwball; Huckabee is ignorant and proud of it; Thompson was a coma-inducing joke; and Tancredo, Hunter, and Paul were just vanity candidates. The two who are left, McCain and Romney, are by far the least offensive of the whole field. So: congratulations GOP. Considering what you had to work with, not a bad effort.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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January 29, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S BASE PROBLEM....I'm not saying anything here that we don't already know, but the Florida exit polls confirm that John McCain has a big problem. As expected, he does well among independents and moderates, but also as expected, he does less well among Republicans and conservatives. Sure, they'll mostly come around in November, but mostly isn't enough. He needs 105% of the conservative base, not 95%. Remember that Karl Rove famously had to turn out four million extra conservative evangelicals just to eke out a bare win against John Kerry in 2004.

Does anyone seriously think that any Republican candidate can kick such major ass among independents in November that he can afford a conservative base that's not charged up and working feverishly to turn out every last vote? I don't.

Kevin Drum 10:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

GEOGRAPHY PRIMER....Mitt Romney: "America faces competition from countries like Asia and India." Not to mention cities like Venus and Jupiter.

Kevin Drum 9:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN WINS IN FLORIDA....CNN just called the Republican race for John McCain. Question: does this mean that the McCain haters are going to redouble their efforts and go absolutely ballistic over the next week? Or are they going to start realizing that McCain is now inevitable and begin the process of dialing down the vitriol and circling the wagons in preparation for taking on the Democrats in the fall?

Amazingly, it's now quite possible that the Republican Party will pick a candidate before the Democrats will. I sure didn't see that coming.

Kevin Drum 9:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

BYE, RUDY....So everyone is saying that Rudy Giuliani is going to drop out and endorse John McCain. I guess that's supposed to help him, right?

Kevin Drum 9:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE AGE GAP....This is weird. A few weeks ago I noted that in New Hampshire Hillary Clinton had lost to Barack Obama among 18-24 year olds and 30-39 year olds, but oddly, had won in the middle group of 25-29 year olds. I wrote it off as a statistical fluke, but guess what? The same thing happened in Florida.

Once might be a fluke, but not twice. So what's going on? Why would Hillary do 10 points better among a small donut hole of 25-29 year olds compared to the two age groups surrounding it? FWIW, this cohort is the one that turned 18 during the four years of Bill Clinton's second term. Was that a period when Hillary was especially appealing to young voters, who have stuck with her ever since?

Any ideas?

Kevin Drum 9:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

AN ELECTION ENIGMA....A California friend emails to tell me that he got his first campaign call last night (from Obama) and this morning he got another one. But the second call was a little more mysterious:

Today I got a call from a 213 area code, and when I picked it up a recorded voice said, "My mistake. Sorry about that." And hung up.

...What the hell was that?

I've never heard of such a thing. My only guess is that this campaign, whichever one it is, will only leave a recorded message on a machine, and if you pick up you get this odd recorded apology and then it automatically hangs up on you.

Or it's some company trying to figure out whether I'm home in the daytime. Or someone who wants to rob my house and is too lazy to call on their own.

I'm stumped. Any idea?

What say you, hive mind?

Kevin Drum 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOTU-OLOGY....Tea leaf reading at the SOTU last night:

When Bush proclaimed, "Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt," Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated.

Obama supporter Mark Kleiman claims vindication:

Tell me again that Obama and Clinton now have the same position on the war in Iraq. I didn't hear you clearly the first time.

Close analysis of who claps when is a venerable tradition at State of the Union addresses, so this is fair enough. But since I'm obviously totally in the tank for Hillary anyway, let me take a crack at explaining why a sometime Obama skeptic doesn't find this especially convincing. (And yes, I know it was just a small jest. But it's an opportunity to make a point anyway.)

To me, it all comes down to this: Yes, Obama opposed the war, and he opposed it for good reasons. He deserves a lot of credit for that. At the same time, taking a position when you're watching from the sidelines is a lot different from taking a position when you're in office and have to pay attention to the political winds more closely. So how has Obama done on that score? Let's be honest: since he entered the Senate, Obama has hardly been a leader of the antiwar caucus. In fact, his opposition to the war has been pretty muted and his voting record has been nearly identical to Hillary Clinton's. This strikes me as a more telling indication of what Obama would do as president than a speech he gave five years ago when he was in the Illinois legislature.

I don't mean this as a huge criticism of Obama. Electoral realities are electoral realities. But it does lead me to be generally unimpressed with cost-free symbolism like declining to clap for the surge. The real question is, what will he do once he's in office and he has to make good on his symbolism? Based on his track record over the past couple of years, my guess is that his real-world policy on Iraq would be about the same as Hillary's. Maybe a little bit better if he surrounds himself with better advisors, but that's about it.

I expect that Team Obama will have a different opinion. Have at it in comments.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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By: Kevin Drum

VOUCHERS....When George Bush talked last night about the "purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere," I knew he meant Hugo Chavez. But when he talked about "Pell Grants for kids," the phrase went right over my head. I guess I wasn't paying attention to the fact that it came right after his praise for "faith-based or other non-public schools."

Anyway, long story short, it turns out that "vouchers" doesn't poll well. "Pell Grants for kids," on the other hand, does. So Pell Grants it is. Steve Benen explains.

UPDATE: From The Corner:

SOTU: "Pell Grants for Kids" [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

went over very well with my Catholic-school focus group, BTW.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REBUTTAL....Dana Goldstein didn't think much of the Democratic rebuttal to the State of the Union address:

I had been excited about Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' official Democratic rejoinder, but her speech left me cold. It relied on feel-good platitudes over any real, specific critique of President Bush. An entire passage on S-CHIP failed to mention that Bush had vetoed the legislation, denying 10 million children health care. Is there any easier shot to take? Is there any more important domestic issue in America today? And on the war, Sebelius simply did not say it should end....This rhetoric felt like a time machine back to 2004. Don't we now know enough and aren't we tough enough to critique the surge happy-talk?

Well, let's face it: these things usually suck. It's just the nature of the medium: one person, stuck all alone in a cramped room, droning on to the camera. After the pomp and applause and excitement of even a routine State of the Union address, it's almost impossible for the response to be anything but soporific.

But there was even more to it this time. Unless I miss my guess, Sebelius was trying to sound like Barack Obama, talking about unity, bipartisanship, ending the rancor in DC, etc. But guess what? Unless you've got the gift for it, that kind of stuff just sounds weak and mushy. The format and timing of the rebuttal puts the speaker at a disadvantage regardless, but there's no need to make it worse by attempting a triple axel and flubbing it. Obama has the rare talent of making that kind of rhetoric sound soaring, but lesser souls should know their limits and stick to standard speechifying.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

FLORIDA THREAD....Sorry for the late start today. Something I ate last night really didn't agree with me.

But while I get caught up, feel free to use this thread to forecast the results of today's Florida primary. My official prediction is this: the polls will probably turn out to be wrong. This just hasn't been a good year for primary polling, has it? Beyond that, though, I have no idea who's going to win. We'll just have to wait and see.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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A HELPING HAND....Jon Stewart has "friends of the show," and I have "friends of the blog." One of them is Blue Girl, Red State, and BG's computer is busted. Her other computer is busted too. So she needs a new one. I've already contributed to the new laptop fund, and if you can spare a few dollars for a worthy cause then head on over to her site pronto and hit the 'ol PayPal account. It'll get her back online, and that's good karma. And we all need good karma, don't we?

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THE CHINA CARD....Matt Yglesias isn't happy with Hillary Clinton's "politics of militarism," but he's even less happy that Barack Obama doesn't seem willing to offer the full-throated alternative he ought to be capable of. Instead, in last week's debate, he responded to Hillary's provocation ("I am better positioned and better able to take on John McCain or any Republican when it comes to issues about protecting and defending our country and promoting our interest in the world") with a weak, rambling appeal to "overcome the politics of fear in this country." Says Matt:

I'm sympathetic to what I think Obama was trying to say, but the point is better put more simply — to have the best shot at winning national security arguments with John McCain, the Democrats need a candidate who didn't support the invasion of Iraq.

....For months, [Obama] has been unwilling to make a forceful case from the left on national security issues in a Democratic primary, so it's far from clear that [in a general election] he would, in practice, make the sort of strong arguments his record leaves him capable of making. If McCain (or, for that matter, Mitt Romney) starts talking about how in a Democratic administration North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and some Iraqi dude who doesn't like having a foreign army occupy his country are all going to team up and kill your children, it won't do to respond by whining about the politics of fear. He'll have to learn to say something in response, perhaps about how the real best way to keep Americans safe is with a focused, targeted effort that gives us the maximum chance of actually killing or capturing our deadliest foes rather than one that lets them escape while needlessly stirring up unrelated trouble that multiplies the number of adversaries we face.

OK, but here's the thing. There are two reasons Obama might not be making this argument. The first is that he doesn't believe it. If that's the case, then we're stuck. Obama just isn't the change agent we'd all like to think he is.

But let's assume he really is less militaristic than Hillary. The second reason he might not be making the argument Matt wants to hear is that he believes it would be electoral suicide. Americans, perhaps, just aren't open to the idea that a "focused, targeted effort" is what we need. Maybe the politics of fear works really well, and once the genie is out the bottle then you either adopt a hard-edged, interventionist rhetoric or else you sound like a wimp.

If that's the case — and it might well be — then what we need is a new way of convincing average voters that there are better ways of staying safe and increasing our global influence than fighting lots of overseas wars. Matt himself might have some ideas on that score. But here's another one: make an appeal to national chauvinism. In the Parag Khanna piece I mentioned below, there's a bit of discussion about how China interacts with the world, and none of it has to do with projecting military power. So what would happen if you played off that? China isn't fighting foreign wars, they're doing X, Y, and Z instead. And they're winning. So we'd better get on the stick and start doing what they're doing.

A lot of Americans — maybe most — instinctively think that the best way to react to a threat is via force. Logic isn't going to change their minds, but an argument that our dumb interventions are causing us to lose ground to other countries that are smarter than us just might. Even Joe Sixpack doesn't want us to lose ground to a billion wily Chinese, after all. Maybe it's worth a shot.

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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January 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SOTU LIVEBLOGGING....This just doesn't seem it's likely to be a very exciting State of the Union address, does it? I mean, the big talking point earlier in the day from the White House was that Bush was going to focus on earmark reform. Yippee!

But hey — we're professionals around here. When the CinC gives a speech, we're here to liveblog it. So on with the show.

Wrapup: So that was, what? About 55 minutes? It may have been dull, but at least it was short!

And now CNN's Jessica Yellin pipes up to tell us that at one point Senator Obama looked over his shoulder to see if Senator Clinton had stood up to applaud. Sigh. They just can't help themselves, can they?

Ed Henry: "The White House spinners set low expectations and I think the president met them." That sounds about right.

10:02 — Finally. The state of the union is strong. I was beginning to think my slam dunk prediction at the beginning might actually be wrong.

9:55 — Here it comes....wait for it....Yes! "We need to know who the terrorists are talking to." Etc. etc. Bottom line: Pass the FISA extension and give telecom companies immunity by Friday or else everyone watching tonight will die.

9:47 — Jeez, Bush is really trying get credit for bringing the surge troops home, isn't he? You'd hardly know that it had been planned ever since the surge began.

9:41 — We're ten minutes into the foreign policy part of the speech and it's....completely lacking in substance so far. Terrorists bad, surge good, yadda yadda yadda.

9:30 — Well, everybody's in favor of keeping the United States the most dynamic country on earth. Good to know. But what's Pelosi reading? A copy of the speech? Everybody seems to have one, so I guess so. Are they reading it to make sure they don't get snookered into clapping for something they shouldn't?

9:25 — If we don't pass a bunch of trade agreements, "we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere." Obviously he meant Hugo Chavez, but I'd guess that less than one person in a hundred watching at home figured that out.

9:20 — Man, it's the same old hectoring Bush. Congress must do this. I'll veto that. But jeez, he can't even get applause from Teddy Kennedy for a call to extend No Child Left Behind.

9:17 — What are Pelosi and Cheney chatting about?

9:12 — "Wages are up, but so is the price of food and gas." Translation: adjusted for inflation, wages are down.

9:10 — Ah, an appeal for bipartisan unity. Heartwarming.

9:05 — I predict that the state of the union will be "strong."

9:03 — A bit of inane chatter on CNN about who's shaking Hillary Clinton's hand and who's not.

Kevin Drum 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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A DIFFERENT LENS....I've been meaning to recommend Parag Khanna's cover story in the New York Times Magazine this week, but I'm only now getting around to it. Here's the thesis of the piece:

At best, America's unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war "peace dividend" was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world's other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world.

The more we appreciate the differences among the American, European and Chinese worldviews, the more we will see the planetary stakes of the new global game.

I'm still digesting the whole thing and may have more to say about it later. But even though I don't necessarily agree with everything Khanna says, it's a useful article if only because it's so rare to see foreign policy pieces in the mainstream media that aren't almost completely America-centric. Whatever else he does, Khanna helps readers see geopolitics through a lens that's partly American, partly European, partly Chinese, and partly everyone else. That makes it worth a read.

And on an offbeat note, I'm amused to see that the phrase "third world" has now lost its original meaning so completely that Khanna uses "second world" to refer to any country that's poorer than France but richer than Bangladesh. I wonder if this will catch on?

Kevin Drum 8:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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McCAIN vs. THE BASE....The conservosphere is up in arms over John Fund's report in the Wall Street Journal that John McCain would be squishy on conservative appointments to the Supreme Court:

More recently, Mr. McCain has told conservatives he would be happy to appoint the likes of Chief Justice John Roberts to the Supreme Court. But he indicated he might draw the line on a Samuel Alito, because "he wore his conservatism on his sleeve."

Over at The Corner, Kathryn Jean Lopez has Fund's back:

For what it's worth, I've been told the same thing John F. reported — that at a private meeting McCain said he would appoint justices like Roberts, but not like Alito — who wears his conservatism on his sleeve. The report of the comment — first in D.C. conservative circles and now in the WSJ — has set off alarm bells with conservatives who've worked on the judicial issues, for obvious reasons. We already got Alito despite a president who wanted to go in another direction. This time, folks feel like they're being warned beforehand.

McCain's team, so far, seems to have issued only a nondenial denial. But it doesn't really answer the question. Sure, McCain supported Alito's nomination once Bush sent it to the Senate, but has he privately told conservative audiences that he wouldn't have nominated a guy like Alito in the first place? Inquiring right-wing minds want to know.

POSTSCRIPT: This, by the way, is one of the reasons I'm not nearly as nervous about a Hillary-McCain contest as some people. Sure, McCain might be able to peel off some independents. But more than any of the other Republican candidates, he's also going to have to reassure the conservative base. This is obviously a balancing act that every presidential candidate has to go through, but McCain has it much worse than most. Once the right-wing pandering gets into full swing — and it will — is he really going to be able to hang on to independents too?

Kevin Drum 2:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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CONVERSATION STARTER....Rudy Giuliani is the Phil Gramm of 2008. Discuss.

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THE GWOT ON THE QT....Via Steve Benen comes this howler from John McCain, as reported in the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog:

John McCain says in almost every stump speech that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden and that he'd follow the al Qaeda leader to the "Gates of Hell."

So Washington Wire was wondering, what does McCain know that President Bush and the Pentagon don't about how to sweep up America's most elusive enemy.

"One thing I will not do is telegraph my punches. Osama bin Laden will be the last to know," he said today while riding on the back of his bus between Florida events. In other words: he's not telling. Why not share his strategy with the current occupant of the White House? "Because I have my own ideas and it would require implementation of certain policies and procedures that only as the president of the United States can be taken."

I guess McCain heard about the Hollywood writers' strike and decided to give Jon Stewart a hand with tonight's show. Who needs writers when you have material like this at hand?

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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EARMARKS....President Bush plans to demonstrate his fiscal toughness tonight:

In his State of the Union address tonight, Bush will promise to "veto any spending bill that does not succeed in cutting earmarks in half from 2008 levels," deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said in an e-mail.

Bush will issue an executive order tomorrow directing federal agencies to ignore any earmarks included only in committee reports, not in the text of legislation.

I've never been quite as exercised as some people about the whole earmark thing, since earmarks mostly just redirect spending, they don't increase it. Still, it's gotten out of hand and I'm fine with Bush making threatening noises about it.

That said, the newfound Republican religion on earmarks is a little hard to take seriously, isn't it? They were all for them back when Republican districts got 60% of the pork, but suddenly they're outraged when Republican districts only get 40%. Methinks they protest too loudly.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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OBAMA AND THE PRESS....Howard Kurtz has sort of a fascinating/disturbing column today about Barack Obama and the press:

All traveling campaigns have a bubble-like quality, but Obama seems unusually insulated. One moment of absurdity came Tuesday, when reporters on the press bus were asked to dial into a conference call in which Obama announced a congressman's endorsement — even though the candidate was nearby and just as easily could have delivered the news in person to the bus captives. Obama answered a few questions, but reporters are generally placed on mute after they speak so there can be no follow-up.

....Obama often goes days without taking questions from national reporters, and when he does, the sessions can be slapdash affairs. In Nevada, for instance, correspondents were reduced to shouting queries at him during a photo op in the kitchen of the Mirage Hotel.

....Some reporters say Obama seems disdainful toward journalists, having submitted to precisely one off-the-record chat over beer several months ago in Iowa. To them, the absence of a senior official traveling with the press is a sign of benign neglect.

The primary reason, say those who have observed Obama most closely, is that he's never had to court the press, even in Illinois. Obama rocketed to national prominence with his 2004 Democratic convention speech, had an easy Senate election, and has gotten largely upbeat coverage from the moment he got into the presidential contest. His tactics have sometimes been criticized but not, by and large, his character.

The result: He has never had to learn press relations as a survival skill, not when he can just trot out Oprah Winfrey and ride the resulting wave.

Now, Obama has gotten pretty rapturous press coverage anyway, and Kurtz mentions later in his piece that reporters are just as susceptible to the famous Obama charisma as anyone. Still, the general election is going to be a slugfest, and it's a bad sign if Obama's press operation hasn't been honed to deal with it. What's more, it's also peculiar: why stay aloof from a press corps that loves you? Maybe someone should try to ask him.

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BILL KRISTOL WATCH, WEEK 4....Not to get all obsessed by this, but is Bill Kristol a boring columnist, or what? This week's thesis: Bill Clinton has been injecting race into the Democratic primary. Now that's a fresh, untapped subject. I mean, no one else has even mentioned this in the past few days, assuming of course that you don't count every single reporter and pundit on the planet, both in print and on the airwaves.

Are they actually paying him for this level of banality?

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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January 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WAVING THE WHITE FLAG....Here in the leftosphere we're so consumed with the Democratic primary that occasionally we forget to look in on our good friends who are running for the Republican nomination. But tempers are definitely fraying over there. It started when Mr. Straight Talk decided to trash Mitt Romney for wanting to "wave a white flag" in Iraq:

"If we surrender and wave a white flag like Senator Clinton wants to do and withdraw as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos," Mr. McCain said to reporters in Fort Myers on Saturday morning.

At a town-hall-style meeting later in Sun City Center, a retirement community, Mr. McCain reiterated his accusation.

"My friends, I was there — he said he wanted a timetable for withdrawal," Mr. McCain said.

Romney, of course, went ballistic — though it's hard to say which offended him more, the "white flag" comment or the comparison to Hillary. McCain claims that Romney's offending words came last April in an interview with Robin Roberts of Good Morning America:

MS. ROBERTS: ....Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, there's no question but that — the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement....

MS. ROBERTS: So, private. You wouldn't do it publicly? Because the president has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, of course. Can you imagine a setting where during the Second World War we said to the Germans, gee, if we haven't reached the Rhine by this date, why, we'll go home, or if we haven't gotten this accomplished we'll pull up and leave?

If this is McCain's evidence he seems pretty clearly full of shit to me, and just as clearly unconcerned about it. But Mike Huckabee is defending him (angling for a VP spot?), as well as various other McCain surrogates, so it's game on over in GOP land. Accusing someone of being insufficiently warlike is about as bad in Republican quarters as race baiting is in Democratic quarters, so it looks like pretty much everyone has decided that late January is the right time for the serious mudslinging to begin.

And Rudy? He's just slogging along in the background and says he's going to try to stay positive. Good luck with that, Mr. Mayor.

Kevin Drum 11:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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OBAMA vs. CLINTON....Reader MDS thinks I'm overreacting:

Please, I beg you, reconsider. You were the only blogger making any sense on the Obama/Clinton front, and now you've jumped ship, too? Trust me, I live in Chicago, I've met Obama, I voted for him for Senate, I think he's great ... but he's just not up to running for president. Yes, the Clinton campaign said some stupid stuff. But no matter how much that turns you against Hillary, the way the Obama campaign has cried about it should turn you even more against Obama. Having watched him up close, I can tell you, Obama is an inspirational guy who doesn't have a clue how to campaign. If it's Obama vs. McCain, we're in for six months of Swift Boating followed by four more years of a Republican in the White House.

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OFF THE BUS....I haven't been impressed with very much of the chatter about Barack Obama's primary victory last night. Hillary didn't give a concession speech? Give me a break. Who cares? Turnout was up? Yes, but it's been an exciting and money-filled campaign and turnout has been up everywhere. Obama won the black vote and lost the white vote? Nothing new there. Obama won young people and Hillary won among the elderly? Again, no surprise.

What's more, none of my views about this race have really changed. I think Hillary is still likely to win the nomination. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I suspect she's also more electable than Obama. And Obama's continued unwillingness to defend progressive policies on explicitly progressive grounds still bothers me.

But that said, enough's enough. I don't like dog whistle racial appeals when Republicans do it, and I don't like it when Bill Clinton does it. (And unlike Hillary's MLK/LBJ remark, which was idiotically mischaracterized, don't even try to pretend that this was an innocent remark. We're not children here.) Yes, Obama has to be able to handle this kind of sewage, and yes, this will almost certainly be forgiven and forgotten among Democrats by November. But it's not November yet, is it? My primary is a week from Tuesday, and I'm not feeling very disposed to reward this kind of behavior. At this point, it's looking a lot more likely that I'm going to vote for Obama.

For more, read Joe Klein and Karen Tumulty and Reed Hundt. I'm on pretty much the same page.

UPDATE: My commenters seem to think this is a grumpy post. Sorry. That wasn't my intent. For the most part I'm pissed, not grumpy, and I've changed the text of the post slightly to clean it up.

Really, I just wanted to make two points. First, I looked through all the exit polls last night and concluded that South Carolina just didn't have a lot new to tell us. The things people are talking about — turnout, youth vote, black vs. white vote, etc. — are all things we've seen in the other primaries too.

Second, despite the fact that I still have some positive things to say about Hillary and some negative things to say about Obama, the dog whistle stuff is revolting and it's pushed me over the edge. I've been slightly pro-Hillary in the past, but now I think I'm slightly pro-Obama.

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THE KIDS THESE DAYS....Ten years ago California adopted a new law that severely restricted teen driving and dramatically increased the requirements for teens to get a driver's license. The goal, of course, was to cut down on dangerous driving by teens and reduce the teen fatality rate on the road.

So did it work? Mike Males, a sociologist whose career has been largely devoted to defending kids against demonization by their elders (among other things, he's the author of The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents), compared the fatality rate among drivers licensed under the old law and those licensed under the new law, and concludes that the new law hasn't worked:

A study I conducted...found, as did previous researchers, that California's graduated licensing law was associated with fewer fatalities among 16-year-old drivers (down 20% through 2005). But that reduction was more than offset by the increased death rate — up 24% — of 18-year-olds, whose driving records researchers have neglected to study. The latest figures also indicate higher-than-expected fatalities among drivers aged 19, 20 and 21 who were licensed under the new law. The death rates of 17-year-olds changed little.

The stricter law appears to have split teens into three categories, none faring well. A few ignored the delays and supervision requirements specified in the new law and drove illegally, resulting in an 11% increase in deaths involving unlicensed teen drivers after the law took effect.

A second group, perhaps unable or unwilling to go through the months of supervision from parents or over-25 adults, waited until age 18 to learn to drive....Fewer 16-year-olds driving may be the biggest reason fatalities declined for that age.

Then there were teens who dutifully complied with the law's licensing requirements. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds driving legally under the new law experienced a 9% decline in fatalities compared with their pre-law counterparts — but when they turned 18, their death rate jumped to 25% higher than that of 18-year-olds licensed before the law.

Males suggests that driving experience is more important than licensing requirements. 16-year-olds are temporarily safer under the new law, mainly because fewer of them are on the road, but by the time they turn 18 they're more dangerous than they were under the old law because they have less driving experience than 18-year-olds in the past. (This lack of driving experience — and more oddly, a growing lack of interest in getting experience — is something I've noted before.) Perhaps on its ten-year anniversary, it's time California to rethink its shiny new teen driving law?

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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January 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SOUTH CAROLINA....I just got back from a house party where the guy who founded the Irvine Housing Blog told me that, yes indeed, they get a huge spike in traffic every time Atrios links to them. IHB performs the valuable public service of exposing the soft underbelly of the housing bubble, and you should check it out if you want to have your opinion of yuppie strivers lowered even further than it probably already is.

Anyway, I'm back home now and I see that Barack Obama has smoked Hillary Clinton in South Carolina, winning the primary vote there by 55%-27%. Very impressive indeed. And my guess is that it might also mean that the Clinton campaign is going to pull back a bit from the attack dog politics of the past week. After all, it doesn't seem to have helped them much.

But for all you attack dog fans out there, no worries. The Washington Post informs us today that Mitt Romney and John McCain have "abandoned all pretense of civility" in preparation for Tuesday's primary in Florida. So there shouldn't be any lack of fireworks over the next few days.

Of course, what this goes to show is that what happened between the Obama and Clinton campaigns was nothing out of the ordinary. It's what almost inevitably happens whenever a campaign gets down to two people and they're running neck and neck. It might abate a bit on the Democratic side since it doesn't seem to have been very effective, but that's really the only thing that can stop it. As long as negative campaigning works — and it's worked pretty effectively ever since Og defeated Ug 56-55 for the presidency of the Olduvai Gorge Mammoth Hunting Alliance — we'll keep seeing it.

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By: Kevin Drum

KILL 'EM ALL AND LET GOD SORT 'EM OUT....From drug policy expert Mark Kleiman:

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is working hard to make sure that opiate addicts keep dying of overdoses.

I figured Mark was just being snarky and excitable here, but no. That really does seem to be the only reasonable conclusion you can draw from the news article he excerpts. Go take a look.

By the way, Mark is also a professor at UCLA. Today, apparently, is UCLA day here at the Washington Monthly.

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By: Kevin Drum

BETTING ON HILLARY....Who's more electable, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Beats me. However, an economics professor at UCLA emailed a couple of days ago to suggest an interesting data point: the Intrade prediction markets. Intrade allows you to bet on two separate questions: (1) Do you think a particular candidate will get the nomination? (2) Do you think a particular candidate will win the presidency?

For Hillary Clinton, Intrade currently predicts a 67.1% chance of winning the Democratic nomination and a 44.5% chance of winning the presidency. What this means is that if Hillary wins the nomination, Intrade bettors think she has a 66.3% chance of winning the election. [See technical note below for an explanation of the arithmetic.]

For Barack Obama, Intrade betters currently have him priced at levels that give him a 32.0% chance of winning the nomination and a 15.0% chance of winning the presidency. Using the same arithmetic, this means is that if Obama wins the nomination, Intrade bettors think he has a 46.9% chance of winning the election.

This is a surprisingly large spread. Bettors think Obama is likely to lose the election if he's the Democratic nominee, but they think Hillary is a strong favorite to win if she wins the nomination. The electability spread is nearly 20 points. Interesting, no?

Now, there are at least two reasons to be skeptical about this. The first is the possibility that Hillary's Intrade market is being manipulated. See here for a discussion of this from last year.

The second is the question of whether betting markets like Intrade do a good job of predicting events like elections in the first place. I'm not up on the relevant literature, but I suspect the answer is that they probably don't perform very well in an objective sense. However, what they can do is aggregate public perceptions well. So while Intrade can't say that Hillary is truly more electable than Obama, it can (in the absence of manipulation, anyway) tell us pretty reliably that people think she's more electable.

I don't believe any of this enough to have blogged about it during the week. But weekends are a good time for miscellaneous speculation, and this seems to count. Make of it what you will.

TECHNICAL NOTE: If you're wondering how the probabilities work, here's the math. First:

P(election) = P(nomination) * P(election conditional on nomination)

In other words, if you have, say, a 50% chance of winning the nomination, and a 50% chance of winning the election once you've won the nomination, then your overall chance of winning the election is 25%. Now rearrange the equation to get:

P(election conditional on nomination) = P(election) / P(nomination)

So to get the probability of winning the election if you get the nomination, just divide the election probability by the nomination probability.

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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January 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....These pictures were taken a couple of days ago during sunnier times. Today is duck weather, not cat weather. But I like these pictures. Inkblot looks very serene snoozing among the plants, and Domino looks very sleek and feline.

Today, though, we have a more serious lesson for you: don't pack your cat when you take a business trip. Seth Levy and his wife, Kelly, found this out the hard way after Kelly noticed that their cat was missing:

She tore the house apart looking for the cat, who had been spayed just days before. She and her dad took out bathroom tiles and part of a cabinet to check a crawl space and papered the neighborhood with "lost cat" signs.

Then she got a phone call.

"Hi, you're not going to believe this, but I am calling from Fort Worth, Texas, and I accidentally picked up your husband's luggage. And when I opened the luggage, a cat jumped out," Kelly Levy quoted the caller saying.

Cats love luggage. You have been warned.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE VIEW FROM CHINA....James Fallows emerges from the media hinterlands of China to report his impression of last night's Republican debate:

This is the first debate among the Republicans that I've seen at full length and in real time. So...how did it look?

Romney by a mile. More precisely, the only candidate you could imagine putting up a plausible general-election fight. Again, I'm not handicapping the GOP race, which I know nothing about. I'm not saying how each candidate did relative to previous appearances. I am telling you how this one debate looked if you had never seen these guys on the same stage before.

I missed the start of the debate, but it seemed to me that John McCain had a few strong moments during the last half hour ("the reason why I've had such strong support amongst independents is because they know that I'll put my country above my party every single time"). Huckabee was smarmy. Giuliani didn't really have anything to say. Ron Paul was Ron Paul.

But Romney? I dunno. Unlike Fallows, I've seen him so many times that I can't react to him in ordinary human terms anymore. He's just a windup doll, and everything he says gets filtered through that lens. I just have no idea what kind of impression he makes on the kind of person who might be inclined to vote for him in the first place.

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IDIOCY, FRIDAY STYLE....Some bright boy is now trying to link Tony Rezko to Hillary Clinton? You gotta be kidding me.

Naturally it's at the top of the page at Drudge. I guess that automatically makes it news.

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WHAT DOES EDWARDS WANT?....A couple of days ago I was musing about the possibility of John Edwards playing a kingmaker role if neither Obama nor Clinton wins more than 50% of the Democratic delegates. "Maybe that appeals to him," I said.

Apparently it does. Christopher Cooper interviewed Edwards advisor Joe Trippi in the Wall Street Journal today and came away with this:

"I think 200 delegates on Feb. 6 is our over-under," Mr. Trippi said. Although he continues to insist that Mr. Edwards has a chance at securing the nomination, Mr. Trippi concedes it is a long shot. More probable: arriving at the convention with enough delegates to tip the scales in favor of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama. "Edwards is the primary force keeping Clinton under 50%," Mr. Trippi said. "Worst case? We go to the convention as the peacemaker, kingmaker, whatever you want to call it."

As Mr. Trippi figures it, if Mr. Edwards gets more than 200 delegates through the Feb. 5 contests — just more than 10% of the total 1,700 delegates at stake that day — he has a long-shot chance of playing kingmaker. If he gets 350, Mr. Trippi said Mr. Edwards is almost assured of playing that role.

...."Every delegate we get over 200 on Feb. 5 is a step toward a scenario that at worst gives us a shot at influencing the final outcome of this race," Mr. Trippi said.

But if this is a role Edwards wants to play, what does he want from it? As Cooper says, conventional wisdom holds that Edwards isn't interested in the VP slot, and the best he can come up with as an alternative is that Edwards might "demand the insertion of one or several antipoverty planks in the party's platform."

That's pretty weak tea. If this is really in the back of Edwards's mind, he must be thinking of something a little more concrete than that. But what?

UPDATE: For the record, I don't think we'll have a brokered convention. This is more water cooler conversation than anything else.

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THE REAGAN PRIMARY....James Joyner answers the insurgents on the right who think John McCain would spell the end of the Republican Party that Reagan built:

Ronald Reagan last ran for president 24 years ago. A lot has changed since then — partly thanks to his policies. We're not fighting the commies any more. We don't have marginal tax rates of 70 percent. It's now been 35 years since Roe v. Wade rather than 11.

And, frankly, Reagan's record — as opposed to his rhetoric — isn't exactly what those who pine for the Good Ole Days seem to think it was. Reagan did virtually nothing to advance the socially conservative agenda he talked about. He appointed Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, two moderate swing votes, to the Supreme Court to go along with Antonin Scalia, his lone conservative appointee. And he signed the biggest illegal immigrant amnesty bill in the country's history. He allowed spending to skyrocket under his administration, leaving the country saddled with historic debt.

And he signed the INF treaty! And left the Department of Education intact! And raised taxes half a dozen times! And supported expansion of the EITC!

In fact, thanks to Tim Russert's obsession with Social Security, at last night's debate we got to see what fealty to Reagan's legacy really means to present-day Republicans. Here's the question:

Governor Romney, you are a big fan of Ronald Reagan. Will you do for Social Security what Ronald Reagan did in 1983?

And the answer is....no! Of course not. Because in addition to his half dozen other tax increases, Reagan raised the payroll tax to rescue Social Security. But no modern day Republican in his right mind would give that a moment's thought. So given a chance to emulate the master, Romney didn't just tap dance, he flat out repudiated him:

MR. RUSSERT: Well, Ronald Reagan raised the payroll tax, and he also raised the retirement age, and he saved Social Security with Alan Greenspan and Tip O'Neill and Bob Dole and Pat Moynihan....Would you do what Ronald Reagan did?

MR. ROMNEY: No, I don't want to raise taxes.

Well, neither does John McCain, I bet. But I gotta say: when it comes to truly emulating Ronald Reagan — hawkish; socially conservative but unwilling to spend much political capital on it; fiscally moderate; pragmatic when he needs to be — McCain is more in the mold of the real Reagan, as opposed to the currently popular cartoon version, than any of the other guys who were up on the stage in Boca Raton last night. Anyone who thinks otherwise just doesn't remember Reagan all that well.

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THE MEME-DRIVEN PRIMARY....Hey, finally someone remembers that primaries in the past haven't exactly been strolls in the park. Here's Ronald Brownstein:

At one New York City debate late in the 1984 race, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart battered each other so relentlessly that Jesse Jackson almost needed to physically separate them. In an especially heated 1992 encounter, Bill Clinton appeared ready to lean over and deck Jerry Brown.

The nominating system, by its nature, encourages such ferocity....

I don't know if this year's primary has really been an awful lot more heated than some in the past, but it sure has been more meme driven. Obama wins Iowa and there's an absolute barrage of coverage saying he's sewn up the nomination. Hillary Clinton shows a flash of emotion and it's on cable TV 24/7. Remarks from both sides (Hillary supposedly dissing Martin Luther King, Obama supposedly swearing fealty to Ronald Reagan) have been blown massively out of proportion by feeding frenzy coverage.

The latest meme, of course, is that a few testy exchanges means that this is the roughest, toughest, meanest primary we've ever seen. Spare me. I always feel old and cranky when I say stuff like this, but we've seen rough, tough, mean primaries before on both sides. Yeah, Hillary and Obama are playing hardball, but get over it folks. Nothing they've done so far is even remotely out of bounds for big league politics.

But even Brownstein can't resist the trap:

What ought to trouble Democrats is that their two leading candidates have reached this point at a time when a great many signs suggest their competition could continue long after the 22-state showdown on February 5 — probably until Texas and Ohio vote on March 4. That means that unless the candidates can climb back off this emotional ledge, they will have plenty of time to damage each other — and the party's prospects next fall. Nasty, brutish, and long is an ominous combination for Democrats.

Yeah, sure. Look, I've been pretty sparing in my predictions, but here's another one: all of this will be long forgotten within a few weeks of the primary's end, whether that's February 5, March 4, or even a little later. If there's anything we've learned from this season's campaigning, it's that attitudes change on a dime these days. Last week's controversy might as well have happened in the Middle Ages. Once the Democrats decide on a winner, it will be kumbaya city for the full half year leading up to the convention. You heard it here first.

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR....A quick note to my good friends at the LA Times: would it be too much to ask that stories that appear in your print edition also appear online? In some easily found format like, say, a list? That would be really cool. Thanks.

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MATCHING UP AGAINST McCAIN....ROUND 2....Tonight I give equal time to Barack Obama supporters. According to the latest Wall Street Journal poll, Obama runs even with John McCain in a hypothetical general election matchup, while Hillary Clinton loses by two points. Advantage Obama!

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January 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ROGUE TRADING....We learned today that Jerome Kerviel, a "rogue trader" at Societe Generale, was responsible for $7.2 billion in recent trading losses, the largest in banking history. So how'd he do it?

His approach was to balance each real trade with a fictitious one, and his "intimate and perverse" knowledge of the bank's controls allowed him to avoid detection, co-Chief Executive Officer Philippe Citerne told reporters. He rolled over his real trades before they reached maturity.

By the end of December, he was "massively in the money," said [Philippe Collas, the head of asset management at the bank]. Since the beginning of the year his trades became unprofitable.

The trades first came to management's attention on the evening of Jan. 18, when a compliance officer found a trade that exceeded the bank's limits, Mustier said. When Societe Generale called the counterparty, they were told the trade didn't exist.

Naturally, my first question is how Kerviel managed to do this. How did he construct all these fake trades? And shouldn't the sheer volume of trades triggered alarms, regardless of whether they were balanced with other trades?

I suppose eventually someone will tell the whole story and we'll learn what happened. But my second question is this: what if Kerviel's friskiness had been discovered at the end of December, when he was "massively in the money," instead of two weeks later? Would we ever have found out about this? Or would Societe Generale have announced massive fourth quarter trading profits and invented some smooth story about how they had cleverly outsmarted the market?

Common sense suggests that, at least occasionally, these "rogue traders" must make a lot of money. But when was the last time you heard a bank announce such a thing? Does it really never happen? Or does it just get hushed up when it does?

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WHAM! BOOM!....Did Barack Obama have a "testy" exchange with a reporter on Tuesday? No. Did Hillary Clinton almost let loose with a "Dean scream" on Wednesday? No. Do reporters routinely inflate minor campaign trail incidents in an effort inject color and conflict into their coverage? Yes indeed. The lesson of the day is: Always remember to take conflict stories with a great big shaker of salt until you see the video, the full exchange, or corroborating testimony yourself. There will be a quiz tomorrow.

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THE MARCH FOR LIFE....Via Ross Douthat, Michael Sean Winters of America laments one of the more peculiar "traditions" in the anti-abortion movement:

The annual March for Life has come and gone. One of its more bizarre qualities is the way GOP presidents participate: by recorded message or telephone hook-up, but never in person. This began during Ronald Reagan's presidency when some advisors did not want a photo beamed around the world of Reagan addressing the crowd, but those same advisors knew they had to at least acknowledge the role that pro-life forces played in Reagan's 1980 victory.

....At some point, pro-life groups need to challenge those whose disembodied voices fill their ears every January. This bizarre "telephone hook-up" is, in both the literal and figurative senses of the phrase, lip service to the cause. The loyal pro-life members of the GOP coalition deserve more, to say nothing of the unborn.

As Winters notes, neither George Bush nor any of the leading Republican presidential candidates showed up at this year's march. As usual, they either called or wrote letters, apparently because they're afraid to be photographed alongside the pro-life crowds.

This prompts two questions. First, can anyone think of something similar on the Democratic side, where candidates are conspicuously afraid to be seen participating in a rally put on by some major liberal interest group? For example, are Democratic candidates shy about attending pro-choice rallies?

Second, why do the pro-life forces put up with this? I can understand why they allowed Reagan to get away with it: the whole pro-life movement was still fairly new back then, Reagan was one of their first supporters, and they didn't want to do anything to hurt him politically. But why have they allowed so many presidents and presidential nominees since then to thumb their noses at them this way? They're a serious and well-established part of the GOP coalition, after all. Why allow politicians to get away with being evidently embarrassed to be photographed in their presence? Inquiring minds want to know.

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THE STIMULUS DEAL....Apparently a fiscal stimulus package has been tentatively agreed to by both sides:

Under the deal, nearly everyone earning a paycheck would receive at least $300 from the Internal Revenue Service. Most workers would receive rebates of $600 each, or $1,200 per couple. Families with children would receive an additional payment of $300 per child. Workers who earned at least $3,000 last year — but not enough to pay income taxes — would be eligible for $300.

Rebates would be limited, however, to single taxpayers who earned up to $75,000 or couples with incomes of as much as $150,000.

I guess it could have been worse. Virtually everyone who paid payroll taxes in 2007 will receive $300, and the $150K household cutoff will prevent at least some of the wastage we'd get from giving money to people who are likely to just save it instead of spending it.

(And what's wrong with saving money, you ask? Nothing. That's what we'll do with our rebate, and national savings will thereby increase by $1,200. Hooray! Unfortunately, this is all funded by deficit spending from the feds, and increasing the deficit reduces national savings — in this case by $1,200. Net effect to the economy: pretty close to zero.)

Needless to say, the plan could have been better. The LA Times' summary of the negotiations between Nancy Pelosi (for the Democrats) and John Boehner (for the Republicans) explains why it wasn't:

In the talks, Pelosi pressed to make sure tax relief would find its way into the hands of lower-income earners while Boehner pushed to include upper middle-class couples, according to congressional aides.

....Democrats had pressed to extend unemployment benefits for people whose 26 weeks of benefits have run out, but Republicans resisted.

Etc. Basically, Republicans insisted that all aspects of the plan had to take the form of "income tax rebates," which automatically excludes the poor and favors the well off. It also does a lousy job of stimulating the economy, but who cares about that? Pelosi managed to improve things a bit, but as long as George Bush is in office we still have to make our ritual obeisances to voodoo economics.

Bottom line: I doubt that this plan is going to provide an awful lot of stimulus. But it might do a bit of good, and certainly won't do any harm. In today's world, that counts as a win.

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MORE MUD....The LA Times reports that Barack Obama "hit the wrong button" six times during his voting career in the Illinois senate. Just a case of stumbly fingers? Or something more sinister?

Sadly for whoever planted this story, the Times decided to bury it on page A20. But how long before it migrates to Drudge and Hardball?

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FILIBUSTERING FISA....So after a full year of allowing Republicans to filibuster every bill in sight by merely declaring their intent, Harry Reid has finally decided that he's going to start demanding real filibusters from obstructionist senators. You want to stop a bill, then get out the phone book and start talking, boys and girls.

And who's the unlucky target of this newfound show of backbone? Fellow Democrat Chris Dodd, it turns out. If someone can explain this in words that make sense, I'd sure like to hear it.

Mark Kleiman suggests that Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton, if she's also willing) should make a statement by leaving the campaign trail and returning to Washington to stand together with Dodd on his filibuster of the FISA bill. I wouldn't count on that happening, but it's a good idea. It would be nice to see one or both of them showing a little leadership on this.

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MATCHING UP AGAINST McCAIN....Is Barack Obama incontestably a better candidate than Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup against John McCain? A couple of days ago Jon Chait called my insistence on questioning this conventional wisdom "maddening," and maddening it might well be. But the detailed results of the latest LA Times poll have now been posted, and they show that Hillary is indeed the tougher candidate: she does at least as well as Obama against every leading Republican, and in a hypothetical matchup with McCain she wins by 4 points while Obama loses by a point.

How can this be? Well, it turns out that the vaunted independent voters split right down the middle in both matchups. But Republican voters are more likely to jump ship if Hillary is the Democratic nominee and Democratic voters are more likely to stay on board. And that makes the difference.

For what it's worth, my take is still that these kinds of matchup polls are pretty meaningless this early in the cycle. What's more, there are lots of undecided voters in both matchups, and there's no telling which way they'd jump when they finally entered the voting booth. But that said, what the numbers do show is that Obama is no slam dunk. Maddening or not, there are plenty of reasons that Hillary might be a stronger general election candidate than Obama, and plenty of reasons to think she might run a stronger campaign against Honest John in particular.

UPDATE: Just to make this crystal clear, I'm not arguing that Hillary Clinton is a stronger general election candidate than Obama. There's good evidence in both directions. What I am arguing is that....there's good evidence in both directions. There's a strong thread of conventional wisdom saying that Obama is obviously stronger than Hillary in a general election, and I just don't think it's that obvious. There's more to a general election than just independent voters.

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January 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

KING FOR A DAY....In the latest LA Times poll, Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama nationally 42%-33%. Then there's this:

Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina drew the support of 11% of Democratic respondents. When asked who they would vote for if their first choice dropped out, slightly more Edwards voters leaned toward Clinton than toward Obama, the poll found.

If this is accurate, then it means that all the talk about who would benefit from Edwards dropping out is meaningless. Nobody would.

On the other hand [WARNING! Brokered convention alert!], if Edwards stays in the race and prevents either Clinton or Obama from getting a majority of the delegates, he could be a kingmaker. Or a queenmaker. Who knows? Maybe that appeals to him.

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PUBLIC SPEAKING....After every Democratic debate I always get one or two emails from people asking me if Barack Obama was off his game. The answer is usually no. It's just the way he is. In debates he has a tendency to stutter and stammer a bit and his answers usually aren't as sharp as they could be.

After the last email I got along these lines it occurred to me just how unlucky this is for Obama. And for the rest of us too. Consider.

Obama is frequently outstanding at giving speeches to large crowds. And that's a great skill for a president to have. Unfortunately, very few people, especially outside the early primary states, get to see Obama giving a speech.

He's also really good in small groups, and again, that's a great skill for a president to have since presidents are constantly meeting legislators, foreign leaders, and various interest group brokers in small groups to try to hash out deals. Unfortunately, again, very few people ever get to see Obama in this setting.

And then there are the debates. This is a completely artificial format, one that presidents never engage in, so having slightly mediocre debate skills really doesn't mean a thing. But it's the one format where millions of people see him.

I'm not really going anywhere with this. Just observing that Obama appears to be very good at the things that help a president and not so good at the ones that don't matter. But it's only the latter that we see. That's kind of a drag, isn't it?

UPDATE: As a counterpoint, Ari Melber points out at The Nation that Obama's Sunday address at Ebenezer Baptist Church has been viewed 268,000 times (and counting) on YouTube. I think my general point still stands, but it's certainly true that more people are able to view political speeches today than they were a few years ago.

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOJAZZ....Via Ezra, I learn today that EPI economist Jared Bernstein is also a jazz musician who composed the theme song for EPI's EconoCorner podcast himself. Here's the intro:

Get the facts
Sit back relax
You the man
Where supply meets demand

I've heard of cool jazz and fusion jazz, but what's this? Wonk jazz? Econojazz?

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STIMULUS....Yesterday the Fed announced a stunning 75 bp interest rate cut in advance of its regular meeting. Dramatic! But apparently Wall Street wants more. Here's the third paragraph of today's Washington Post report:

Investors in futures markets are betting there is a strong likelihood that the Fed will cut rates again at its regularly scheduled meeting next week.

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank, apparently, plans to do nothing at all.

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THE NEW HAMPSHIRE RECOUNT....I've been following the New Hampshire recount story with one eye, and Marc Danziger reports today that it's 75% complete. Result: a little less than 1% of the votes have been changed, resulting in a net +25 votes for Hillary Clinton and +10 votes for Barack Obama. There were also several reports shortly after the election suggesting that Hillary did unaccountably better in precincts that used Diebold optical scanners vs. precincts that did hand counting, but so far I haven't seen any evidence that, on average, the optical precincts have turned out to have an error rate any greater than the hand precincts. If that changes, I'll let you know.

Needless to say, none of this would have been a big problem in the first place if states routinely performed spot checks of ballots cast both by machine and by hand. Maybe somebody should ask the leading presidential candidates if they support a federal law to require proper audit trails for all voting machines and independent spot checks after every election. Democracy promotion starts at home, after all.

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CLINTON vs. OBAMA....THE RECORD....In the Guardian today, Elana Schor reports that although Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have almost identical voting records in the Senate, they aren't quite identical. Here's a nickel summary:

  1. Cheney energy bill: Obama for, Clinton against.

  2. Cluster bomb ban: Obama for, Clinton against.

  3. Pat Leahy's refugee amendment: Obama for, Clinton against.

  4. Gun confiscation during emergencies: Obama against, Clinton for.

  5. Confirmation of interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne: Obama for, Clinton against.

  6. Confirmation of Army chief of staff George Casey: Obama for, Clinton against.

  7. Lobbying reform: Obama for, Clinton against.

In terms of supporting conventional liberal policies, I suppose you'd give Clinton the advantage on 1, 4, 5, and 6. Obama gets the nod on 2, 3, and 7. It's pretty thin gruel, though. Aside from the energy bill, their other differences are fairly modest. Still, your mileage may vary depending on which issues matter most to you. Read the whole thing here.

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OBAMA AND REZKO....My morning LA Times features a big front-page story about Barack Obama's relationship with shady Chicago developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko that starts out by telling us that Rezko's upcoming trial "has the potential to undermine Obama's image as a candidate whose ethical standards are distinctly higher than those of his main opponent," and furthermore that Rezko has "played a deeper role in Obama's political and financial biography than the candidate has acknowledged."

Is that true? Maybe, but the LAT piece sure doesn't deliver the goods. Basically, it tells us that Rezko has donated money to Obama over the years and that Rezko's wife bought a parcel of land next door to Obama's house three years ago. Both of these things have been extensively reported before, and although the land deal has a slight whiff to it (Obama told the Chicago Sun-Times a year ago, "I consider this a mistake on my part and I regret it"), it's a political misdemeanor at most and the LAT article uncovers nothing new about it.

So, there's nothing much here. On the other hand, it's useful to read the story to get an idea of the kind of thing that Republicans will throw at Obama if he wins the nomination. It's nowhere near as bad as what they'll throw at Hillary, but they'll certainly do everything they can to make it look as slimy as possible — and next month's trial will probably give them some juicy ammo. It's best to be prepared.

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RE-DE-BAATHIFICATION....Remember that new law the Iraqi parliament passed a couple of weeks ago that supposedly advanced the cause of reconciliation by allowing Sunni ex-Baathists back into the government? Sounds like we shouldn't be counting on huzzahs from the Sunni population any time soon.

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By: Kevin Drum

UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE....Ezra Klein has a very good piece in the American Prospect this month about why Bill Clinton's 1994 healthcare bill failed and why a repeat performance next year might not. I'm not usually very optimistic about the chances of getting a good healthcare bill passed in the near term, and Ezra's piece is the the first I've read in a long time that made me think there might be hope after all. Here's a taste of his argument:

First, the moment is more amenable to reform — in part because the reality has worsened...."My personal index," says Len Nichols, director of the New America Foundation's health policy program, "is the ratio of family premiums to median family income. In 1987, it was 7 percent. Today it's 17 percent. That fundamental dynamic, that health care costs are growing so much faster than economic productivity, means that even though unemployment is so low and the macro-economic indicators are good, there's still intense, acute anxiety."

....Business also seems exhausted by the ceaseless march of health care costs and ready for reform....The Divided We Fail coalition, for instance, not only includes SEIU and AARP, but the Business Roundtable and, more surprisingly, the National Federation of Independent Business, which was militantly anti-reform in 1994....[Senator Ron Wyden's healthcare bill] is cosponsored by six Republicans: Robert Bennett, Judd Gregg, Norm Coleman, Lamar Alexander, Mike Crapo, and Chuck Grassley...."I think we're building the sort of coalition that can break 60 years of paralysis," says Wyden.

There's more, too: Democrats are far more unified than they were in 1994. The healthcare plans on offer from all three presidential candidates are politically much savvier than Clinton's. Unions are on board. And new groups like MoveOn, which didn't even exist a decade ago, are around to help lead the fight as well.

The whole thing is worth a read. It might restore your faith in our ability to get something genuinely worthwhile done next year.

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SO CAL BLUES....I don't want to start harping on every new front-page story about how sucky the economy is — you guys can all read the news as well as I can — but I do live in California and I can hardly avoid getting pretty nervous at stuff like this:

A record 31,676 Californians lost their homes to foreclosure in the three months ended Dec. 31, the third-straight quarter of record-breaking foreclosures, records released today show.

Foreclosures were more than double the level of the worst quarter of the last real estate downturn.

My house lost a quarter of its value in the last real estate downturn here (I bought it for $170K in 1990 and sold it five years later for $130K), so I guess I'm more sensitive than most to this stuff. Still, if this downturn is twice as bad as that one, we're in big trouble here in Southern California. I hope the rest of you guys are doing a little better.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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January 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGS AND THE NARRATIVE....Jay Rosen, complaining yesterday about pervasive horserace campaign coverage from the mainstream media pack, says in passing:

Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score.

Rosen was talking specifically about some of the breathless coverage of Hillaryland prior to the New Hampshire primary, but his verdict is also true more generally, isn't it? Of the three basic types of campaign coverage — horserace/process stories; "outrage of the day" hyperventilating; and actual policy coverage — I'd peg the blogosphere's overall percentages at about 40/50/10. That's probably better than Chris Matthews, but not that much better.

I'm not really complaining here. We are what we are, and in many ways blogs deconstruct what's going on better and more honestly than the mainstream talking heads. Still and all, we've ended up pretty narrative driven ourselves, haven't we?

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By: Kevin Drum

PLUG-IN HYBRIDS....Sure, plug-in hybrids are a bridge technology. But it's an awfully long bridge, so I'm a big fan anyway. Brad Plumer explains why in 500 words or less here. Joseph Romm has the longer version here.

UPDATE: More from Romm here.

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA vs. CLINTON....AGAIN....It's possible — likely, even — that everyone is tired of conversations about whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would be more effective if they win the presidency. That's doubly true since it's essentially unknowable at this point. But without really taking sides on this, I want to tease out one more thing on this subject, since I think it's a key question for liberal voters this year.

First off, a disclaimer: I believe that both candidates are (a) not only electable, but highly likely to win against any Republican opponent, and (b) close enough on policy issues that their differences are far less important than their ability to get things done. I know that not everyone agrees about this, but this is my starting point.

So who would be more effective at moving a progressive agenda forward once they got elected? There are two basic things to think about:

  • The ability to tap into the zeitgeist and sway public opinion in the direction you want it to go. In recent history, think of Ronald Reagan as the best exponent of this style of governing.

  • The ability to manipulate Congress to pass your agenda. Think LBJ as the master of this aspect of the presidency.

So who would do better on these two measures? Obama, obviously, has a tremendous ability to give inspiring speeches. He's far more persuasive than Hillary on this score. On the downside, however, his speeches don't tend to overtly push a progressive agenda as much as Hillary's do.

How would this work out in practice? Hard to say. One possibility is that Obama would get everyone inspired, but not inspired about a specifically progressive agenda. That would be bad. A second possibility, however, is that he'd manage to convince the public that his liberal agenda isn't really "liberal" — a word that's been successfully demonized by the right — but just common sense. So he gets the public support he wants, but he gets it by repositioning liberal ideas not as ideology, but as post-partisan problem solving. That would be good. The question is, will it work? Or is the direct approach more effective?

Congress is a different kettle of fish, and obviously a lot depends on just what kind of majority the new president has to work with. I think everyone's assumption here is that Obama's personal charm and readiness to listen would help him hive off at least a few moderate Republicans to pass his legislative agenda. Hillary, by contrast, is someone who knows how to throw elbows when she needs to, and she'd play a tougher, more conventional form of politics: a bit of hardball here and a bit of logrolling there, a process that might not be pretty but can be effective. And the surprising fact is that she's demonstrated a remarkably strong ability in the Senate to work with Republicans, most of whom generally trust her to keep her word and do what she says she'll do.

So: overt appeals to the public to support a progressive agenda, or a stealth appeal to rebrand progressivism? Personal charm and empathy in small meetings, or a willingness to play old style politics? Which would be more effective?

I'm not sure. I lean toward the Hillary approach because I think the Obama approach only works when there's already a real groundswell of support for significant change (as in the 30s, 60s, and 80s, for example) — and as much as I hate to say it, I just don't see that at the moment. I know the pundit class talks endlessly about the public's hunger for change and its disgust with the politics of polarization, but aside from a nearly unanimous desire to get rid of George Bush it seems to me that the basic partisan divisions we've had for the past three decades are mostly still there. It's sort of like negative campaigning, which still works great no matter how often the public says it's sick of it.

But maybe I'm just blinkered. Maybe there's a stronger hunger for fundamental change than I'm giving the public credit for. I'm ready to be convinced in comments.

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By: Kevin Drum

GRAY DAVIS'S STOCKHOLM SYNDROME....Former California governor Gray Davis, who was taken out to the woodshed and beaten bloody five years ago during our last fiscal crisis, takes to the pages of the LA Times today to make nice with the folks who were doing the beating:

So why is California suddenly faced with a $14-billion budget shortfall? Is it because the governor (or the Legislature) did something terribly wrong?

No, the governor of a nation-size state like California can affect the economy, but only on its margins. The reason this deficit is looming is because no one can repeal the business cycle....Believe me, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't want to close 48 parks, reduce education funding or release prisoners. Like all governors, however, he is required to bring expenditures in line with revenues.

For chrissake. No wonder Davis got so much sand kicked in his face back in 2003.

Look: I'll concede the obvious. California's last budget crisis was partly (though not entirely) the result of a Democratic legislature that refused to rein in spending and a Democratic governor who went along with it. And yes, the business cycle is responsible for a substantial drop in revenue this year, just as it was five years ago.

But absolving Schwarzenegger of blame for our latest budget crisis? Is this some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, or what? When Arnold came into office after demonizing Davis's attempt to be an adult by restoring the vehicle license fee to its 1998 level (it had been temporarily reduced thanks to good economic times during the dotcom boom), he immediately cut the VLF and then issued an enormous bond to make up the resulting shortfall. Today, the combination of the reduced VLF revenue plus payments on the bond is about $7 billion a year. Depending on whose numbers you believe, this accounts for somewhere between two-thirds and 90% of next year's projected deficit.

Are Arnold and the California GOP to blame for this? Who else? Nobody put a gun to their heads and forced them to respond to our last crisis with nothing but a toxic combination of demagoguery and tax-cut jihadism. They did it all on their own. I understand the desire to roll up our sleeves and stop sniping about the past, but let's not actively rewrite history to pretend that our latest crisis "just happened." It didn't. Arnold and his party, despite plenty of warnings from nonpartisan budget analysts about what they were doing, deliberately bequeathed it to us.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE INTEREST....Just a note on interest rates: yesterday evening the Fed reduced the overnight lending rate from 4.25% to 3.5%, a cut of nearly a fifth. However, those are nominal rates. Adjusted for inflation, the rate dropped from about 0.15% to -0.6%. You can't really express that as a percentage cut, but it's pretty significant. For the first time in a while real interest rates are negative — and as near as I can tell, markets around the world barely even paused to notice it. Yuck.

On the other hand, a friend relayed news last night that his relatives in the finance biz "are expecting about a 500+ point drop in the Dow tomorrow and say that anything under 300 should be considered a victory." At noon, the Dow is only down 150 points, so maybe the Fed will be able to declare a moral victory of sorts after all when the day is finally done.

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN UPDATE....Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi of the LA Times report on the latest travails of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Iran watchers sought to make sense Monday of a spat between the conservative speaker of parliament and the country's hard-line president over a budgetary issue that found supreme leader Ali Khamenei issuing a rare but opaque opinion.

....The president had refused to implement a plan to divert $1 billion to buy more natural gas to remedy heating-supply shortages. "The implementation of all bills that follow constitutional channels is mandatory for all branches of the state," the statement read.

....Some saw Khamenei's intervention as a rare public rebuke against Ahmadinejad, who has largely tried to disregard the parliament since he took office in 2005, sometimes implementing rules and dissolving agencies without seeking lawmakers' approval.

Others read the supreme leader's statement as simply an attempt to restore some semblance of balance between a weakened parliament increasingly worried by the government's lack of progress on the economy and a president who tries to rule by fiat, at least on the economy.

Obviously I don't have any special insight into what's really going on here, but I like to highlight the occasional articles in the Western press about Iranian politics. If this kind of thing had happened in the U.S., you'd read and hear a million words from every pundit and cable talker in the country about what it meant and who benefited, but when it comes to Iran we mostly just get stories along the lines of "nuclear bad, Ahmadinejad bad, tensions rising." It's worthwhile to occasionally be reminded that there's as much going on behind the scenes in Iran as there is in any other country.

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SURPRISE!....Hey, guess what? Late last night the Fed announced a "surprise" interest rate cut of 75 bp a week ahead of its regular meeting. And who had the inside scoop days ago? Advantage me!

UPDATE: Please note that past performance is no guarantee of future results etc. etc.

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January 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE THREAD....Oh hell. Marian's new laptop came today, and when she came home we unpacked it and set everything up. So I totally gapped out and forgot that there was a Democratic debate tonight. Apparently I missed a slugfest, too.

For me, though, it's time for dinner. For the rest of you, consider this an open thread to chatter about who did what to whom.

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY'S FALL....As a followup to the news that Rudy's poll numbers are tanking even in his home state of New York, here's a question: what happened? Was it really the Shag Fund story that killed him? It's a little hard to believe that of all things, that was the one that killed him, but his collapse in the polls sure does match up with the initial release of the story. It looks like Judi was his Achilles heel after all.

Equally interesting is that Huckabee's rise in the poll is practically a mirror image of Rudy's fall. Could it be that the Shag Fund was the straw that broke the evangelical back? When the story broke, did all the evangelicals who were supporting Rudy despite his social liberalism finally decide that enough was enough and go scurrying in Huckabee's direction? It sure seems that way.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FED-UP FEMALE....Reader Mary S. emails to echo something that I've heard from more than a few women:

The most important and strangely overlooked development in this primary season so far may be the historic level (in terms both of hard numbers and percentage of the electorate) of women turning out to vote. If that trend persists in the general, none of the Republicans has a chance, including McCain.

What I think may be happening out there is this: you have a new generation of women, with entirely different political experiences, attitudes and needs than the generation before them, just reaching the age (40-60) when a generation really begins to show up at the polls and exercise its fullest political power. And you have a candidate who is uniquely positioned to bring them, in greater numbers than ever before, into the political process.

Remember (or, if you are too young to remember, give some thought to the fact that) it was men (the "angry white male"), much more than women, entering that age group back in the late 70s who ushered in, gave energy to and sustained the Reagan Revolution. In the Boomer generation, which is now coming into its fullest power as the voters of the WWII and Silent generations increasingly depart the scene, the greatest energy and desire for political change and for recognition of their (mostly overlooked and neglected) accomplishments and needs, comes from women. And that is true across all classes and races. This development will bode well for the Democrats, whether the general election candidate is Hillary or not. But, if Hillary Clinton turns out to be the first politician to benefit from this development, it will probably be because, as a woman of that generation, she is just in a better position to hear, see and speak to it, and is less invested in the old (traditionally male) political narratives (in which such a development is close to unimaginable, except, for some (Chris Matthews?), perhaps as nightmare or catastrophe), than the men.

As the angry white men shuffle off the stage, another revolution may be in the works — this one fed by the energy of the "fed up female."

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TAKE A HIKE, MR. MAYOR....Rudy Giuliani now trails John McCain by a stunning 12 points in.....

New York. It was nice knowing you, Rudy.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REPUBLICAN TICKET....Lisa Schiffren is part of the conservative brigade that would rather stay home than vote for John McCain, but she has some advice in case the worst happens:

If either McCain or Romney gets the nomination, as unfortunately seems likely, he must choose the single most conservative running mate he can find, who is sane and articulate. Or else Obama becomes President, with a lot of crossover GOP votes.

Does this make any sense? I understand why conservatives would want a conservative vice president, but they aren't the ones who are going to cross over to vote for Obama. Moderates are. And they'd be more likely to vote for Obama if the Republican ticket features Cheney Jr., wouldn't they? What am I missing here?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE KRUGMAN-OBAMA CAGE MATCH CONTINUES....When Barack Obama's campaign decided to post a bit of oppo trash talking against Paul Krugman on its website, they didn't know what they were getting themselves into. Krugman hasn't let up since, and Matt Yglesias comes to the rescue here. But after performing rhetorical CPR, he adds this:

That said, I'll freely grant that I'm getting a bit tired of defending Obama and his campaign. Stuff like this from Krugman clearly hurts them, but the easiest way to deflect claims that Obama is the more conservative choice would be for Obama to say so himself in a clear and direct way. Given that Clinton is very much running as her husband's wife, it should hardly be impossible to make the case that establishing continuity with the moderate Clinton administration is the moderate choice.

Believe me, I sympathize. But look: Obama has clearly chosen his course, and there's really no way for him to give a wink and a nudge to folks like Matt and me to let us know that he's just kidding about all this kumbaya stuff. After all, it's part of his whole appeal to both independents and moderate conservatives, and his candidacy depends on that. So if you're a liberal in Obama's camp, you just have to cross your fingers and trust him.

Because in the end, this is what it all comes down to. Is Obama kidding or not? Does he really believe that he can enact a progressive agenda by reaching out to Republicans and bridging the red-blue divide, or is he just saying this as a way of shaping public opinion and winning an election? And if he does believe it, is he right?

As a lot of us point out endlessly, both Obama and Hillary Clinton have very similar views on both domestic and foreign policy. Not identical, but pretty close. So really, the key question for progressives ought to be this: Which political style is most likely to advance the cause of progressivism? The soothing, post-partisan Obama style, or the more directly political Clinton style? Can Obama move public opinion in a progressive direction via stealth? Or will the public need something more? I suspect the latter, and it's the reason I continue to have more of a skeptical Krugmanesque attitude toward Obama than an upbeat Yglesias-esque one.

On a related subject, Matt also brings up the electability argument again, suggesting that Obama is more electable than Hillary against an opponent like John McCain because he appeals more to independent voters. And you know what? My gut agrees. But my gut is a well educated, middle class, politically active blogger gut, and that's a pretty small constituency. I'm the classic "wine track" voter of the kind Obama attracts, and I'm also a strong believer that, recent elections to the contrary, the middle is more important than the base in presidential elections.

So this argument appeals to me. Hillary will draw fewer independents than Obama. She'll probably also draw fewer men. And the fever swamp will go absolutely nuts. (Though whether, in the end, that helps or hurts, is hard to say.)

But in the real world, there are lots of other demographic and constituency issues than that. Hillary's strengths are considerable: She'll draw more women than Obama would. She'll draw more Hispanics. Unless things go way off the rails in the next few weeks, she'll draw 90% of the black vote, the same as Obama. She'll appeal more to blue collar workers and union members. She'll draw more of the white vote. She'll appeal more to moderate hawks. She'll be more immune to attacks based on experience.

The electability question — or, more accurately, the coattails question, since I think either candidate can win in November — is worth thinking about. And independents are an important part of it. But they aren't the end of the story, and us white, middle-class, well-educated, wine track technocrats should probably keep that in mind.

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TYLER vs. EZRA....Tyler Cowen muses on human nature:

Let's imagine that we asked a very smart person, but one who disagreed politically with both Ezra [Klein] and me, to pinpoint how Ezra and I differ. I believe that person would see the two of us as having very different blind spots, in both moral and positive terms, but not holding fundamentally different assumptions about human behavior. If Ezra and I chatted about which are the most insightful movies, whether the Washington Wizards should trade Gilbert Arenas, or the best way to get magazine contributors to deliver their essays on time, I don't know how much we would agree....But I'd be surprised if we disagreed any more than I would with the average libertarian, or than he would with the average social democrat.

Of course there is a lesson here, namely that our political views don't stem from our positive views about human nature as much as we might like to think.

But here's the thing: whether the Wizards should trade Agent Zero isn't a moral question. Neither is taste in movies or opinions about how to motivate lazy writers. But aside from a few minor bookkeeping issues, politics at every level from neighborhood associations to the White House is almost exclusively about moral issues — and how we view those moral issues is very much a matter of how we view human nature. Are people mostly responsible for their own fate or are they mostly products of their environment? Do they respond more to carrots or to sticks? Is personal loyalty more or less important than impersonal justice? Do you think other people are likely to take advantage of you if you don't watch them like a hawk? How important is an orderly society? Are we our brothers' keepers?

On those questions, I'd wager that Ezra and Tyler not only disagree, but that their disagreements feed directly into their political views. I recommend that they get together for lunch someday and blog about it.

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By: Kevin Drum

CALIFORNIA GOP SHOOTS SELF IN FOOT....FILM AT 11....California has a semi-open primary. Each party gets to decide whether its primary should be open or closed, and this year the Democratic primary is open while the Republican primary is closed. Democrats are licking their chops at the prospect:

"Republicans have made the serious, perhaps fatal, error of shutting independent voters out of their primary," said Garry South, who was a top advisor to former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "The thing we know about independents is, when they choose to vote in a primary, they tend to stay with that party" in the general election.

Interesting, no? In the presidential race I don't see how this will really make a difference, since even Republicans concede that California and its electoral votes will go Democratic this year regardless. But it might make a difference in one or two congressional close districts, couldn't it? Or at the local level? And certainly in the long term it could alienate even more independents from the GOP and increase Democratic control of the state legislature. The California Republican Party, with its usual genius for snatching defeat from the jaws of whatever it had before, may be letting a dedication to purity consign it to the ash heap of history.

(On the merits, by the way, I think the Republicans are right: if you want to vote in a party's primary, you should belong to the party. But whoever won on the merits?)

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By: Kevin Drum

OVER THE CLIFF....From the Wall Street Journal today:

U.S. Warning Signs Point Toward a Deep Recession

The U.S. has suffered recessions only twice in the past quarter century and both were short and mild. There are good reasons to fear that the looming recession, if it arrives, could be worse.

Housing is in the midst of its worst downturn since at least the 1970s. That has led to a meltdown in the mortgage market....[etc. etc.]

From the New York Times:

Stocks Plunge in Europe and Asia on U.S. Recession Fear

Global stock markets plunged on Monday as fears spread that the turmoil in United States mortgage markets is spreading. Indexes in Europe fell as much as 7 percent after a huge selloff in Asia.

"There's something approaching panic in the market," Holger Schmieding, the chief European economist at Bank of America in London said by telephone.

The ability of the financial industry to panic is truly extraordinary. It's not that they're necessarily wrong, just that as recently as a few weeks ago most of them were arguing that as bad as the subprime debacle was, it was probably relatively contained and would lead to a slowdown at worst. A month later they're jumping out of windows.

So as long as we're at it, here's some more bad news: a quick Nexis search shows that in November there were about 500 references to "recession" each week. In December it was up to over 1,000. So far in January, it's been over 2,000 each week. If you believe in the newspaper theory of predicting recessions, then there's not much question that we're headed straight into one.

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January 20, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FOOTBALL THREAD....Anybody want to chat about their favorite football teams? I'll be cheering on the hated New England Patriots today.

Why? A couple of reasons, I guess. First, like any sensible resident of the Los Angeles area in the post-Rams era, I hate the NFL with a burning passion. Local LA politics might not give us much to be proud of, but it does give us at least one reason to hold our heads high: our steadfast refusal to give an inch to the smarmy blackmailers of the NFL who, to a man, are convinced that every city in the country should shower them with riches for the privilege of hosting one of their teams. The resulting cash, of course, goes to line the pockets of overpaid athletes and fat cat team owners, and if there are any less deserving recipients of public largesse in the galaxy than those two groups, I can't think of them.

So, um, there's that. But if I hate the whole league, why root for the Patriots? Partly because everyone else hates them, and partly because the company I worked for in the 90s bought a small business in Tyngsboro, Massachussetts, in 1996, and I spent lots of time flying back and forth to visit them for the next few years. I liked all the guys in Tyngsboro, and of course they were all Patriots fans, so I figured that I'd start rooting for the Patriots too. Thanks to Georgia Frontiere, after all, I didn't have anyone else to root for.

So that's that. Partly out of loyalty and partly out of spite, I'm a Patriots fan. How about you?

POSTSCRIPT: On the bright side, Georgia (with an assist from Al Davis) is reponsible for the fact that no NFL game is ever blacked out around here. So I guess every cloud has a silver lining.

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TAX REBATES....Bruce Bartlett takes to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to warn us that while a one-shot tax rebate in April might make us all feel good, it won't actually stimulate the economy much because people are unlikely to spend more than a small portion of it. At least, that's what Milton Friedman argued when Gerald Ford tried a tax rebate during the 1974 recession:

[Friedman's] research had led him to conclude that consumer spending was less a function of liquidity than something he called "permanent income." Friedman observed that when workers lost their jobs, they didn't immediately cut back on spending. They borrowed or drew down savings to maintain spending, in the expectation of finding a new job shortly. Conversely, consumers didn't immediately spend windfalls. They kept spending on an even keel until they achieved a promotion at work, or other increase in their long-term income expectations.

....Subsequent studies by MIT economists Franco Modigliani and Charles Steindel, and Alan Blinder of Princeton, showed that Friedman's prediction was correct. The 1975 rebate had very little impact on spending and much less than a permanent tax cut — which would change peoples' concept of their permanent income — of similar magnitude.

The problem, of course, is that we can't cut taxes permanently every time we enter a recession. Pretty soon no taxes would be left — and while that might make Ron Paul happy, the rest of us would probably prefer to keep a functioning government on hand.

But why not try a compromise? Instead of, say, a one-shot rebate of $1,200, why not a monthly rebate against payroll taxes of $100 for 12 months? Add to that a 12-month boost to unemployment compensation, and you'd get a short term increase for everyone who works as well as for those temporarily idled by the recession.

Sure, a permanent increase might be psychologically superior, but knowing that you were going to get a steady stream of money for 12 months might prompt a little more spending confidence than a one-time windfall. Why not give it a try?

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By: Kevin Drum

NEVADA....I see that the latest "controversy" in the Democratic race is over who won the Nevada caucuses. Hillary Clinton won the voting race, 51%-45%, but Obama's folks are trying to claim that what really matters is the national delegate count, which they won 13-12 due to oddities in the way delegates are apportioned.

I say: give it up, folks. Hillary won, and trying to pretend otherwise just makes you look dumb. Nobody's buying it. On to South Carolina.

But I'll add one thing: thanks to New Hampshire, no one is making idiotic pronouncements about any single primary contest being decisive anymore. Hillary's Nevada win is just a Nevada win. Good for her and all that, but it doesn't mean she has the nomination wrapped up, or even that she's really noticeably closer to it. That's progress.

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January 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

A TIME FOR CHOOSING....Anybody feel like predicting results in today's primary contests? It's a mug's game, for sure, but I'll go with Huckabee in South Carolina and Clinton (barely) in Nevada. Considering my track record, this is probably a death knell for both of them, but whatever. Go ahead and show off your predictive powers in comments, with extra points for getting close to the final numbers.

UPDATE: I'm one for two so far! Clinton wins Nevada 51%-45%, a little bit bigger margin than I would have guessed. On to South Carolina.....

UPDATE 2: With 65% of the precincts reporting, McCain is leading Huckabee in South Carolina. Damn. But I won't give up until every last vote has been counted.

However, Fred Thompson is dragging in the cat with 16% of the vote in a state he should have done well in. I predict an early exit for ol Freddy.

FINAL UPDATE: Looks like McCain eked out a win in SC, 33%-30%. Thompson managed a few thousand votes more than Romney, which means he officially gets third place. Will that be enough to fool him into thinking he should soldier on?

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POST-PARTISAN POLITICS...Historian Joseph Ellis has a very peculiar op-ed in today's LA Times. The subject is the criticism Barack Obama has received for his message of bipartisanship:

Central to the critique is the claim that Obama's message flies in the face of U.S. history, that partisanship is, as one critic put it, "the natural condition of politics."....While you can certainly marshal evidence to support this interpretation, very few of the so-called founding fathers (save perhaps Aaron Burr) would agree with it. And the first four presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — would regard it as a perversion of all that they wished the American republic to become.

Now, there's no question that this is true: virtually all of the founders did warn endlessly about the dangers of faction. However, as Ellis himself points out, within a few years all of them were actively engaging in factional politics whether they liked it or not. So what to make of his conclusion?

Let the argument about the viability and practicality of Obama's major message go forward. But as it does, even his critics need to acknowledge that he is not a weird historical aberration. His message has roots in our deepest political traditions. Indeed, it is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation.

Consider it acknowledged. But this sure seems like a backward argument to me. If even the brilliant, farsighted political visionaries who wrote the constitution and founded our country were unable to keep to their nonfactional ways for more than a few months, what does that say about the death grip that partisanship has on human politics? And what, in turn, does that have to say about Obama's apparent belief that he can overcome it?

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January 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Everybody's been feeling very frisky this week, which means plenty of good outdoor pictures for catblogging day. Maybe I'll even do some bonus catblogging tomorrow. Anyway, the weather isn't all that warm here, but it is sunny, and the cats are quite enjoying themselves.

In other news, Marian discovered by chance this morning that Arnie's Manhattan Deli, one of my formerly regular lunch spots, didn't close down after all five years ago. They just moved. Huzzah! So that's where I'm off to for lunch. (Note to real New Yorkers: no, I don't really know how authentic Arnie's is. They have really good seasoned fries, though.)

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By: Kevin Drum

LAS VEGAS....Chris Hayes on the city that's home to 19 of the world's 20 biggest hotels:

This is my second time in Vegas and for whatever reasons, the place has a strong effect on me. There's something powerful about it, depressing at some times, sure, but also just irreducibly human and, also, American in the best and worst sense. I'll have some more substantive thoughts tomorrow....

You can tell a lot about a person by their reaction to Las Vegas. At least, it seems like you should be able to, though I'm not quite sure how to map it. Any ideas?

Speaking for myself, I can't stand the place. Big surprise, huh? It's as artificial as Branson, Missouri, but bigger, seedier, more self-delusive, more dehumanizing, and just plain creepier. I always figured Stephen King was right to make it the center of all evil in The Stand.

On the other hand, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about the funniest book I've ever read. So at least we've gotten something good out of the place.

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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By: Kevin Drum

IDEOLOGY....Via Matt, here's a Pew chart that shows how the various presidential candidates are viewed by the population at large. What's interesting is that Democrats have almost exactly the same view of the Republican candidates as Republican voters do. Republicans, by contrast, have flatly insane views of the Democratic candidates, placing Obama in Dennis Kucinich territory and Hillary Clinton in some kind of socialist hell netherworld.

There are several theories you could advance for this disconnect. Mine is this: conservative voters are still far more afraid of liberals than liberals are of conservatives. And when it comes to Hillary Clinton, they're just nuts. However, there are plenty of other theories that might account for this too. Feel free to have a go at it in comments.

UPDATE: It's worth noting that the last time Pew did something like this (April 2007), the results were quite different. There was still the disconnect between Republican and Democratic views of Democratic candidates, but the average voter was right in the middle, not right of center, and the average Democrat was farther to the left. I'm not sure what the difference in methodology was between the two surveys, but last year's study is worth a look.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PRESS vs. MITT ROMNEY....Is Mitt Romney getting the press treatment usually reserved for Democrats? Ezra Klein investigates.

For myself, I'm not so sure — though certainly the press corps seems to personally dislike Romney in a way that Republicans usually avoid. But the real issue here seems to be the size of the lies that Romney tells. Tell a small lie ("my campaign isn't run by lobbyists") and the press hounds you to the gates of hell. Tell a big lie ("my trillion dollar tax cut will pay for itself") and they yawn. So guess what most candidates do?

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By: Kevin Drum

BOND INSURANCE....Last night I was reading a story in the Wall Street Journal about the travails of "struggling bond insurer" ACA, and although the basic story was one I'd read about before, it got me thinking that I didn't really understand why there was any such thing as bond insurance to begin with. After all, the whole point of rating bonds in the first place is to price the risk of default into the bond itself. I suppose insurance could make sense in a case where a party was buying only one bond and genuinely needed protection against a catastrophic event, but anyone with a portfolio of bonds — investment banks, say — simply wouldn't need it. Their risk would be diversified enough that no single default would be disastrous, and the overall default rate of their portfolio would already be reflected in the prices they paid for the individual bonds.

But the credit default swap market amounts to $45 trillion, according to the Journal. So what gives? I guess this paragraph tells the story:

Investment banks paid ACA annual fees for bearing the risk in their debt securities. This shielded them from the impact of market-price fluctuations, so the banks didn't have to reflect such fluctuations in their earnings reports.

In addition, a low-rated bond insured by an A-rated insurance company suddenly becomes A-rated itself. Wrap all this stuff into CDOs and other structured finance vehicles, and before long everything is A-rated and off the earnings report. Prizes for everyone!

The swap market got so big because lots of people who didn't own any bonds themselves were buying and selling swaps for other people's bonds purely as a form of gambling on interest rates and other derivatives. However, apparently the prime motivation for the ur-swaps was to allow creative CFOs to play games with their balance sheets. Somehow, this stuff always seems to get back to unregulated bright boys in their unregulated back rooms, doesn't it?

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By: Kevin Drum

FORECLOSURE....Fromer Republican HUD secretary Jack Kemp takes to the pages of the LA Times today to tell us that federal bankruptcy law treats businesses better than people:

Bankruptcy law is wildly off-kilter in how it treats homeownership. Under current law, courts can lower unreasonably high interest rates on secured loans, reschedule secured loan payments to make them more affordable and adjust the secured portion of loans down to the fair market value of the underlying property — all secured loans, that is, except those secured by the debtor's home. This gaping loophole threatens the most vulnerable with the loss of their most valuable assets — their homes — and leaves untouched their largest liabilities — their mortgages.

Can't say I'm surprised by this, especially considering the Enron-esque ideology that's been running the country for the past decade. As a fix, Kemp recommends quick passage of the bipartisan Emergency Home Ownership and Mortgage Equity Protection Act, which he estimates might help 600,000 homeowners avoid foreclosure and keep their houses. I don't know if he's recommending this on its own merits or because he's lobbying for someone or other, but either way it sounds like a good idea. The sooner the better.

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January 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PAKISTAN UPDATE....Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters yesterday that U.S. troops might start taking a more active role in Pakistan:

Pakistan is taking a more welcoming view of U.S. suggestions for using American troops to train and advise its own forces in the fight against anti-government extremists, the commander of U.S. forces in that region said Wednesday.

....Although Pakistan has been a close U.S. ally in the war against terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, the extent of U.S. military involvement inside Pakistan is a highly sensitive subject among Pakistanis.

"My sense is there is an increased willingness to address these problems, and we're going to try to help them," Fallon said. He said U.S. assistance would be "more robust," but he offered few details.

This comes via William Arkin, who notes that although no one is talking about U.S. troops operating unilaterally, "there is a sense of urgency here that suggests that very possibility."

I'm not sure what to think of that. And speaking of things I don't quite know what to think of, France has announced its intention to build a major military base in Abu Dhabi. Marc Lynch comments: "Early spin has suggested that this will allow France to better cooperate with the US against Iran, but this seems shortsighted. A long-term French strategic position in the Gulf challenges American exclusivity, and potentially undermines the fundamental architecture of the hegemonic American position in the Gulf." You can offer your own spin on this in comments.

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By: Kevin Drum

WITHDRAWAL....Over at TPM, William Hartung reviews the bidding and concludes that "this week's Democratic presidential debate underscored the fact that none of the party's frontrunners supports a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq any time soon." He recommends reading the timeline put together by the Washington Post's Michael Dobbs to get a good sense of just where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stand on the subject.

Bottom line: although Obama has been consistent in opposing the invasion, he and Hillary have taken pretty similar positions on withdrawal since then. I'd say that's about right, and over the past few months what few disagreements they had have been sanded down even more. I have a very hard time really seeing any daylight between them at this point.

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By: Kevin Drum

POPPY POWER....When they call it a "Sunni Awakening," I guess they aren't kidding: it turns out that opium poppy production is taking off all over Iraq. Details here.

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By: Kevin Drum

ABORTION RATE CONTINUES TO DECLINE....The Guttmacher Institute (full study here) reports that the abortion rate in the United States has continued to go down. At its peak in 1990 it stood at about 27 per thousand women of childbearing age; today it's down to about 19 per thousand.

But why? Is it because there are fewer unwanted pregnancies in the first place, or is it because pregnant women are becoming less likely to get abortions? The study itself doesn't try to draw any conclusions, but the LA Times suggests it's the former:

Abortion rights advocates suggested women may be avoiding unwanted pregnancies, thanks in part to the morning-after pill, emergency contraception that is sold without a prescription to women 18 and older.

Conservatives, by contrast, [focus on] laws in more than 30 states mandating counseling before an abortion.

....Some of the biggest drops in the abortion rate, however, have come in states that do not impose tight restrictions. Oregon, for instance, was rated this week by Americans United for Life as the nation's "least pro-life state," yet its abortion rate dropped 25% from 2000 to 2005 — more than any state except Wyoming.

California also was ranked hostile territory by Americans United for Life, but its abortion rate fell 13%, significantly more than the national average. "Abortion rate" refers to the number of abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age.

Here are the basic numbers: excluding miscarriages, the pregnancy rate among women aged 15-44 has dropped by 13 per thousand since 1990. At the same time, the abortion rate has dropped by 8 per thousand. By itself this isn't conclusive, but it strongly suggests that the reduced abortion rate is mostly due to fewer unwanted pregnancies in the first place. If increased regulation were the prime driver, you'd be more likely to see the pregancy rate staying about the same while abortions drop, and you'd be more likely to see bigger drops in states with more regulation. But that hasn't been the case. So yes: better access to contraception, better education, and better access to the morning after pill seem to have made a difference over time. For anyone who's pro-life but not anti-sex, that ought to be good news.

UPDATE: Megan McArdle suggests that maybe the pregnancy rate has gone down because people are having less sex thanks to fears of AIDS. Maybe. Teen sexual activity decreased during the 90s, and that might account for part of the drop, though not all of it. Increased use of condoms and increased availability of contraception seem like the most likely explanation for the bulk of the drop.

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By: Kevin Drum

BERNANKE SPEAKS....Speaking of Ben Bernanke, note the following from the his congressional testimony today:

A fiscal initiative at this juncture could prove quite counterproductive, if (for example) it provided economic stimulus at the wrong time or compromised fiscal discipline in the longer term....To be useful, a fiscal stimulus package should be implemented quickly and structured so that its effects on aggregate spending are felt as much as possible within the next twelve months or so.

....Any fiscal package should also be efficient, in the sense of maximizing the amount of near-term stimulus per dollar of increased federal expenditure or lost revenue. Finally, any program should be explicitly temporary, both to avoid unwanted stimulus beyond the near-term horizon and, importantly, to preclude an increase in the federal government's structural budget deficit.

This is remarkably clear and direct, especially for those of us used to 18 years of impenetrable Greenspanese. Bernanke is saying, as clearly as he can, that a temporary economic downturn shouldn't be used as a cynical excuse to pass new long-term tax cuts or to make existing tax cuts permanent. Not only would that have no effect on the economy right now, but it would likely make future economic problems even more intractable.

In other words, Bernanke isn't nuts: he thinks tax cuts reduce revenue and make long-term deficits worse. What's more, unlike Alan Greenspan, he has the guts to say so in plain English instead of disingenuously tap dancing around the issue and then pretending later that he had done as much as he possibly could have to endorse fiscal discipline. That's progress.

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC UPDATE....In a story about the fast growing consensus that Congress ought to enact some kind of economic stimulus package, Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon of the LA Times lay out the latest economic indicators:

A stream of unwelcome economic data has added to politicians' sense of urgency. The Labor Department announced Wednesday that consumer prices rose 4.1% last year — the fastest in 17 years — led by soaring gasoline costs and higher prices at the supermarket. Average wages, meantime, recorded a slight drop when adjusted for inflation. Earlier this month, the department reported unemployment had hit 5%, the highest rate in two years.

Now see? That wasn't so hard. When you report wage or spending data, you should correct for inflation. And corrected for inflation, wages were down a bit last year. Other reporters please take note.

In related news, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said today he supported a temporary stimulus package because "fiscal and monetary stimulus together may provide broader support for the economy than monetary policy actions alone." But is that true? With nominal interest rates still above 4%, would a fiscal stimulus package have any effect?

Beats me. But conventional wisdom suggests that fiscal stimulus doesn't have much effect until the Fed has used up all the arrows in its monetary quiver, so Bernanke's comment might suggest that the Fed is planning something fairly spectacular in the near future. The rumor, apparently, is that instead of waiting for its regular meeting and cutting interest rates by 25 or 50 bp, Bernanke will instead call an emergency meeting before the end of the month and announce a whopping rate cut of 75 bp. This, combined with some kind of dramatic congressional action, might keep things from getting worse.

Maybe. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

SLOUCHING TOWARD CAIRO....Here's the latest from Mr. Democracy Promotion:

President Bush, wrapping up a series of visits with Arab leaders who are working to expand their economies but wary of relaxing their grip on power, on Wednesday praised Egypt as making progress toward "greater political openness."

....He said the Egyptian leader had moved his nation toward "economic openness . . . and democratic reform."

Look. I get it. Sometimes the realities of the world prevent you from being as plainspoken as you'd like to be. But this is just embarrassing. I thought we reserved this level of sucking up for countries with lots of oil.

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January 16, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Mike Huckabee, explaining his call to amend the constitution to bring it in line with "God's standards":

I'm not suggesting that we re-write the constitution to reflect tithing or Sunday school attendance. I want to make that very clear.

Imagine my relief.

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By: Kevin Drum

RON PAUL'S RACIST SWILL....I haven't blogged before about James Kirchick's piece in the New Republic that blew the whistle on the years worth of racist swill that was published in the Ron Paul Political Report during the early 90s, but to make a long story short, it turns out that during the early 90s the Ron Paul Political Report published years worth of racist swill.

Over at Reason today, Julian Sanchez and David Weigel do some further investigating that puts several more nails in the coffin and come to this conclusion:

Ron Paul may not be a racist, but he became complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists — and taking "moral responsibility" for that now means more than just uttering the phrase. It means openly grappling with his own past — acknowledging who said what, and why. Otherwise he risks damaging not only his own reputation, but that of the philosophy to which he has committed his life.

Question: what's the difference between a "racist" and someone who was "complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists"? Nothing, as far as I can tell, except that at least the former is bit more honest about things.

So as damning as everyone thinks this stuff is, I think it's even more damning than that. We're not children here, after all. It's plain that Paul knew what was being published in his newsletters. It's plain that he was familiar with the well-developed strategy that inspired the early-90s turn to racist demagoguery. It's plain that he knew it was a key part of his fundraising appeal. Paul can weasel all he wants, but it's plain that he endorsed a strategy of overt appeals to racist sentiment in order to build support for his political career. If he's given all that up since then, it's only because he no longer needs it.

This whole affair highlights one of the reasons that I wish everyone would stop swooning over minor candidates who play the part of bold truthteller. When you have no chance of winning and therefore nothing to risk, it's cheap and easy to stick to your guns. But as Ron Paul has shown, back when it actually mattered he was willing to do whatever he needed to raise money and rekindle his political career. I don't doubt that he'd do it again if anything serious were on the line.

POSTSCRIPT: This is also why adults should stop taking fruitcakes seriously. A guy who's a loopy conspiracy theorist today was probably a loopy conspiracy theorist yesterday, just with different conspiracies. It's only a matter of digging them up.

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By: Kevin Drum

RETIREES AND THE FAIRTAX....Matt Yglesias reprints a chart showing that Mike Huckabee's 30% national sales tax would be good for the rich and bad for the middle class, and then adds this:

Of course, the elderly in particular get hammered here which I assume makes this a non-starters in real world politics.

A big national sales tax is such a loopy idea that I feel like my IQ drops every time I even acknowledge it as something worth discussing. Still, like it or not, the idea is out there and it's worth unpacking Matt's comment a bit just to demonstrate one of the nonobvious ways in which this really, truly is a complete political nonstarter.

The issue isn't so much Social Security benefits, which are currently tax-free for nearly all retirees but would end up being subject to a sales tax. The "prebate" feature of the FairTax proposal would, in theory, take care of most of that. Rather, it's retirement savings, which would end up getting taxed twice. Say you earn $1000 at age 64, pay taxes on it, and then stick the remaining $800 in the bank. The next year you turn 65. Under current law, that retirement money is yours free and clear because you've already paid taxes on it. But if a sales tax is suddenly legislated into existence, that $800 isn't worth $800. It's only worth about $600. Surprise! All that money you've saved for retirement is suddenly worth a whole lot less than you thought it was. Better not plan on taking any of those Caribbean cruises you've been dreaming about.

This is, of course, patently unfair. And you may rest assured that AARP is well aware of all this. It's hardly the only reason a 30% sales tax is loopy (see here for more), but it's one that most people don't figure out until you tell them. People in their 50s who are carefully totting up their retirement savings might be a little less enthusiastic about Mike Huckabee if they knew this.

UPDATE: Megan McArdle says that this problem with the FairTax is only "transitionally true." Yes, of course. I've slightly modified the post to make that clearer. The transition period, however, is 30 or 40 years long, and, contra Megan, there's really no good way to fix it. It's patently unfair to anyone nearing retirement, and clearly a political killer.

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S CHANCES....As Josh Marshall points out, John McCain got stomped in Michigan among self-described Republicans. He also got stomped among Republicans in Iowa, and even lost (though closely) among Republicans in New Hampshire. Independents might like him, but basically, John McCain just isn't doing well among Republicans in the Republican primary.

Elsewhere, Ezra Klein highlights Rush Limbaugh's spittle-flecked hatred of both McCain and Mike Huckabee: "I'm here to tell you, if either of these two guys get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party." Ouch.

Put those things together with the fact that future primaries are mostly closed, which means that only Republicans will be voting in the Republican contests, and McCain's chances suddenly don't look so good. Ditto for Huckabee, who's shown very little ability to appeal much beyond his evangelical base. And ditto for Rudy Giuliani, who might very well be dead before Super Tuesday even rolls around.

Somehow, every time I go through this exercise, the only possible winner seems like Mitt Romney, even though his national support levels don't look so hot. On the other hand, Romney not only won Michigan last night, but he beat everyone else, including Huckabee, among evangelicals. That seems promising for the Romney cause.

But I'm still rooting for a brokered convention. Hooray for smoke-filled GOP rooms!

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By: Kevin Drum

AFGHANISTAN....Relations between U.S. and European forces in Afghanistan have been tense for a while (see the Washington Post story I flagged yesterday for a rundown). The nickel version is that things aren't going well in the European-run south and American commanders blame it on poor performance from the EU folks. For their part, the Europeans say that Americans screwed things up in the south and then turned it over to them so they could concentrate on the less violent eastern part of the country. A year later, the Europeans are still trying to pick up the pieces there, are dying in higher numbers than Americans, and basically think the U.S. should put a sock in it.

At least, that's what everybody says is going on, but so far the squabbling has always been anonymous and behind the scenes. But not anymore:

In an unusual public criticism, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he believes NATO forces currently deployed in southern Afghanistan do not know how to combat a guerrilla insurgency, a deficiency that could be contributing to the rising violence in the fight against the Taliban.

....Gates has publicly criticized European allies in the past for failing to send adequate numbers of troops and helicopters to the Afghan mission. But concerns about strategy and tactics are usually contained within military and diplomatic channels.

In the interview, Gates compared the troubled experience of the NATO forces in the south — primarily troops from the closest U.S. allies, Britain and Canada, as well as the Netherlands — with progress made by American troops in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

...."Our guys in the east, under Gen. Rodriguez, are doing a terrific job. They've got the [counterinsurgency] thing down pat," Gates said. "But I think our allies over there, this is not something they have any experience with."

Not sure who's really in the right here, but I thought it was interesting that the spat has now become public. I wonder if any Europeans will respond in public?

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (150)

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By: Rachel Morris

LEAVING....Tom Ricks has a great, if depressing, story today in the Washington Post about Lt. Col. John Nagl — former Rhodes Scholar, co-author of the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, a Gulf War platoon leader and all-around rising star — who has just left the Army to join a new national security think tank. Why is he leaving? "It's not the strain of repeated deployments," he said, but "a belief that I can contribute perhaps on a different level — and my family wants me to leave."

Nagl is a significant loss for the Army, but he's far from the only one, as Andrew Tilghman points out in our cover story this month. Young, talented officers are leaving the Army at their highest rates in years — and the reasons are more complicated than you might expect. Read the whole story here.

Rachel Morris 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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By: Kevin Drum

"THE UNBEARABLE INANITY OF TIM RUSSERT"....Matt Yglesias comments on one of Tim Russert's questions during Tuesday night's debate:

Did Tim Russert really just ask if John Edwards speaking to Musharraf after the Bhutto assassination was part of an effort to give Musharraf "cover" of some kind? I believe he did. It would have been pretty sweet if Edwards had broken down Perry Mason-style and 'fessed up to the fact that he and Pervez conspired to kill her. But no dice. Alternatively, Edwards could have gone with the old "Tim, you've asked a lot of dumb questions in your day, but this really takes the cake."

This was vintage Russert: asking a juvenile gotcha question instead of something genuinely tough. In "The Unbearable Inanity of Tim Russert," in our January issue, Matt describes the vicious circle that this style produces:

Viewers watch a candidate getting grilled by Russert not to assess the candidate's views but to assess his or her ability to withstand the grilling. And, when this sort of toughness and sparring becomes its own reward, the vacuity of the questioning is almost guaranteed. After all, if you asked a politician a serious, important question and got a perfectly good answer, then maybe, for a moment, you couldn't be tough. Instead, Russert relies on his crutch of confronting politicians with allegedly contradictory statements they've made — to highly monotonous effect.

Read the whole thing here.

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January 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE LIVEBLOGGING....And we're off. It's our first Kucinich-less debate.

Wrapup: I didn't really notice the alleged tiredness of Obama and Clinton, but I'll defer on that to better body language readers than me. On substance, I don't think there were any pivotal moments in the debate, but if I had to pick one exchange that stood out it was Hillary's request to Obama to cosponsor her legislation preventing Bush from making unilateral treaties with Iraq. That really helped her on several different levels.

Other observations: all the candidates have obviously decided that they want to dial way back on the race/gender stuff. Good. Also: the policy distinctions between the candidates, which were pretty small to begin with, are shrinking even more. They really hardly disagree on anything.

10:57 — Andrew Sullivan: "Both Clinton and Obama look exhausted." Chris Hayes: "I think I saw Obama and Clinton both start to nod off at one point." But Edwards is his usual chipper self!

10:35 — More Michigan news: Romney beat Huckabee among evangelicals. Interesting. Overall, though, it's surprising how little difference there is in the vote between various demographic groups on the Republican side. One big difference: voters who like the Bush administration went strongly for Romney, while those who are angry with Bush went strongly for McCain.

10:31 — According to the Michigan exit polls, Democrats who voted in the Republican primary mostly voted for McCain. I guess Kos's effort to goose the vote for Romney didn't work. Oh well.

10:24 — Obama voted for the 2005 energy bill? I didn't know that. Hillary calls it the "Dick Cheney lobbyist energy bill," which is just about right. Hillary wins this one on points.

10:22 — Now everyone is agreeing that Yucca Mountain is the worst idea since New Coke. Yawn.

10:18 — Exactly zero difference between the candidates on whether college campuses should be required to allow military recruiting. Surprisingly, everyone is in favor of treating our young men and women in the military with the utmost respect.

10:08 — Edwards is now trying to insist that keeping a strike force in Kuwait is far different than keeping a strike force in Iraq. Obama calls it a distinction without a difference. I wouldn't go quite that far, but there's really not much daylight between the candidates anymore on the issue of withdrawal from Iraq.

10:02 — Hillary's question for Obama: Will he cosponsor my legislation that requires President Bush to get congressional approval for any long-term agreement with Iraq? This is pretty clever, no? It establishes good anti-war cred for Hillary, places her squarely in the "working together" camp, puts Obama in the position of being her junior partner, and threw Obama off his stride for a few moments.

9:51 — Everybody agrees that the bankruptcy law was a bad idea. Glad we got that cleared up.

9:50 — On a purely aesthetic note, Hillary could really stand to turn down the volume a notch.

9:39 — Back from the break. Finally, we're done with the attempt to spark a catfight. I hope.

9:29 — Greatest strength and greatest weakness? Obviously "greatest weakness" will be completely bogus, but "greatest strength," while also bogus, at least tells us what image each candidate wants to project. And I have to say, I'm in awe of just how closely all three of them confirmed their own stereotypes. Obama: The ability to bring people together. Edwards: Fighting for children and families. Clinton: You have to be able to manage and run the bureacracy.

9:25 — More news from Michigan: Hillary Clinton has handily beaten "Uncommitted." And all without running any negative ads.

9:23 — Jeebus. Russert and Williams are just hellbent on trying to get the candidates to bash the others. Give it up, guys. They've decided to dial it down tonight.

9:22 — Some kind of disturbance in the background? What did the heckler say?

9:20 — More kumbaya. Yawn. Can we get some real questions, please?

9:14 — Tim Russert doesn't want peace. He's going to keep asking about race despite the fact that every one of the candidates obviously isn't going take the bait.

9:10 — No shilly-shallying in Michigan. With 11% of the precincts reporting, Mitt Romney is the winner already. That's three Republican winners in three primaries. Long may the bloodletting continue.

9:06 — Hillary wants to make peace with Obama. Obama wants to make peace with Hillary. Edwards too! Hooray for Democrats!

Kevin Drum 9:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

HYPING HORMUZ....Last weekend's incident in the Strait of Hormuz, it turns out, was actually pretty routine, according to Gareth Porter:

A Pentagon consultant who asked not to be identified told IPS that he had spoken with officers who had experienced similar encounters with small Iranian boats throughout the 1990s, and that such incidents are "just not a major threat to the U.S. Navy by any stretch of the imagination".

Just two weeks earlier, on Dec. 19, the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious warship, had fired warning shots after a small Iranian boat allegedly approached it at high speed. But that incident had gone without public notice.

So what happened? How and why did this morph into a grave threat to national security? Porter's take is here.

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By: Kevin Drum

COUNTERPROGRAMMING?....So whose idea was it to have a Democratic debate that starts at the precise moment that returns start coming in from the Michigan primary? Sure, sure, it's a Republican primary, but still. Which channel should I be watching tonight?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE B-FILES....What's really going with Britney Spears? I know you want to know. John Rogers has the scoop here.

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By: Kevin Drum

ANYBODY UP FOR MATTHEW 6:1?....Mike Huckabee wants to amend the constitution to bring it in line with "God's standards." And not a moment too soon, I say. What were those Godless heathens who founded this country thinking, anyway?

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT WILL EDWARDS DO?....Via Tom Schaller, Dick Morris argues that John Edwards ought to withdraw from the Democratic race:

He manifestly can no longer win — but he helps Hillary Clinton if he stays in the race and boosts Barack Obama if he pulls out.

....Edwards divides the anti-Clinton vote — and so undermines the prospects for the changes that he so passionately demands in our government....Polling shows that the second choice of Edwards' followers is overwhelmingly Obama.

This sounds absolutely right to me. At least it did sound right until a few days ago. Then I saw a couple of polling results that gave me pause.

First was the Iowa entrance polls, which showed that Edwards did best among self-described conservatives. That's very odd since Edwards is the most progressive candidate in the race, and it suggests that a fair number of his supporters are voting their demographic, not their ideology. (No surprise there.) If that's the case, then Edwards' populist, working class supporters are more likely to switch to Hillary than to Obama.

Second, there were the results from New Hampshire, where it looks as if a part of Hillary's unexpected surge came from Edwards voters. (Not a big part, but a part.)

Third, there's Gallup's latest poll, which shows Obama's support unchanged from a week earlier, while Hillary is up and Edwards is down. This is too crude to draw any firm conclusions from, but it sure looks as if the 7% of voters who abandoned Edwards all went into the Clinton camp.

None of this is conclusive. And it certainly matters whether Edwards withdraws quietly a month from now vs. withdrawing in the near future and actively throwing his support to Obama. But I've been assuming all along that because Edwards was the most progressive major candidate running, that meant his supporters would likely move toward Obama if he withdrew. Now I'm not so sure. Edwards supporters who are voting for "change" might well swing toward Obama, but Edwards voters who are voting their demographic — older, whiter, more blue collar — are likely to swing toward Hillary. And it's possible there are more of the latter than the former. Just sayin'.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From an unnamed British civil servant, explaining the the "erection theory of British foreign policy":

If you fly into Camp David on a helicopter, it's instant arousal. But if you have to go to a European summit in Brussels, it's so depressing you're impotent for a week.

Via Dan Drezner.

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By: Kevin Drum

CAR UPDATE....I know everyone is dying to know what happened last night, so here's the answer: turns out I had a dead battery. How banal. Apparently the car's onboard computer goes into bozo mode when the juice is low, which accounts for the peculiar behavior. A new battery is being installed as we speak, and in the meantime I'm now back at the computer and ready to blog. Anything going on today?

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBETROTTING....The newspapers are just a great big bundle of foreign policy cheer today. First up, Iraq:

The Iraqi defense minister said Monday that his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq's borders from external threat until at least 2018.

Oh, goody. Next, Afghanistan:

After more than six years of coalition warfare in Afghanistan, NATO is a bundle of frayed nerves and tension over nearly every aspect of the conflict, including troop levels and missions, reconstruction, anti-narcotics efforts, and even counterinsurgency strategy. Stress has grown along with casualties, domestic pressures and a sense that the war is not improving, according to a wide range of senior U.S. and NATO-member officials who agreed to discuss sensitive alliance issues on the condition of anonymity.

And finally, the world's most dangerous country:

Pakistan's premier military intelligence agency has lost control of some of the networks of Pakistani militants it has nurtured since the 1980s, and is now suffering the violent blowback of that policy, two former senior intelligence officials and other officials close to the agency say.

So how are things going in your neck of the woods these day?

Kevin Drum 1:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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January 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RETURN TO SANITY?....Barack Obama on race and gender issues in the campaign:

I think that I may disagree with Senator Clinton or Senator Edwards on how to get there, but we share the same goals. We're all Democrats. We all believe in civil rights. We all believe in equal rights. We all believe that regardless of race or gender that people should have equal opportunities....I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think they care about the African-American community and that they care about all Americans and they want to see equal rights and justice in this country.

Hillary Clinton:

Our party has been on the front line of every civil rights movement, women's rights movement, workers' rights movement, and other movements for justice in America. We differ on a lot of things. And it is critical to have the right kind of discussion on where we stand. But when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes — President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King — Senator Obama and I are on the same side.

Good. Maybe this will put a stop to the ugliness. We'll see. But as long as I'm on the subject, can I ask what the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny was thinking when he wrote this?

News conferences are a rarity for Mr. Obama. The last formal one — with chairs for reporters and a flag backdrop for him — was a month ago in Iowa. It was not immediately clear why he called one today, except to be seen as taking the high road heading into a key debate in Nevada on Tuesday with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards.

Excuse me? I lean toward the cynical side myself, but can Zeleny really conceive of no other reason for Obama to call a news conference on this subject except as a purely political gambit? Crikey.

Kevin Drum 8:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

CAR CONVULSIONS....I went out a couple of hours ago to buy some groceries and put gas in my car, and when I tried to start up the car after filling it up it went into convulsions. The windows went up and down, the blinkers went on and off, the dome light flashed, and engine itself did — nothing. Bummer. I don't know if this is just what my car does when the battery goes dead, or if it's something more serious. Probably the latter, right?

Anyway, I bought my groceries and then walked home, so here I am. Tomorrow I'll call AAA and have the car towed down to the dealer to get the bad news. I can't wait.

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By: Kevin Drum

RACE BAITING....I got an email on Saturday from a regular reader asking why I hadn't said more about the controversy over all the racially-charged anti-Obama remarks coming out of the Hillary Clinton campaign. I told him that, actually, I had written more, but I hadn't been happy with what I wrote and ended up deleting a couple of posts on the subject before I published them. Then, since I needed to leave the house around noon on Friday but didn't want to ignore the subject entirely, I gathered up some of the offending quotes (plus one extra one) and opened up the floor to comments.

I didn't have time over the weekend to write more about this, but now I do. So what do I think? For the most part, it strikes me that each of the individual offenses has been blown out of proportion. Steve Benen runs down all of the remarks here, scoring them on a "Willie Horton" scale, and aside from the second and third quotes on his list, where I think he was too harsh, I mostly agree with his assessment.

But as I told my correspondent on Saturday, "it's unquestionably a helluva coincidence that they all popped up at once." And that was before Sunday's odious (and non-disavowed) attack from BET Founder Robert Johnson. Ezra Klein elaborates:

It's hard to imagine this many sophisticated, liberal political operators making this many mistakes, of this type. Not saying it's impossible, merely hard to imagine. And so it's worth wondering if there's not a coordinated strategy among the Clintons to force a conversation over race. Not a conversation that will be harmful to Obama — the Clintons have, after all, had to spend a fair amount of time apologizing, and clarifying — but a conversation that will be harmful to his message. If Obama has to spend a lot of time talking about race, it's hard for him to be the post-racial candidate. If he has to spend a lot of time on divisive topics, it's hard for him to make an appeal for unity. And if he gets thrown off message at this point in the campaign, it will be exceedingly hard for him to blunt Clinton's momentum. And, whether it's a coordinated strategy on the part of the Clintons or not, it's definitely what's happening.

Yeah, it's worth wondering, all right. And the "coincidence" theory is looking pretty ragged. All I can say is: from where I sit this looks both deliberate and revolting. Another few days of comments like the ones we've seen over the past week and my mind will be firmly made up about who to vote for. And it won't be Hillary.

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By: Kevin Drum

ROMNEY IN MICHIGAN....Kos is still pushing Democrats to cross over and vote for Mitt Romney in Tuesday's Michigan primary and Matt Yglesias remarks that "cynicism aside, it really does seem to me that Romney would be a less dangerous president than Mike Huckabee or John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Voting for Romney in a primary is win-win."

Is that true? That's the way I see things too, but the other day I ran into Hugh Hewitt at our local Ruby's and it got me to wondering. Hugh is a smart guy and a consummate Republican Party apparatchik, and he supports Romney. I don't remember all the specific details of why he prefers Romney, but just in general he obviously thinks that Romney is the most reliably conservative candidate in the GOP field. I, on the other hand, also support Romney, but I support him because I think he's just pandering to the base right now and, in fact, is the most reliably centrist and technocratic of the Republicans currently running. If you put a gun to my head and forced me choose one of the Republican candidates to be president — well, I'd probably just go ahead and shoot myself. But if I didn't shoot myself after all, I'd go with Romney.

So what I'm wondering here is, who's getting suckered, me or Hugh? Would Romney really be worse than, say, McCain or Giuliani from a liberal perspective? That's hard to believe, frankly. But that's what Hugh Hewitt thinks, and his fealty to the conservative cause isn't really open to question. So who's right?

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By: Kevin Drum

RECONCILIATION WATCH....Ever since we embraced the Anbar Awakening a year ago, the Army has been busily forming Sunni police forces called Concerned Local Citizens. The Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki hasn't had much choice but to go along, but at the same time they've resisted taking over the CLCs from the Americans and incorporating them into the Iraqi security forces. Today, the LA Times reports that U.S. commanders, who believe that time is running out, are starting to push Maliki harder and more publicly to change his stance:

The day-to-day commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, believes that the Iraqi government's reconciliation with onetime Sunni fighters represents the "primary driver of enhanced security" over the next six months, according to internal military planning documents seen by The Times.

...."We've got a lull at the moment, an absolute lull in violence, but it could go anywhere next year, depending on how the current government reacts to it," Odierno's aide said. "One of our biggest risks are CLCs and which way they'll go."

The aide, like other U.S. officials, warned that the window of opportunity is narrow...."If [the Maliki government] doesn't embrace it, you could have the different Sunni Awakenings coming together as a Sunni army that tries to overthrow the government, pushing the country into civil war," the aide said. "It's possible."

This is not the first time that an Odierno aide has publicly suggested that Maliki better get on the stick with the CLCs or else the Sunnis will overrun him. (Maybe it was the same aide both times. No telling.) Three weeks ago Maliki's defense minister rejected the idea pretty explicitly, so apparently Odierno has decided to give the idea yet another public airing. However, if this weekend's sham de-Baathification law is anything to go by, Maliki and his allies have no intention of giving ground on this.

In other news, Juan Cole reports that an ad-hoc assembly of Sunnis, Shiites, and Turkmen are pressuring Maliki to prevent Kirkuk from being absorbed into Kurdistan and to halt the formation of a Shiite regional confederacy in the South. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: I didn't explicitly say what I think is going on here, so allow me to revise and extend. Odierno obviously believes that political reconciliation is crucial in Iraq, and just as obviously knows that Maliki isn't going to do anything serious on that front without a serious kick in the ass. Working behind the scenes apparently hasn't accomplished much, so he's now taken to making public threats (via his aides) to try to scare Maliki into action: Work with the Sunnis or else there's a good chance they're going to declare war and there won't be much we can do to stop it.

Odierno isn't reveling in doom and gloom, he's trying to force Maliki into action. And the reporters who pass this stuff along are helping him out.

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By: Kevin Drum

KRISTOL, WEEK 2....This week, in an apparent effort to make phoning it in look good, freshman New York Times columnist Bill Kristol tells us that the surge is teh awesome. Now that's fresh copy. I guess I was dead wrong about Kristol being a safe, predictable, boring choice for the Times op-ed page.

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January 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CLINTON vs. McCAIN, ROUND 2....The other day I suggested that in a general election Hillary Clinton would probably do as well against John McCain as Barack Obama would. Basically, I figured that although Obama might do better at snagging independents than Clinton, Clinton might do better at winning the votes of women. What's more, McCain would play the experience card against Obama big time, but wouldn't have as much luck playing it against Clinton.

Which all sounds great, but what about those polls showing that Obama outperforms Clinton in a head-to-head matchup against McCain? Basically, my position on Wednesday was that these polls are meaningless this far ahead of the election. However, there's a new poll out that backs me up and gives Hillary a slight lead over Obama in a matchup against McCain, so naturally I'm reevaluating my position. Polls that suggest I'm right can't be completely meaningless, can they?

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By: Kevin Drum

CASUS BELLI?....Over at Newshoggers, Cernig has the full video of last week's incident in the Strait of Hormuz. Bottom line: he's not impressed.

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By: Kevin Drum

BREAKING OUT....From Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings:

Not news: Prisoner breaks out of jail, later caught.

News: Prisoner makes second escape attempt.

Blogworthy: He's suing the jail because he hurt himself during the second escape attempt, and he thinks they should have made it harder for him to escape his cell and reach the roof, from which he fell while trying to climb down a makeshift ladder.

Now, don't get me wrong. This is plainly a frivolous lawsuit and should be condemned by all right thinking people. But Jesus. Click the link and read the story. You have to admit, the guy's got a point.

Kevin Drum 6:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIVE CONSERVATIVE MYTHS....You might choose others, but here's my list:

  1. A 30% national sales tax is a workable substitute for all income and payroll taxes in the United States.

  2. Global warming is not primarily caused by human activity. In fact, global warming might not even exist.

  3. Intelligent design is a viable scientific theory that ought to be taught in biology classes.

  4. Even with marginal tax rates at current levels, reducing taxes will increase revenues.

  5. Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.

I would like to compile a similar list for liberals/Democrats. Items should be (a) reasonably consequential; (b) held by a nontrivial cross-section of actual politicians, think-tankers, and pundits, not just by a small lunatic fringe; and (c) not mere differences of opinion ("abortion is murder," "preventive war is bad"), but things that are demonstrably false. Leave your nominations in comments.

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL PROGRESS UPDATE....Today saw the first concrete sign of political reconciliation in Iraq: the passage of a law that eases the anti-Baathist order put in place by Jerry Bremer at the beginning of the American occupation in 2003. In theory, the new law should allow thousands of Sunni ex-members of Saddam's civil service to once again serve in government jobs.

Whether it works out that way remains to be seen. The Washington Post quotes Ali al-Lami, spokesman for the current de-Baathification commission, saying that the law will have just the opposite effect, making it easier to get rid of even more Sunnis:

The new measure could lead to a new purge of members of the current Iraqi government, Lami said, including about 7,000 officers in the Interior Ministry. Even influential Iraqi security force officials who used to be Baathists could face removal.

"The commander of the Baghdad security plan and his assistants, according to the new law, they should retire," he said.

The New York Times provides an even bigger estimate:

One Shiite politician, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said the new law could forcibly retire up to 27,000 former Baathists, who would receive pensions.

On the other hand, the Times quotes other officials suggesting that the law would allow 13,000 to 31,000 former Baathists to regain their jobs. So who knows? Whether reconciliation is really in the offing depends on just how the law is enforced and who does the enforcing. Wait and see.

UPDATE: As Juan Cole points out, there's another reason to be dubious about this new law. It's the Sadrists who were originally opposed to easing de-Baathification and the Sunni parties who were for it, but when the final draft of the legislation got to parliament, the Sadrists voted for the law and the Sunnis didn't. That's a little hard to square with the law being a genuine attempt at reconciliation with the Sunnis.

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January 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ROUND 2....Susie Madrak watches TV so you don't have to:

See, I didn't believe any of those people who accused Clinton of crying on purpose — but I just saw her do it again, while talking to some 65-year-old lady in Reno who was losing her home. Wiped her eyes, got the little catch in her throat....

Stop it, Hillary. Just stop it. Are you trying to convince every talking head in America that you're really the windup robot of their fever dreams?

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By: Kevin Drum

HARD TO GET....Meghan Daum takes a crack at figuring out what Hillary Clinton's real problem is:

For a lot of people, Hillary Clinton just wants this too badly. Her Achilles heel is not that she cries (or doesn't) from disappointment, but that she is visibly salivating from hunger. That may be OK for male candidates, whose appetites tend to be selling points. But if there's anything that's drilled into women's heads before we're old enough to even ask for something, it's the importance of playing hard to get, of pretending we don't want anything at all.

....As difficult as it to say out loud (which is why you haven't heard it), Clinton's aching need for the presidency is freaking voters out....What we want from Clinton is the impossible. We want her to pursue the nomination without looking like a pursuer.


Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (176)

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January 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....The truth is, I still haven't spent a lot of quality time with the new camera. I owe you better. But here's this week's catblogging anyway. On the left, both critters are waiting patiently next to the food bowls. They do this every night when we start making dinner noises, in the apparent belief that if they sit and stare at the empty spot on the floor, food will magically appear. Oddly enough, they seem to be correct.

On the right, Inkblot celebrates Marian's birthday by striking his usual majestic pose in a box that her sister sent earlier this week. Everybody's a winner when someone has a birthday in this house!

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By: Kevin Drum

CODE WORDS?....Some fragments from the past couple of days: "shuck and jive," "kid," "pickup basketball at Harvard," "Lynch him in a back alley," "It took a president to get it done."

Question: Are subtle racial appeals on the rise in the past week? Or are we creating news where nothing exists? Please keep the conversation civil.

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By: Kevin Drum

THREE DAYS....It's now been three days since every political analyst in the country ate a great big serving of humble pie and swore never again to obsess over poll results. Is that long enough? Can we all go back to obsessing over poll results now?

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By: Kevin Drum

TALKING....Walter Russell Mead on why the "incident" in the Strait of Hormuz this Sunday between three U.S. naval vessels and five Iranian speedboats is important:

From the 18th century to the present day, threats to American ships and maritime commerce have been the way most U.S. wars start. The pattern began early. Attacks by the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean led President Thomas Jefferson to send the U.S. Navy thousands of miles on a risky expedition to suppress the threat to American merchant ships in 1801....The widespread (though probably erroneous) U.S. belief that the USS Maine had been destroyed by a Spanish mine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, forced a reluctant President William McKinley to launch the Spanish-American War in 1898....The Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964 (alleged attacks on U.S. ships by North Vietnamese boats) led Congress to authorize President Lyndon Johnson's use of force in Indochina.

As we learn more about the Iranian incident, Tonkin Gulf is looking like a pretty apt analogy. The American videotape was spliced together, the threatening voices probably didn't come from the speedboats, and there's no sign that any "boxes" were dropped in the water. On the Iranian side, their competing videotape is simply a complete fabrication, taken earlier in the morning and having nothing to do with the incident. So in the end, as Fred Kaplan concludes in Slate, nobody knows what was really going on, who authorized it, or how close we came to getting sucked into a shooting war:

And yet, as Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told the Boston Globe's Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman on Monday, the U.S. commanders have no systematic way to halt a conflict if it begins to spiral. "I do not have a direct link with my counterpart in the Iranian Navy," he said. "I do not have a way to communicate directly with the Iranian Navy or [Revolutionary] Guard."

Through the darkest days of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained a hot line. During most of those times, there were parallel forums for communication between the two sides' senior officers. Iran doesn't pose anything remotely resembling the threat that the United States and the Soviet Union posed to each other in those years. Here is yet another reason to establish diplomatic relations with Iran. You don't have to be friends to talk.


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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From the Wall Street Journal editorial page:

We've been saying for some time that the economy could use another tax cut....

Fancy that.

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By: Kevin Drum

PAY FOR PERFORMANCE....Think there are only losers from the subprime lending debacle? Don't be a chump:

Countrywide Financial Corp. founder Angelo Mozilo, one of the nation's highest-paid chief executives, stands to reap $115 million in severance-related pay if his troubled company is acquired by Bank of America Corp., regulatory filings show.

Free rides on the company jet are also included in Mozilo's departure deal, and the company will pick up his country club bills until 2011.

Ain't life grand?

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January 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL, WHO'S THE BIGGEST PANDERER OF ALL?....Mike Huckabee currently has the loopiest tax proposal on the table, a 30% national sales tax that he supports because he read a book about it once and thought it sounded kinda neat. It's unworkable, hugely regressive, wouldn't raise half the money Huckabee thinks it would, and would create an underground economy so massive it would make the old Soviet Union look efficient.

But it would cut taxes on the rich, which means it's perfect for the modern Republican Party. So how do you top it? Rudy Giuliani, never a man to let himself be upstaged in a panderfest, provided his answer yesterday (numbers added to original Reuters dispatch for easy reference):

Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has proposed what he called a multitrillion-dollar tax cut that would (1) lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent....(2) reduce the capital gains tax from 15 percent to 10 percent....(3) preserve the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush....(4) eliminate the estate tax....(5) give taxpayers the option of choosing a simplified tax form with three tax brackets with a maximum bracket of 30 percent....(6) index the alternative minimum tax to inflation and eventually repeal it.

Take that, Huckabee! You say your plan is big? Well, according to an expert that Townhall blogger Matt Lewis talked to, "This plan would be huge." How huge? "It would be 4% of GDP. By comparison, GWB tax cut was 1.3% of GDP. Reagan's was 1.9% of GDP."

Twice the size of Reagan's! Three times the size of Bush's! And deficits? No worries. These babies will pay for themselves!

Oh, and just in case you haven't figured this out yet, all six of Giuliani's tax cuts are aimed at people who already have lots and lots of money. But you knew that, right?

Kevin Drum 8:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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By: Kevin Drum

UNIONS....Mark Thoma ponders the future of unions in the United States:

The union question is a hard one for me. I don't believe that the degree of market power workers and firms bring to the bargaining table is in balance. "Superstars" at the upper end of the income distribution have too much market power, and firms have too much market power at the lower end of the income distribution, where the lower end starts at fairly high levels of income.

Unions are one potential answer for workers at the lower end of the income distribution, but is a return to unions the best solution to the market power imbalance? Should we return to the past, or should we try to use the changing political landscape as an opportunity to build better institutions for both workers and firms, institutions that offer workers the same degree of bargaining power that unions provide, and the the same degree of income, health, and retirement security, but do so more efficiently? We already know how unions work, pretty much, but can we do better?

"Better institutions" would be great. Unions are obviously a mixed blessing, and in any case the political obstacles to increased union power seem pretty insurmountable these days. But what's the alternative? What better institutions for workers might we construct?

Kevin Drum 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

JUST KEEP TRUCKIN'....Whatever the real reason, the storybook reason for Hillary Clinton's victory in New Hampshire appears to have hardened into concrete: She won because she finally displayed some emotion and showed voters her "human side." The LA Times rounds up the conventional wisdom as well as anyone:

Campaign activists here suggest that the election shifted, at first imperceptibly, in Saturday night's debate when John Edwards and Barack Obama ganged up on her and when Clinton was faced with another blunt question about her likability.

The shift became more noticeable Monday, when Clinton momentarily welled with tears — though she did not go off-message — at a gathering on the campaign's closing day. Television pictures of the event broadcast endlessly through election day.

"It made her seem like a person getting picked on, and she responded the way a real person would," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire poll. That rare break in Clinton's composure — and the chord it struck in voters — was particularly compelling to women....

Maybe this is true, maybe it isn't. At this point, it hardly matters. Virtually everyone seems to think it's true, so it might as well be.

Whatever. It's not the worst thing in the world. But I sure hope that the Clinton campaign doesn't learn the wrong lesson from this and start thinking up dozens of ways to "humanize" Hillary over the next couple of weeks. I don't think I could stand that. And there's a pretty good chance it would backfire anyway. So here's my plea to Hillaryland: don't go there. Just don't. Please.

Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC ROUNDUP....Three pieces of economic news today: First, holiday sales sucked:

An already weak holiday shopping season turned out to be even worse than expected for many of the nation's retailers, who reported Thursday they had disappointing sales results for December. The poor performance raised more concerns about consumer spending, and in turn, the health of the economy.

Adjusted for inflation, December retail sales dropped about 2% compared to last year. Next up, credit card borrowing surged:

The Federal Reserve reported Tuesday that consumer borrowing climbed at an annual rate of 7.4% in November, far higher than the 1% rise in October.

The category that includes credit card debt surged at an annual rate of 11.3%, a six-month high, an indication that shoppers were relying heavily on credit cards to finance purchases since home equity lines of credit became harder to get....The 11.3% rise in credit card debt was the seventh straight month of strong gains in this area and was the biggest jump since a 12.8% rise in May.

So consumers had to max out their credit cards even though they bought less than last year. This is not good, and apparently the Fed agrees:

Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, sent a strong signal on Thursday that the central bank will lower interest rates again this month as it attempts to stave off a recession.

....He cited high oil prices, plummeting home prices and the struggling stock market as factors that "seem likely to weigh on consumer spending as we move into 2008."

A lackluster employment report in December, which showed the unemployment rate rising by 0.3 percentage points, also appeared to give the chairman pause. He called the report disappointing and noted that the labor market had previously been a source of stability amid a difficult economic situation.

This is really bad news. The chickens are coming home to roost.

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By: Kevin Drum

VIOLENCE IN IRAQ....An interesting new study about post-invasion death rates in Iraq was released by the World Health Organization today. I had to extrapolate a bit from the raw data, but if I did that correctly then the WHO's results differ from last year's Lancet study in two ways:

  • It estimates total excess deaths (through June 2006) at about 393,000. The Lancet study pegged it at 655,000.

  • It estimates total post-invasion violent deaths at 151,000. The Lancet study said the number was 601,000.

(Note: As reported in Table 3, the study calculated 1.09 violent deaths per 1,000 person years after the invasion, from which the authors estimate a post-invasion total of 151,000 violent deaths. They didn't provide an estimate for total deaths, but the reported increase in all deaths (post-invasion vs. pre-invasion) is 2.84 per 1,000 person years. Applying the same multiplier therefore provides an estimate of 393,000 excess deaths from all causes.)

It's a big number no matter how you slice it, but I imagine this will reignite the controversy over the Lancet study. The difference in their estimate of total excess deaths (655,000 vs. 393,000) isn't huge for a study with such inherent difficulties, but the difference in the violent death rate is. The Lancet study calculates that 92% of all post-invasion excess deaths were from violent causes, while WHO figures it at 38%.

Why the difference? Les Roberts, one of the authors of the Lancet study, offered this: "My gut feeling is that most of the difference between the two studies is a reluctance to report to the government a death due to violence," he said. "If your son is fighting the government and died, that may not be something you'd want to admit to the government." More here.

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By: T.A. Frank

HOW SHE DID IT...Reminder, this isn't Kevin Drum writing this, so don't blame him for the wayward musings of a Washington Monthly staffer. Two days after the fact, though, having pored over the post-New-Hampshire-upset analysis, I can't help feeling that many of the explanations are a bit over-complicated. I wouldn't have predicted the results that came out of the primary, but I wasn't that surprised, either.

The "tears," simply put, did the trick. They were central to a smart and deliberate campaign, and there was no "Bradley Effect" (in which white racist voters lie to pollsters, thus skewing results). The shift of allegiance didn't show up in the polls, because, as far as I know, none of the polls were taken after Monday night, when all three nightly newscasts on Monday made Hillary's "emotional" moment their lead story. The very last poll to come out, in fact, showed a much slimmer five-point difference between Clinton and Obama, suggesting a sudden narrowing and a surge in Clinton momentum. So fear not, pollsters. Had the primaries occurred 24 hours earlier, Obama would probably have won, and you would have been vindicated.

What was Hillary's game plan? What the polling numbers showed was that her best hope lay in attracting female voters away from Obama. So Team Hillary went after them with determination. There was an appearance on Access Hollywood, in which Hillary talked about things like body image and got to say things like, "I find cleaning closets and drawers to be extremely gratifying because you know there is a beginning, a middle and an end, unlike a lot of what I do which seems to be much more long term." There was her talk with undecided voters: two men--and 14 women. There were the tears, predicted by some, which stirred even greater sympathy. Finally, there was the heckling moment, when one or two young rogues stood up and started chanting "Iron My Shirt"--allowing Clinton to gain a standing ovation by tossing out three great lines about sexism and breaking through the "biggest glass ceiling of all." (These hecklers turned out to be 20-something employees of a Boston radio show, and one even had a Hillary sticker on his bag.)

When the numbers came out, it turned out that female voters had flocked to Clinton in New Hampshire by a wide margin. It had been an effective approach. And the media, which had poorly concealed its glee over a Clinton loss, had only strengthened it.

So--am I suggesting that all of Clinton's moments were choreographed? No. I expect some were choreographed, and some were the product of sheer luck. But even if they were all choreographed--and the hecklers turn out to have been sent out by, say, Michael Whouley (the Clinton operative who once boasted of clogging up the freeways in Boston in order to keep likely Bill Bradley voters away from the polls in 2000)--it would hardly be sensational. Republicans like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove have played a much rougher game than that. This was good old-fashioned political hardball, and Obama's crew will have to be nimble enough to throw back some effective behind-the-scenes hardballs of its own.

T.A. Frank 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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January 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RICHARDSON OUT....Apparently Bill Richardson will drop out of the Democratic race tomorrow. No big surprise.

So who will this help? Before today I would have guessed probably Obama, or maybe Edwards. But two data points give me pause. First, Richardson's biggest policy difference with the other candidates was his call to get all American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, and New Hampshire voters who wanted to get out of Iraq favored Hillary Clinton over both Obama and Edwards.

Second, if Jay Carney's friend is right, and both Biden and Dodd supporters in New Hampshire ended up voting for Hillary, that suggests that voters supporting conventional "experienced" candidates end up supporting another experienced candidate when their guy drops out. And among the remaining candidates, that's Hillary. Richardson's main selling point has been his resume and his experience, so it seems likely that his supporters will turn to Hillary as well.

None of this may be fair. By all rights, withdrawal supporters ought to favor Obama or Edwards. And it's arguable that, in reality, Hillary is no more experienced than Obama. But fairness doesn't really matter. Hillary, by common consent, is the candidate of experience, and apparently also the candidate of voters who want to get out of Iraq. So Richardson dropping out seems likely to boost her prospects.

Kevin Drum 8:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (195)

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By: Kevin Drum

VOTERS AND THE WAR....I don't want to make too big a deal out of this, but here's a peculiar result from yesterday's primary. First off, the Democrats:

Voters who want to get out of Iraq fast preferred Hillary, voters who want to get out gradually are tied, and voters who want to stay in Iraq overwhelmingly preferred Obama. Huh?

And now the Republicans:

Voters who approve of the war prefer Romney by a small margin, while those who disapprove of the war prefer McCain by a landslide. Again, huh?

Granted: voters are often irrational. And the differences between Obama/Clinton and Romney/McCain on the war are fairly small. Still, Obama is the one who opposed the war from the start and has been more aggressive about calling for a withdrawal. Shouldn't he be getting more support from the get-out-now crowd? And although Romney supports the war, McCain is the dead-endest of the dead-enders. If you don't like the war, shouldn't he be your least favorite candidate?

I'm not sure what explains this. On the Democratic side, Hillary has recently been taking a harder line on withdrawal, and maybe that's showing up here. Or maybe it's just that women are more likely to want to get out of Iraq fast and also more likely to support Hillary. Or maybe Iraq isn't as big a voting issue as we think.

The Republican side is even odder. Why would voters who disapprove of the war overwhelmingly support McCain? Are they reacting to the fact that McCain is constantly claiming that he "disapproved" of the conduct of the war? Has McCain's uber-hawkishness not gotten a lot of play? Or what?

Anyway, not the biggest deal in the world, and it's only one state. But still, a bid odd.

Kevin Drum 6:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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By: Kevin Drum

THEN vs. NOW....Is a long primary campaign a blessing or a curse? As long as things don't get too negative, Steve Benen offers a reason to think it's a good thing:

I recently went back and watched some of the early Democratic debates and I was impressed with just how far the field has come. Each of them are better, sharper, and quicker than they were last summer, and that's in large part because they've been pushing each other so hard.

That's what I would have guessed, but it's interesting to hear that it holds up in a side-by-side comparison.

Kevin Drum 5:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

CLINTON vs. McCAIN....Jon Chait comments on Hillary Clinton's now-brighter prospects for winning the Democratic nomination:

The odds of a Republican presidency suddenly got a lot higher. There's really only one potential matchup that would give the GOP a better than even chance of winning: John McCain versus Hillary Clinton. McCain is a popular personality who can attract the support of voters who aren't inclined to support his party. Clinton is an unpopular personality who loses the support of voters who are otherwise inclined to support her party. If she wins the nomination, it will be because she's a polarizing figure who rallies Democrats as the object of Republican attacks.

I think this considerably overstates McCain's appeal. It's true that recent matchup polls show McCain doing well against Hillary, but honestly, does anybody think those polls are even remotely meaningful nine months before the election? I don't. Two months ago those same polls showed Hillary trouncing McCain.

There are two things that keep me from being worried about a Clinton vs. McCain matchup. The first is that this simply looks to be a Democratic year. Tick off the reasons: Americans don't like to keep a single political party in the White House for more than eight years (it's only happened once in the postwar era). The war in Iraq is unpopular. The economy is sinking. The 9/11 effect has worn off. Conservatives are tired and plainly lack new ideas.

Second, I don't think McCain is nearly as attractive a candidate as a lot of people think. Again, tick off the reasons: He's 71 years old. He's a dead-ender for the war. (Do you think "a million years in Iraq" will play well with moderates in November?) A lot of his independent cred has been shredded over the past couple of years. He'll get evangelical votes, but he won't get their enthusiastic support, the way George Bush did. Ditto for nativist votes. He's got a long, very conservative voting record that's never really been exposed to a national audience. The Keating Five scandal will get revisited. Press ardor for McCain will likely diminish as his campaign becomes less open, as it's bound to do.

Sure, Obama can get some independent votes that Hillary can't. On the other hand, Hillary can get some women's votes that Obama can't. The same is true for McCain. He might get some independent votes that, say, Rudy Giuliani can't. But Giuliani might be able to appeal to social moderates better than McCain. Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses.

So far, though, no one is paying much attention to McCain's weaknesses. But he has plenty of them, and once the national campaign really starts up they're going to become very, very public. He's just not nearly as strong a nominee as a lot of Beltway folks think he is.

Bottom line: Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can beat McCain. They'd have a Democratic tailwind at their backs and a Republican opponent with plenty of negatives — and both of them are smart enough to run campaigns that make the most of those negatives. Nine months is a long time and anything can happen, but I'm not afraid of McCain. He's eminently beatable.

Kevin Drum 3:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (162)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW DID HILLARY WIN?....So what happened last night? How could the polls have been so far off, predicting an Obama landslide only to have Hillary Clinton pull off a narrow victory?

The first answer is: primary polling is historically difficult. For a variety of reasons, especially in an open-primary state like New Hampshire, it's really hard to get reliable results. Being off by double digits isn't exactly common, but it's not all that rare either.

That said, last night's results really were at the high end of unusual, and none of the obvious possibilities seem to explain it. For what it's worth, Time's Jay Carney, via "a social scientist friend of a colleague" who did some comparisons of polls vs. actual turnout, seems to have the most plausible explanation:

What he found...is that a certain percentage of Democratic voters in the last days of polling presumed Biden (especially) and (to a lesser degree) Dodd hadn't dropped out. By and large, come election day, those Biden and Dodd supporters ended up casting ballots for Hillary. Also, of the 5 percent or so who were still undecideds in the last polls, almost all broke for Hillary.

This makes sense to me. None of the "big" explanations seem to pan out, so it's most likely a collection of little explanations: a few points from Biden supporters, a few points from Dodd supporters, a few points from undecideds, a little bit better turnout from women, and perhaps a bit of polling error in the post-Iowa polls. Add it all up and you get a 10-12 point swing. It's not a sexy explanation, but it seems like it's probably the right one.

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE BICKERING....Eric Martin is fed up with endless talk about "change":

There is also something else that I'm hoping Hillary's New Hampshire victory does: tamps down the breathless repetition of the "change" meme — in both phrase and concept....I appreciate that Obama has seized on a compelling narrative, but the media's wholesale and uncritical acceptance and dissemination of it has left me scratching my head trying to figure out where the there is.

....For Democratic voters who are uncomfortable with [Dennis Kucinich] — or rightly wonder about his ultimate electability — the candidate promising the next highest quotient of "change" is clearly John Edwards....Yet, curiously enough, Obama has been tagged as the man who would shake up Washington — a new kind of politician with a new kind of message — while Edwards is ignored (or marginalized as "angry") and Clinton is pegged as the hidebound insider.

But I think this misses the point. Obama isn't really campaigning as a person who will change policies any more than Clinton or Edwards, he's campaigning as a person who will change the tone in Washington. He's the anti-bickering candidate.

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

EXIT POLLS....This is kind of dumb and dorky, but it's worth sounding a little bit of a warning about the exit poll results from New Hampshire. (Or any other exit poll results, for that matter.) Here's the warning: a lot of the subgroups are pretty small, which means the margin of error is huge. Take a look at the age breakdown in the Democratic primary, for example:

Now, it's possible that Barack Obama really did win the 18-24 and 30-39 year-olds but that Hillary Clinton inexplicably appealed to the middle group of 25-29 year-olds. But it's not likely. What is likely is that it's just a statistical artifact: the 25-29 segment is small and the margin of error among that group is a whopping 8%. There's a pretty good chance that Obama actually won those folks, just like he won the surrounding groups, but that random chance produced the opposite result.

Anyway, this is your dumb and dorky stats post for the day. Just a warning not to take the most detailed parts of the exit polls too seriously.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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By: Kevin Drum

BICKERING....Via Taegan Goddard, the New York Observer delivers some good news:

Even at the bipartisanship forum — a meeting of a 17-member group of Democratic, Republican and independent elected officials unhappy with the current state of politics — there was precisely zero detectable enthusiasm for a Bloomberg bid in 2008.

I'm glad to hear it. I don't think the CEOs of Coke and Pepsi should get together and try to figure out a common formula that everyone will like, and I don't think anyone else does either. So why does anyone think there's some magical common ground between liberals and conservatives?

I think the error most people make on this subject is being confused about what voters are really tired of. They aren't tired of partisanship, they're tired of bickering. And who isn't? But when push comes to shove, most of those folks who say they're tired of bickering would rather bicker than cave in on the issues that are important to them. Bipartisanship goes down the drain pretty quickly when abortion or trade or immigration or any other hot button issue actually gets put on the table.

Barack Obama, of course, has based practically his entire campaign around the idea not that he can end partisanship, but that he can end the bickering. That's a powerful message, even among staunch partisans. But can he?

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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January 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FLINTY-EYED INDEPENDENTS....By the way, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the state of New Hampshire for this post on Sunday. Obviously I spoke too hastily.

Kevin Drum 11:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

"THE MOMENT"....Did Hillary's "emotional moment" on Monday end up helping her? I have to say that I find that deeply unlikely, and yet.....it was on virtually a continuous loop on every cable news channel in the country for the past 24 hours. And Hillary did win the women's vote by a huge margin. And something obviously changed at the very last minute. So I dunno. Maybe.

In any case, Hillary herself seems to think so. She opened her victory speech by saying, "I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice," and surely that didn't refer to the wonkfests that she apparently conducted in most of her venues over the past few days. So maybe that moment really did make an outsized impression on both her and the voters.

Kevin Drum 11:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (177)

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY'S WIN....I have several reasons for being pleased with the results of tonight's Democratic primary:

  • I've made three electoral predictions so far: that the eventual candidates would be Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton and that Iowa would turn out not to be as important as everyone thought. The first two are still pretty iffy, but at least I'm not going to be 0 for 3.

  • I really, really didn't want Iowa to decide this thing. Really.

  • Hillary Clinton's victory felt to me an awful lot like a repudiation of the mainstream pundits who spent the entire weekend first dumping all over her and then playing the "Hillary in tears" tape on practically a continuous loop yesterday. As Matt Yglesias said, "I don't think pissing off Chris Matthews is a good enough reason to pull the lever for Clinton, but I can certainly understand the impulse." Me too.

  • Hillary's victory should amp up Andrew Sullivan into even greater feats of CDS hysterics than we've seen so far. If that's possible. In any case, he seems to thrive on a state of constant agitation and stomach-churning nausea, so I figure Hillary's victory is probably good for him.

  • There's now a pretty good chance that, for the first time in my life, my vote in a Democratic primary will actually be meaningful. And it only took 30 years!

The next few weeks should be fun. Maddening, but fun.

Kevin Drum 11:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS IN IRAQ....Via ThinkProgress, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle Eastern Affairs Mark Kimmitt spoke at the Heritage Foundation today about the prospects for political reconciliation and stability in Iraq:

If I had to put a number to it, maybe it's three in 10, maybe it's 50-50, if we play our cards right....To recognize that this will be the next phase, that this will be done in 2008 rather than 2007, is a bit of a disappointment as the new way forward envisioned that progress in politics and reconciliation would occur in parallel with progress in security. To see such significant progress in security with only the foundations of progress in reconciliation is a bit disheartening, not to mention sobering.

A couple of notes. First, Kimmitt was reading a prepared statement, so this was presumably a considered and vetted position. Second, he was absolutely clear that the surge will be a success only if "the gains in security can be translated into gains in stability." War supporters frequently act as though an emphasis on political reconciliation is mere caviling from liberals who don't want to admit that the surge has been a success, so it's good to see that this emphasis is not only common sense, but also (as it always been) official Bush administration policy.

Kevin Drum 6:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY....Joe Klein reports that Barack Obama has been working behind the scenes to try to defuse the violence in his ancestral homeland of Kenya. On January 2nd he taped a message for Voice of America, and then:

On January 3, the day of the caucuses, he had a conversation with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who had flown to Nairobi to see if he could begin negotiations with the factions. In the days since his Iowa victory, Obama has had near-daily conversations with the U.S. Ambassador in Kenya or with opposition leader Raila Odinga. As of late this afternoon, before his rally in Rochester, N.H., Obama was trying to reach Kenyan President Kibaki.

Impressive stuff for a guy who has a lot on his plate right now.

Kevin Drum 6:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEST HEALTHCARE IN THE WORLD, BABY....A pair of researchers has just published an update that compares various countries on their rates of "amenable mortality," defined as deaths that are "potentially preventable with timely and effective health care." In 1997, the United States ranked 15th out of 19 industrialized countries. So how are we doing now?

Answer: we're now 19th out of 19. The rest of the countries have improved their performance by an average of 16%, while the U.S., that well-known engine of healthcare innovation, has improved by only 4%. So now we're in last place.

But there's a bright side: at least our healthcare isn't funded by the government, like it is in France. Keep that in mind if someone you know dies of preventable causes. Their odds would have been a whole lot better in Paris, but who'd want to live in a socialist hellhole like that anyway?

Kevin Drum 6:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN'S HARDLINERS....Nazila Fathi reports from Tehran that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been losing the support of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

There are numerous possible reasons for Mr. Ahmadinejad's loss of support, but analysts here all point to one overriding factor: the United States National Intelligence Estimate last month, which said Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to international pressure. The intelligence estimate sharply reduced the threat of a military strike against Iran, allowing the Iranian authorities to focus on domestic issues, with important parliamentary elections looming in March.

....Liberal commentators, here and abroad, have long argued that hard-line policies in the West only strengthen hard-line politicians in Iran, and conversely that lowering the threat level enhances the position of moderates. With conservative politicians who supported Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 increasingly turning into his fiercest critics, and with Ayatollah Khamenei saying recently that Iran's lack of contacts with the United States "does not mean that we will not have relations indefinitely," the pundits would seem, for now, to be on the right track.

This comes via Eric Martin, who comments:

The diminishing fortunes of the respective Iranian and American hawkish sets does certainly add an interesting backstory to the recent showdown in the Strait of Hormuz — as discussed yesterday on this site. There is a definite possibility that one or more groups was/is trying to, once again, ratchet up tensions in order to reassert relevance and influence.

That seems likely. What's more, there's not really much evidence yet that Khamenei is actually ready to ratchet down Iran's traditional anti-American rhetoric, just as there's not much evidence that America's hawks are ready to ratchet down their rhetoric either. And, as Fathi notes, Iran's internal economic problems play a big role in Ahmadinejad's falling fortunes too.

Still, it's hard not to think that the NIE has had a significant effect. If both sides can avoid doing anything unusually stupid over the next year, it's possible that a new Democratic administration might have a genuine chance to reset the American-Iranian relationship. It won't happen overnight, but with the right approach it might happen eventually. Here's hoping.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

KICKING IT OLD SCHOOL....Here's a miscellaneous thought: The last two years should be dubbed "Revenge of the Old School Political Scientists." Example #1: In Off Center, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argued that American politics had gotten permanently skewed away from the political center. The Republican Party, contrary to conventional political science predictions, had gotten more and more extreme over the past three decades but was continuing to win at the polls anyway — and the political environment had changed in ways that made their ascendency seem permanent. This became a popular theory in liberal circles, but a few months later Republicans were trounced in the 2006 midterms. The pendulum had swung and the median voters had reasserted themselves.

Example #2: Six years ago Karl Rove made it an article of faith that the way to win modern presidential elections was to appeal to your base. After the 2004 election, in which an army of motivated evangelicals provided George Bush's margin of victory, this became conventional wisdom on both sides of aisle and throughout the blogosphere. But after today's primary it seems likely that the frontrunners in both parties will be men who are deliberately appealing to independents. In other words, the old wisdom is holding: a vote from your base is just one vote, but a vote from the center is two votes — the one you get and the one you deny your opponent.

Example #3: Actually, I don't have a third example. But you're always supposed to for these kinds of things. It's not a trend unless you produce three examples. Anybody got one?

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

THIMEROSAL AND AUTISM....Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and thousands of distraught parents to the contrary, the evidence linking thimerosal to autism has never been very strong. Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used in many childhood vaccines, and its connection to autism was always based primarily on a coincidence: most children get vaccinated when they're about two years old and most autism gets diagnosed between the ages of 2-4. That, along with the fact that mercury has well-known effects on infant brain development, made thimerosal seem like a plausible culprit for what's often been referred to as an "epidemic" of autism over the past decade.

However, despite the equivocal (at best) scientific evidence linking thimerosal to autism, conspiracy theories abounded and the issue deeply split the autism community. Firm evidence in one direction or the other, though, had to wait until now. Thimerosal was ordered removed from most childhood vaccines in 1999, and by the early 2000s children had stopped receiving virtually all thimerosal-based vaccines. If autism rates then decreased, it would be good evidence that thimerosal really had been to blame.

But that didn't happen. Interim studies have shown no decrease in autism rates, and a study released today puts the nail in the coffin of the thimerosal story. It tracks children born in California and includes enough years of data to show pretty definitively that autism diagnoses continued to rise even after thimerosal was removed. From Science Daily:

"The estimated prevalence of autism for children at each year of age from 3 to 12 years increased throughout the study period," the authors write....."The prevalence at ages 3 to 5 years has increased monotonically for each birth year since 1999, during which period exposure to thimerosal has been reduced," they continue.

....In addition to analyzing the prevalence of autism by birth year, the researchers also examined the rate among children age 3 to 5 based on quarterly reports issued by the Department of Developmental Services. Prevalence increased each quarter from January 1995 (0.6 per 1,000 live births) through March 2007 (4.1 per 1,000 live births), including after 2004, when the researchers estimate that exposure to thimerosal during infancy and early childhood declined.

As this LA Times story shows, many autism advocates still aren't convinced. I'm not surprised. I suspect that the emotional investment in thimerosal as a cause of autism, especially in the continuing absence of any other convincing theories, will keep many parents from accepting these results, and whenever I read these stories my heart almost breaks for them. They desperately want to know what caused their children's autism, and without thimerosal they've got nothing. They just don't know.

But that's where we are: we just don't know, and thimerosal isn't the answer. It's time to accept this and move on.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE U.S. AND PAKISTAN....PIPA has released another in its ongoing series of public opinion surveys in foreign countries, and today's survey is from Pakistan. Generally speaking, it shows that Pakistanis want their country to be more Islamic, more democratic, and less corrupt. Support for religious extremism is low but nontrivial.

But the question on the right is the one that caught my eye. It's not surprising these days to see extreme distrust of the United States in Islamic countries, but not only did Pakistanis rate the U.S. presence in Asia and Afghanistan as Pakistan's biggest threat, they rated it as a higher threat than tensions with India. Crikey. When you beat out even the long-hated Indians as Pakistanis' biggest worry, you're in big trouble.

Kevin Drum 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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January 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ON THE TRAIL....And the top political story of the day is....Hillary Clinton displaying a brief moment of emotion. At a campaign stop today, after she was asked how she puts up with the rigors of campaigning, her eyes "appeared to well up" (Washington Post) and her voice "softened and lowered to a near-hush" (New York Times), providing a "dramatic coda to a campaign in which she has largely offered voters policy prescription" (Los Angeles Times).

Indeed. This sparked ABC News' headline writer to ask breathlessly, "Can Clinton's Emotions Get the Best of Her?" — a question that will undoubtedly be the lead story on all three networks tonight, right alongside John Edwards gallantly refusing to comment on the story just moments before deciding that he ought to comment after all. "I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve," he said, doing his gender proud.

Somebody shoot me. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound. As long as I'm writing about this, I might as well ask the only question that anyone really cares about: Does this help or hurt? And what will be the response of the pack?

Kevin Drum 7:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (229)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOREIGN POLICY....Ari Berman emails this morning to recommend his Nation article about the foreign policy teams assembled by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and what it says about their likely future policies. It's a good piece, though the reality it captures doesn't provide the firm distinctions most of us would like. Here's what I think is the key passage:

Today, [Obama] advisers like Tony Lake point to a number of "significant differences" between Obama and Clinton. On Iraq, Obama not only opposed the war but has said he would withdraw all combat troops within sixteen months of taking office. On Iran, Obama rejected the Kyl-Lieberman resolution (though he missed the vote while campaigning) and has proposed a broader engagement strategy to lure Iran into the community of nations. On nuclear weapons, he has not only promised to reduce US nuclear stockpiles, as has Clinton, but advocates a world free of nuclear weapons. On Cuba, Obama went to Miami and said the ban on family travel and remittances to the island nation should be lifted, a policy Clinton opposes.

Yet on many issues the differences between Obama and Clinton are more stylistic than substantive....Indeed, in discussions with Hillary's advisers these days, the message seems to be, We're more like Obama than you think! Both candidates favor negotiating directly with Iran, leaving behind a residual force in Iraq (though Obama has said his missions would be more limited); enlarging the military by 92,000 troops; aggressively curbing global warming; and recommitting to working with multilateral institutions like the United Nations. It's not hard to imagine Clark, Feinstein or even Holbrooke serving in an Obama administration. And many Obamaites would probably work in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Really, this isn't very different from what we see on domestic policy: the differences between the two candidates simply aren't that big. There are differences, but the heat of the campaign and the desire of the press corps and the blogosphere to have something to write about magnifies them well beyond what they deserve on the merits. I'm a little closer to Obama's take on foreign affairs than I am to Hillary's, but honestly, based on their statements to date, I doubt very much that their actual foreign policies would differ all that much.

(Conversely, I'm a little closer to Hillary's take on domestic policy than I am to Obama's, but again, the differences are fairly slight. They'd likely pursue very similar courses, and the big question is which one of them would be more likely to emerge from the congressional meatgrinder with their policies intact.)

Of course, there's another difference as well: rhetoric. In domestic policy, public opinion is king, and one of the things Obama has going for him is the possibility that he could genuinely shift public opinion in a more liberal direction — something that Hillary would probably have a harder time doing. In foreign policy, though, a great speech doesn't buy you nearly as much, and it's not clear to me that his team would be as effective at the nuts and bolts of hardnosed diplomacy as Hillary's.

That said, Ari's article is worth a read. It doesn't provide a firm conclusion, but it does a pretty good job of airing out all the differences, big and small, between the two. (There's also a paragraph about John Edwards, but that's about it. It's mostly Hillary vs. Obama.)

Kevin Drum 1:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Kevin Drum

KLEIN ON McCAIN....Is John McCain a lock to win New Hampshire? Joe Klein doesn't believe it: "I wouldn't be surprised to see the race tighten or swing toward Romney over the next few days."

Also, from the same post, Klein watched the Republican debate with one of Frank Luntz's dial groups and reports that when the subject came to illegal immigration, "their dials plummeted when McCain said we had to be 'humane.'" Makes you proud.

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....I was on vacation at the beginning of January and then forgot to post this last week, but I said a while back that I'd revisit Iraq civilian casualty figures once a month, so here are December's ending results. My erstwhile sparring partner Engram has pretty clean numbers, so I'm reproducing his chart on the right.

I don't have a lot of new commentary to add to this. There are probably several reasons for the decline in violence, but certainly the surge is responsible for much of it. This is good news.

At the same time, there's still not even a glimmer of hope on the political reconciliation front. In fact, if anything, things seem to have retrogressed a bit, and this is distinctly bad news — especially with the surge about to wind down and the "breathing space" it provided probably coming to an end. Unless something changes pretty quickly, it's looking more and more as if the surge simply isn't going to be a success on its own terms.

On the other hand, John McCain thinks it's OK if we stay in Iraq for a hundred years. So the day is still young.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

FALSE HOPES....I don't like to obsess too much over single sentences in presidential debates, but by far the most jarring statment I heard in Saturday's Democratic debate was Hillary Clinton's admonition that "we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered." This came at the end of her now-famous defense of her record of change, and I think I understand what she was driving at: she thinks that Obama's belief that he can work in harmony with Republicans to pass liberal legislation is a naive pipe dream and that we all need to be a little more reality-based about what it's really going to take to get our policy preferences passed into law.

Which is fine. That's a key difference between her and Obama and she should certainly try to make the case that she's more likely to actually implement liberal change than he is. But what's surprising isn't just that the way she put it was horribly off-putting, but that it wasn't just a momentary gaffe. Back in December, when Obama's poll numbers first started turning up, she said the same thing:

Clinton's response has been to turn aggressive. For the second day in a row, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in national polls sharply attacked her leading rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, using some of the harshest language of the campaign. Arguing that her campaign is in a "very strong position," Clinton hammered Obama for offering "false hopes" rather than action. She predicted that voters will want, in her words, "a doer, not a talker."

This language backfired back then, so why would she deliberately resurrect it in front of a national audience? I thought she was doing fine up until that moment, but I'll bet that "false hopes" line stuck in a lot of craws. After all, I'm pretty sympathetic toward her, and it stuck in mine.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

KRISTOL ON HUCK....I read Bill Kristol's inaugural column in the New York Times last night, and I guess I had about the same reaction as Matt Yglesias: why? Basically, he planted great big wet kiss on Mike Huckabee's cheeks, and that just doesn't make much sense. Kristol is a neocon and a John McCain supporter, and Huckabee, with his evangelical fervor and half-baked foreign policy views is about as far away from Kristol as a Republican can be. In fact, if I had to guess, I'd say that aside from Ron Paul, Huckabee is probably Kristol's least favorite candidate in the entire GOP field. So why the suck up?

Beats me. On a narrower note, however, am I the only one who was amused by Kristol's reference to the last three presidential candidates as "the well-born George Bush and Al Gore and John Kerry"? This may be the first time I've ever heard a conservative admit that Bush isn't, in fact, just a brush-clearin' regular guy from west Texas. Before long they'll be finally fessing up that Bush's ranch in Crawford is more a campaign prop than a real ranch.

UPDATE: James Joyner rounds up reactions here from other bloggers wondering more or less the same thing as me.

Kevin Drum 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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January 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BROOKS ON KRISTOL....From the New York Observer:

After last night's debate, New York Times columnist David Brooks was chatting with a group of people. One of them said: "I hear you hired that conservative Bill Kristol." David Brooks responded: "More like a pseudoconservative."

I have to open this one up to the floor. What do you think Brooks meant? He's not seriously trying to suggest that Kristol doesn't really represent modern conservatism, is he? I'm stumped.

Kevin Drum 7:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PACK....Ezra Klein watches pack journalism at work, 2008 style, and it's not pretty. Nickel version: If some other reporter says Hillary Clinton melted down because she displayed a flash of emotion in last night's debate, then she melted down. After all, who are you going to believe, the spin room or your own lyin' eyes?

In related news, apparently the flinty-eyed independents of New Hampshire aren't quite as flinty-eyed as they'd like you to believe. After a solid year of town halls, coffee klatsches, and early morning doorbell ringing — because, you know, New Hampshirites take their electoral responsibilities so much more seriously than the rest of us — all it took was a few thousand Iowans to flip them from one side to the other in less than 24 hours. Feh.

Am I feeling bitter? You bet. Not because Hillary Clinton seems more likely than not to lose — I can live with that pretty easily — but because of how she's likely to lose. Because the press doesn't like her. Because any time a woman raises her voice half a decibel she instantly becomes shrill. Because we insist on an idiotic nominating system that gives a bunch of Iowa corn farmers 20x the influence of any Democratic voter in any urban area in the country. Because the fever swamp, in the end, is getting the last laugh.

On the other hand, it's not like anyone held a gun to her head and forced Hillary to hire Mark Penn. So overall, let's rule it an assisted suicide. And here's the good news: when the better candidates got taken out in 2004, we ended up with John Kerry, a decent man but a lousy candidate. This year, if Hillary does indeed go on to lose, we'll end up Barack Obama, a decent man and a terrific candidate. So at least we're making progress.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (331)

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January 5, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MISCELLANEOUS OBAMA BLOGGING....This is more a conversation starter than anything else, but I thought there were two especially interesting aspects of Barack Obama's victory in Iowa on Thursday. Here they are:

  • Obama won (or tied) among all income groups and among union households. This is really pretty startling considering Hillary Clinton's supposed strength among blue collar voters (not to mention all those union endorsements she snagged) and John Edwards' fiery working class populism. Ron Brownstein's famous column last year dubbing Clinton the "beer track" candidate and Obama the "wine track" candidate got a lot of attention, but in Iowa, at least, that wasn't true. Turns out that beer-chugging union members like Obama pretty well after all.

  • The turnout of young voters for Obama has already gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so. After the 2006 election I wrote a post that was dismissive of the supposed uptick in youth voting, but a couple of critical emails prompted me to revisit the subject and I ended up changing my mind. It really did seem like there was a significant increase in youth participation, and it was all good news for Democrats.

    But beyond the steady shift of youth voting between the parties, the magnitude of the youth vote for Obama within a Democratic caucus was genuinely stunning. Among teens and twenty-somethings he beat Hillary 57% to 11%. Holy cow! And among 30-44 year-olds his spread was only barely less impressive.

    What accounts for this? Attitudes toward the Iraq war aren't substantially different among age groups, so I don't think that's it. And policy-wise, as everyone has noted time and time again, there's not really that much daylight between Clinton and Obama. Is it merely the fact that Obama is a young man himself? That seems too simplistic. Or is it the fact that young people, more than the rest of us, are tired and cynical about politics and really do buy into Obama's claim that he's a post-partisan candidate who can end all the nastiness and empty Beltway wrangling?

I'm not sure myself, but it seemed like a good weekend conversation starter. What is it that accounts for Obama's strength among both blue-collar workers and young people? And can he keep it up in New Hampshire and beyond?

UPDATE: After I changed my mind about the youth vote, I ended up writing an op-ed on the subject for the Omaha World-Herald. I don't actually know if it ever got printed, and in any case they don't put their op-eds online. But I've stuck it below the jump if you're curious to see what I had to say. It was written last summer.

Democrats and the Youth Vote

Voters, like other consumers, develop brand loyalties early in life. The World War II generation, which came of age during the New Deal and cast its first votes for FDR and Harry Truman, sustained a Democratic majority for decades. Likewise, the Eisenhower generation that entered the workforce during the fifties remains Republican to this day; the counterculture generation of the sixties and seventies remains a Democratic stronghold; and "Gen X," the famously angst-ridden generation that started voting in the eighties, continues to vote Republican as it enters middle age.

And today's youth? Surprise! It turns out it's a Democratic powerhouse. In the early nineties young voters began shifting rapidly toward the Democratic Party and haven't looked back since, even after a Republican won the White House in 2000. Today, twenty-somethings lean Democratic by 52%-37%, an astonishing advantage of 15 percentage points. It's a bigger gap than any other generation currently alive, and it's already showing up in the voting booth. Last year, not only was turnout was up, but young voters cast their ballots for Democratic congressional candidates by 60% to 38%.

All of this might be no more than a temporary blip if it were caused merely by a combination of George W. Bush's historically dismal disapproval ratings and dissatisfaction over a grinding, unpopular war in Iraq — both of which will eventually come to an end one way or another. But that's not what the evidence suggests. After all, the Gen Y movement toward the Democratic Party began in the early 90s, long before either Bush or the Iraq war had taken center stage. What's more, in a recent New York Times/MTV poll of 17-29 year olds, young people were actually more optimistic about the war in Iraq than the rest of the population. It's true that they don't like President Bush much, but the war really isn't the driving factor.

So what is? The most likely, and ironic, answer is a different war: the culture war that was originally stoked by the Christian Right and then taken up as electoral salvation by Republicans starting in the early nineties. Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, famously believed the Christian Right to be the key to victory in 2000 and 2004, and recent Republican leaders from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay have embraced it with open arms.

But young people aren't buying. Quite the contrary. For the most part, they're turned off by the sex and gender fundamentalism that animates so much of the modern Republican Party's social agenda. Polls show that most young voters are OK with abortion remaining legal. They have openly gay friends and are far more comfortable with gay marriage than their elders. They think that legalizing marijuana for personal consumption is common sense, not a sign of moral decay and the breakdown of western civilization.

So when Pat Buchanan declares that there's "a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America" — as he did in prime time at the 1992 Republican convention — or when Jerry Falwell goes on national television and blames "the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians" for bringing on 9/11, young voters cringe. And when the Republican Party embraces their agenda, they go off to vote for Democrats.

Over the past 20 years Democrats have found themselves consistently on the wrong side of conservative campaigns based on social wedge issues like these. But although these campaigns have produced short-term gains for the GOP, they seem to have done so only at the expense of long-term ruin. A generation that's more secular, more sexually at ease, and more tolerant is increasingly casting its lot with the Democratic Party and is increasingly showing up at the polls to prove it. And unlike changes in the voting patterns of independents or soccer moms or other favorites of the political sociologists, this change is likely to be permanent. If Gen Y acts like previous generations, keeping its political loyalties essentially for life, it means that the past 20 years have produced a time bomb: an enormous reservoir of new Democratic voters who are just beginning to flex their electoral muscles. 2008 will be their coming out party.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (275)

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By: Kevin Drum

VERTICAL....Apparently the latest hot word to convince evangelicals that you're one of them is "vertical." Who knew? It's like trying to keep up with the latest from the hip hop world.

In other trendy word news, the American Dialect Society has chosen "subprime" as its word of the year. And it's not just an adjective anymore! MSNBC claims that it's also a verb, as in "I completely subprimed my Algebra test yesterday." Other ADS winners here.

UPFDATE: James Joyner and Mark Kleiman are unimpressed with the notion that "vertical" is evangelical dog whistling. I link, you decide.

UPDATE 2: David Domke, co-author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America, says "vertical" is unquestionably an example of dog whistle politics: "Conservative evangelicals often talk about the need to prioritize their vertical relationships with God first and foremost before worrying about horizontal relationships among people. It's the individualized 'get right with God' approach of conservative Protestantism....I've been present a number of times when "vertical" rhetoric — the exact word — has been used in evangelical circles. It's indeed a way of speaking one hears in many churches, part of the faith vocabulary of the evangelical and fundamentalist subculture."

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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January 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Oddly enough, I haven't had much chance to use my new camera yet. Too busy with other stuff. But I did manage to use the cats as props in my testing to see how close the Canon would focus, so today is closeup day. Magnificent, aren't they?

So what have I been spending all my time on if I wasn't taking hundreds of pictures of my cats? Well, it turned out that the camera spawned a rolling wave of long-needed technology upgrades. The JPEG files it produces are bigger than my old camera, which meant that my old USB 1.0 flash card reader transferred its pictures at molasses speed. So with a little badgering from a friend, I finally popped open my PC's guts, made room for a new card by ripping out my old dial-up modem, and installed a new USB 2.0 card. Much better! But now that I finally had USB 2.0, I figured I should also hook up my all-in-one printer via USB as well. That worked great. There's no difference in printing speed, but the scanner is about 20x faster. (But why are USB cables so damn expensive? Sheesh.)

Then, of course, came a new external hard drive, which I'd never bothered with before because I didn't have a fast enough connection. It works like a champ, though the Seagate tray icon is pretty annoying. (And why does a hard drive need a tray icon anyway?) Then I installed a copy of Ghost, which means I'm once again backing up my computer for the first time in a year. (My old backup software mysteriously died last January, and I never did figure out exactly why.) After some fussing with corrupted files and chkdsk and a bit of defragging, everything was fine. The backup is now working smoothly, the rescue CD has been tested, and I'm prepared for our next earthquake.

Then, as long as I was in the mood, I bought an upgrade of Microsoft Streets & Trips. Big mistake. Aside from an ungodly registration process, the thing also takes a full 30 seconds to load. The old version took about 3 seconds. I doubt very much that a few years of updates is worth this.

So that was that. I finally got everything working, but it cut deeply into cat photographing time. However, as long as we're on the subject of cameras and picture taking, I can certainly recommend Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. I got a set of eight AAs (plus four AAAs that I didn't really need) from Costco for about twenty bucks, and they're great. I tried to run them down in the camera, but I ended up filling the memory card before the batteries died. Good deal.

Consider this an open thread for (a) cat matters, (b) favorite Christmas gifts, or (c) general tech commentary. Normal non-tech catblogging should resume next week.

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

BAD ENDINGS....Christopher Orr hands out movie awards today. Here's an excerpt:

5. There Will Be Blood
Had it not been for a terribly ill-conceived final scene, this magisterial epic might have been number one on the list.

....Worst Ending:
There Will Be Blood

Question: is this fair? Can a film have the worst ending of the entire year and yet still rate as the fifth best overall movie? I haven't seen There Will Be Blood, but on general principle I'd say no. A great film can have an undistinguished ending, or even a dumb ending (Magnolia, say), but if it's a conventional narrative (as I understand There Will Be Blood is), shouldn't an actively bad ending take it out of the running? Or am I just being a fogey?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FEVER SWAMP....Former Dan Quayle speechwriter Lisa Schiffren is.....what? To be admired for laying her psyche so bare in public? To be pitied for having the psyche she apparently has? I'm not sure. But here she is today at The Corner:

You know what? Deep in my psyche, in the place that kind of misses the toothache I've been prodding at with my tongue, I am having a tiny little pang of missing Hillary. Not her, but hating her. Hating Hillary has been such a central political impulse for so long now — 15 years — and I have had to work so hard to keep it up as she became more appealling looking, less shrill, more human — I don't really know what I will do with that newly freed strand of energy.

As long as we're laying our cards on the table, this is one of the things that keeps me on Hillary's side regardless of anything to do with issues or tactics or rhetoric or anything else. I just hate the idea that the fever swamp has been able to turn a perfectly decent liberal woman into such an object of malign loathing. If she loses, then she loses. But by God, I don't want her to lose because millions of Schiffren's fellow travelers have carried on a 15-year vendetta of sick-minded smears and hatred. Enough's enough.

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By: Kevin Drum

CONTRAST....Time's Karen Tumulty reports that the Clinton campaign plans to respond to their loss in Iowa with much sharper attacks on Barack Obama:

"We've got to start holding him to the standard people hold her to," Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn told reporters aboard the campaign's chartered jet to New Hampshire. "I think there's a basic choice between experienced leadership for change and inexperienced leadership that talks about change."

Added another adviser: "You're going to see some very sharp media now." That suggests the next round of Clinton ads will go beyond the previous gentle references to Obama's lack of experience and begin to look at, for instance, inconsistency in his voting record. They are looking at issues like gun control, where he previously took a harder stand that may not play well with gun-loving voters in New Hampshire, and health care, where he previously expressed support for a government-run health care system. Clinton plans to exploit every whiff of inconsistency.

No surprise here. Republicans are obsessed with "contrast" campaigning — i.e., lots and lots of attack ads — and obviously the Clinton folks now feel like this is their best chance to engineer a rebound in New Hampshire. But is five days enough time to make a dent?

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

CAJOLERY....Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters, responding to people (like me) who are afraid that Barack Obama's "let's all work together" MO won't be sufficient to actually bring about the change he so often talks about, says we should look at Obama's record in the Illinois legislature:

Consider a bill into which Obama clearly put his heart and soul. The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced — by beating the daylights out of the accused....The bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama's bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to "solve" crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.

....He responded with an all-out campaign of cajolery....The police proved to be Obama's toughest opponent, [but] by showing officers that he shared many of their concerns, even going so far as to help pass other legislation they wanted, he was able to quiet the fears of many.

Obama proved persuasive enough that the bill passed both houses of the legislature, the Senate by an incredible 35 to 0. Then he talked Blagojevich into signing the bill, making Illinois the first state to require such videotaping.

This is a fair point. And yet....can I say that I'm still a little skeptical? First, any bill that eventually passes 35-0 can't possibly have had that much in the way of stone-cold opposition. Obviously Obama did a good job of working with both Republicans and law enforcement interests in Illinois, but at the national level congressional Republicans have shown themselves remarkably immune to Obama-ish cajolery when it comes their key issues. I continue to have my doubts that a charm campaign will get the job done against the likes of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. They know all too well who signs their paychecks.

But lest I protest too much, Charlie does make a good point. Springfield isn't Washington DC, but it's not the Peoria city council either, and although Obama may not have been a game changer in Illinois, he was an effective legislator who got some important things done. Win big in November and maybe he'll be able to cajole half a dozen of those famous moderate Republicans in the Senate to actually do something moderate.

UPDATE: Via email, Archpundit expands on something he said in the comment thread:

It was fought tooth and nail Kevin. The cops and prosecutors were adamantly against it for some time including the Democratic Cook County Prosecutor.

I swore reform was dead after the commutations, Obama pulled it off. It was an incredible sight.

The end result was truly amazing. The police groups hated the idea and they hated racial profiling legislation — he passed both without angering them, but by working with them, listening, and showing good faith. I never thought it would pass with Democratic State's Attorneys opposing it, strongly even — but he pulled everyone along and did it pretty quickly.

I know sometimes the claims sound too good to be true, but he is truly an amazingly talented politician with the right values. I like the other candidates, but every time I've seen him underestimated, he pulls out a victory whether it be electoral or policy.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

OUR POLARIZED ELECTORATE....So the final turnout for the Iowa Democratic caucuses turned out to be 239,000, fantastically higher than in any previous year. Obviously this is partly because Dems spent a ton of money, had three very attractive candidates, and were selling to an electorate that's really charged up and thinks it can win this year. But at the very least, it also seems to indicate that a polarized, partisan political environment doesn't turn people off of politics. Right? And why should it? By their very nature, most European countries have a political environment that's more polarized and partisan than ours and always has been, and yet they continue to vote in large numbers. Larger than ours, anyway.

So: clear choices, strong emotions, and partisan loyalties are good for voter participation and voter turnout. I hereby declare Broderish bipartisanship the loser in last night's caucuses. On to New Hampshire!

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By: Kevin Drum

AFTER A GOOD NIGHT'S SLEEP, I STILL THINK THE SAME THING I THOUGHT YESTERDAY....One of the nice things about being a hermit blogger is that I almost never get sick anymore. Sadly, the holiday party/eating/visiting/shopping season puts my immune system back into normal circulation, and this year I didn't quite make it through. So I'm sitting here with a cold, trying to think of something interesting to say about yesterday's primary through puffy eyes and a fuzzy brain, and nothing is popping up. I still think Obama had a helluva victory last night and is now the likely (though far from certain) Democratic nominee, while Huckabee also had a helluva victory but seems highly unlikely to be the eventual Republican nominee.

So who will be? I don't know, but after watching this I sure hope it isn't John McCain. What an imperialist! Then again, I also hope it won't be Rudy Giuliani. What a lunatic! And not Huckabee of course. What an empty Bible-thumping suit! But not Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson either. What a couple of image mongers! Can I root for them all to lose?

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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January 3, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ON THE COUCH AGAIN....It's funny how sometimes you have to wait and see how you actually react to something to know how you're going to react to something. I've been sort of fitfully supporting Hillary Clinton for the past few months, but I have to say that I don't feel any disappointment tonight over her loss. Just the opposite, in fact. My arguments against Obama have mostly been fairly abstract ones, but emotionally I'm as susceptible to the famous Obama charm as anyone. And the idea of a young, charismatic, black guy as our next president is pretty damn inspiring. Just sayin'.

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By: Kevin Drum

HELLUVA WIN, BARACK....I'm not real good at the whole narrative thing, so I'm not sure what tonight's caucus results "mean." But based on the entrance polls, I have to say that Barack Obama's victory was mighty impressive. Not only did he win by a pretty solid margin, 38% vs. 30% for both Clinton and Edwards, but he won in virtually every subcategory. He won among both men and women; he won among Democrats, independents, and Republicans; he won among every income group; and he won among people most concerned with the economy, the war, and healthcare.

So was there any good news for Clinton or Edwards? Not much. Clinton won (barely) among married people; among rural voters; and among the elderly. Edwards won among conservatives (!) and the middle-aged. I think Edwards is doomed now, since he just doesn't have the money to overcome this loss. Clinton isn't, but I don't know if you can say much more than that. Obviously she has a tougher road now against a well-funded Obama campaign with lots of momentum, but I wouldn't be willing to say much more than that.

Among Republicans, the picture is obviously a lot muddier. Huckabee's victory was also impressive, winning among both men and women; among evangelicals; among Bush lovers; among every income group except the well off; among all issue groups; and among all age groups. Romney won only among moderates; the well off; and urban voters. The rest of the field was nowhere.

But I just don't believe that Huckabee is going to be able to sustain this. Iowa's Republican turnout was 60% evangelical, and I don't see him being able to broaden his appeal in less God-soaked states. But we'll see.

Kevin Drum 11:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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HOORAY FOR IOWA!....On CNN, Bill Bennett just celebrated the Iowa caucuses because there's been "no violence, no killing." That's way better than Kenya! Anderson Cooper agreed, telling us that Iowans have invited strangers into their very own homes and.....haven't killed them, I guess.

CNN sure sets a low bar for extolling our fabulous electoral system, don't they?

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By: Kevin Drum

DISSING THE CAUCUSES....Time's Jay Carney explains why reporters don't like the Iowa caucuses:

Another reason to dislike the caucuses: we can't spend the whole day of the vote calling and emailing and texting each other to find out the latest (deeply flawed) exit poll numbers. Instead, we have to sit around and wait until Iowans finish their dinners and trudge to their local church basement or middle school gymnasium, where, after milling around for a while, they'll declare their presidential preference. We won't have any results until something like 9 pm EST for the Republicans, 10 or 11 pm for the Democrats. And then the results we do get will be accurate! I mean, where's the fun in that?

He's pretending to be joking. But I don't think he is.

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By: Kevin Drum

ARE YOU HAPPY?....Does a higher income make you happier? If I understand Daniel Kahneman correctly, the answer (according to a decade of research) is no. Higher income makes you more satisfied, but it doesn't make you happier:

Over several years we asked substantial samples of women to reconstruct a day of their life in detail. They indicated the feelings they had experienced during each episode, and we computed a measure of experienced happiness: the average quality of affective experience during the day....This was the first of many such findings: income, marital status and education all influence experienced happiness less than satisfaction, and we could show that the difference is not a statistical artifact.

....Experienced happiness, we learned, depends mainly on personality and on the hedonic value of the activities to which people allocate their time. Life circumstances influence the allocation of time, and the hedonic outcome is often mixed: high-income women have more enjoyable activities than the poor, but they also spend more time engaged in work that they do not enjoy; married women spend less time alone, but more time doing tedious chores. Conditions that make people satisfied with their life do not necessarily make them happy.

Hmmm. This makes sense to me. I would say, for example, that I'm quite satisfied with my life — mainly because I can't think of too many specific ways in which I could materially improve it. I have a job I like, a wife I love, a nice house, no money worries, etc. But am I happy? That's a purely subjective measure that, in my experience, has only a modest correlation with my material satisfaction. Basically, I'm a big believer that above a certain income level, long-term subjective happiness is mostly (though of course not entirely) a function of brain chemistry.

If you're looking for a political angle here, try answering this question: which candidate winning tonight would make you most satisfied? Which would make you happiest? Is there a difference?

Via Tyler Cowen.

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

IOWA PREDICTIONS....Here's an open thread for Iowa caucus predictions. I don't have an actual candidate prediction myself, so here's a meta-prediction instead: Iowa won't be quite as important as everyone thinks.

Partly this is because the race on the Democratic side looks pretty close, and a close race is unlikely to provide significant momentum for anyone. But here's the main reason: in the past, except for 2004, Iowa hasn't been all that important. Gore was way ahead of Bradley in 2000 regardless of Iowa; Clinton came in fourth in 1992; Dukakis third in 1988; and Mondale's 1984 win was routine. For my money, you have to go back to 1976 to find another year in which the Iowa caucus really made a big difference.

But we've all been shell shocked by 2004, when John Kerry seemingly came out of nowhere to beat Howard Dean and never looked back. It made Iowa look superhuman, and I have a feeling that Democrats have never gotten over it. So for a long time everyone has been expecting 2008 to be a repeat of 2004, despite the fact that 2004 was sort of a weird one-off fluke.

At least, that's my guess. Obviously early states have more influence than later states, but I really do think 2004 was a fluke. Iowa this year has the potential to end the John Edwards campaign, I think, but I doubt that it has the potential to crown a winner. We'll have to wait for February 5th for that.

And on the Republican side? My prediction is for chaos. And I'm looking forward to it.

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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HATE WITHOUT BOUNDARIES....Damn. Rudy Giuliani is really pulling out all the stops in his campaign to be the most warmongerish of the warmongers. Don't any of these guys remember the relative subtlety of Ronald Reagan's bear in the woods?

Kevin Drum 11:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOME ADVICE ON WHERE TO HAVE YOUR NEXT HEART ATTACK....One of the lessons from Shannon Brownlee's book Overtreated is that you really ought to avoid hospitals. Today, a new report puts some meat on those bones:

People who suffer cardiac arrest are more likely to survive if they are in a casino or airport than if they are in a hospital, researchers said today.

....A new study shows that only a third of victims in hospitals survive — primarily because patients do not receive life-saving defibrillation within the recommended two minutes....For reasons that are not clear, black patients were less likely to receive the treatment within the two-minute window.

Bottom line: in airports and casinos, half of all cardiac arrest victims survive. In hospitals, only a third survive. So if you're smart, you'll have your cardiac episode in an airport, not a hospital. If you're black, you'd be super smart to do so.

Kevin Drum 11:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

I'M BACK....As always, a million thanks to Steve Benen for filling in for me while I was on vacation for the past week. He did his usual terrific job and I can't thank him enough. If you're not reading Steve regularly at his usual site, do yourself a favor and bookmark him at The Carpetbagger Report.

As for me, I'm back just in time for all the last minute ethanol pandering before the Iowa caucuses. Yummy! Regular blogging will resume momentarily.

UPDATE: And speaking of both Iowa and the Carpetbagger Report, one of Steve's guest bloggers, a real live Iowan, has a post up this morning explaining the mechanics of how the Iowa caucuses work. If you're still confused about this, click here for a nickel explanation.

Kevin Drum 10:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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ASK NOT....One of the more common historical analogies of this year's presidential race is drawing a connection between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. Theodore Sorensen, the legendary JFK speechwriter, has himself promoted the similarities heavily, and it's not at all unusual to hear voters sympathetic to Obama make the same link.

I suspect even most Obama backers would concede, though, that it's an imprecise comparison. In a new web-only feature here at the Monthly, the New America Foundation's Ted Widmer, a foreign policy speechwriter for President Clinton in his second term, highlights the very different paths the two took on route to presidential campaigns.

One of the natural similarities is, of course, youth. In 1960, JFK was 43 -- three years younger than Obama is now. But Widmer notes that Kennedy's experiences were far different than those of the senator from Illinois.

The more one looks into Kennedy's lifelong preparation for the job, the more one realizes how misleading it was, then and now, to describe him as inexperienced. [...]

Kennedy, of course, was a decorated veteran of World War Two, which he fought in the South Pacific. But before and after the conflict, he had acquired travel experiences that most people take a lifetime to accumulate, richly detailed in biographies like Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life.... He maintained this lively interest in world affairs as a young Congressman. In 1951 he went on two extraordinary journeys, the first a five-week trip to Europe, from England to Yugoslavia, to consider the military situation on the continent. Then, a few months later, a seven-week, 25,000-mile trek that included Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, French Indochina, Korea and Japan. It was this trip, in particular, that awakened a sense in him that the old colonial empires were doomed, and that the French effort to keep Vietnam was especially futile.

Widmer makes a strong case that when it comes to foreign policy experience, Kennedy and Obama have backgrounds that vary widely. Take a look.

Steve Benen 5:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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January 2, 2008
By: Christina Larson

MIKE HUCKABEE, REALITY-TV PRODIGY....Republicans have long worked miracles in uniting improbable coalitions: social conservatives and Club for Growth plutocrats; missionaries and war-mongers; disgruntled blue-collars and impervious bluebloods. At present moment, Mike Huckabee has managed to, if not literally unite, at least draw affection from both bonafide social conservatives and ironic horn-rimmed glasses folks, like yours truly, who enjoy watching him call out the absurdities of the campaign process. (Note: that's some affection, not a vote; he has many dubious policy positions.)

Usually he does this by playing the straight man as a foil to overbearing reporters. The way he reacts to leading questions doesn't so much make him seem wise, as make the questioner seem hopelessly illogical. This tact allows Huckabee to stoke a certain vituperative glee without uttering a mean word himself. It's not the liberal media, but the loopy media. (And even the staunchest press advocates admit that this particular journalistic horserace has its loopy moments, its questionable Tim Russert ambushes.)

  • For instance, there's the reporter who wants to know, at the end of an Iowa pheasant hunt, if Huckabee has devilishly named the pheasants he downed "Romney" and "Thompson."

  • There's the debate questioner who persists in being hyper-literal about his own creationism question.

  • And, of course, there's the Chuck Norris ad, which isn't really about Chuck or Huckabee, but about the odd genre of endorsement ads.

I admit it. I'm cheering for Huckabee in these moments. It's not because I think his answers are right, but because I think he's correctly fingered the absurdity of the rituals.

The man might make a very scary president, but he's a genius at reality-TV. YouTube, after all, is really an extended reality show about the campaign. Most of the other candidates aren't acknowledging that the interview segments are pretty corny, and that the furniture in the living-room sets isn't their own. But Huckabee plays it with more panache than the Bachlorette. For better or worse; being president really isn't an episode of "Survivor."

UPDATE: In case it wasn't clear, I'm in no way rooting for Huckabee but trying to understand the uncanny (some may say dangerous) charisma that's fueling his surge.

Christina Larson 10:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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WHAT IF 2000 HAD GONE DIFFERENTLY?....Usually, when politicos engage in thought experiments about the 2000 race turning out differently, it's to speculate on the successes of a Gore administration. But Ramesh Ponnuru pondered a different question:

I wonder what would have happened if McCain had won the nomination in 2000. I think he would probably have won the general election. He wouldn't have cut taxes as much as Bush, but he would have prosecuted the Iraq war better and left the Republican party in better shape. Would he have nominated judges of the caliber of John Roberts and Samuel Alito? I'm not sure.

Andy McCarthy agrees that McCain may have been more effective in prosecuting a war in Iraq, but adds, "[W]ould he have invaded Iraq in the first place? I'd bet no. I realize he was very supportive of the Bush policy, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the policy he'd have made if he'd been president."

I had the same reaction to all of this as Yglesias: "My impression of McCain is that though he was a believer in restraint back in the 1980s, that by 2000 he was the neocon in the race. There was a reason, after all, why Bill Kristol and so forth were supporting him and it wasn't Kristol's commitment to campaign finance reform."

Exactly. Back in 2000, the neocons weren't exactly enthusiastic Bush backers. They didn't love his father; they weren't enamored with the then-governor's foreign policy team (Condi Rice?); and to hear him on the stump, he was for "humility" and against "nation building." McCain was the neocon; Bush was the neophyte.

As for post-election, McCain wasn't a cheerleader for the war in 2002 and 2003 out of party loyalty; he actually believed his rhetoric. (It included now-foolish pre-invasion predictions such as, "I believe that the success will be fairly easy"; "We're not going to have a bloodletting of trading American bodies for Iraqi bodies"; and "We will win this conflict. We will win it easily.")

I suppose whether a McCain administration would have been less inept in executing a war policy depends in part on your position on the "incompetence dodge," but given what we know, it seems unlikely a President McCain would have showed restraint towards Iraq.

Steve Benen 7:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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GIULIANI'S COLLAPSE....I suspect Josh Marshall speaks for many (including me) when he notes that now is an "appropriate moment to give thanks for something we can all be thankful for, even across our political divisions and support for contending candidates -- that's right, the collapsing campaign of Rudy Giuliani."

In Iowa, where admittedly Rudy hasn't made much of a run at it, he now appears on track to come in last place among the major candidates. And, to be clear, I'm here defining 'major' rather generously as including Ron Paul. In other words, sixth place.

In New Hampshire, Rudy is similarly dropping like a stone. He may still come in third ahead of Mike Huckabee, though they now seem to be roughly tied there.

Nationally, Rudy appears either tied with Huckabee or in a three or four way tie with Huckabee, Romney and McCain, depending on which of the very most recent polls you look at. And expect that number (to borrow the Army aphorism) not to survive first contact with his drubbing in Iowa and New Hampshire.... Even in his 'firewall' states like Florida, Rudy's lead is rapidly diminishing.

This comes on the heels of polling evidence that shows the more Republicans voters see Giuliani, the less they like him.

I realize the Giuliani campaign claims to have a plan -- premised almost exclusively on big victories in Florida and the Feb. 5 states -- but it seems pretty far fetched. The thing about losing repeatedly is that one starts to look like a loser. That's particularly true if an assumed frontrunner can't actually win when people start voting -- exacerbated if he finishes behind Ron Paul.

At this point, the former mayor's campaign apparently doesn't see the stars aligning exactly they way they'd hoped, so they're moving on to Plan B: more war talk (via Greg Sargent).

Steve Benen 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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TORTURE TAPES TO GET OUTSIDE PROSECUTOR....It looks like the CIA's torture-tape scandal has hit the big time.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed an outside prosecutor Wednesday to lead a criminal investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes.

The CIA acknowledged last month that it destroyed videos of officers using tough interrogation methods while questioning two al-Qaida suspects. The acknowledgment sparked a congressional inquiry and a preliminary investigation by Justice.

"The Department's National Security Division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter, and I have taken steps to begin that investigation," Mukasey said in a statement released Wednesday.

Overseeing the case will be John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, and a former colleague of Kevin O'Connor, the current #3 official in Mukasey's Justice Department.

It's often difficult to know for sure how independent a prosecutor is going to be, but the AP notes that Durham has "a reputation as one of the nation's most relentless prosecutors," which he earned "as an outside prosecutor overseeing an investigation into the FBI's use of mob informants in Boston and helped send several Connecticut public officials to prison."

That doesn't appear to be p.r. spin; Paul Kiel posted his c.v. and it certainly looks like he's a credible, veteran prosecutor.

Now, Durham will not, apparently, be a special counsel the way Patrick Fitzgerald was, but will instead serve as the acting U.S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia. Marty Lederman has a helpful overview on this point.

The Bush administration didn't exactly need yet another criminal investigation, and yet, it has one anyway. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 4:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MUCH TOO SILLY....In "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," King Arthur and his knights come across Camelot, and at least initially, couldn't be more pleased. After thinking it over, and considering exactly what goes on inside Camelot, Arthur concludes, "On second thought, let's not go to Camelot. It is a silly place."

I've come to think of the Iowa caucuses in the same light. Before the nominating process begins in earnest, Iowa has a certain Midwestern charm, filled with voters who appreciate their role in picking the next president. Like Camelot, it's something to look forward to. But as we finally come upon Jan. 3, and get a look at what's involved, it's pretty obvious that the Iowa caucuses are much too silly.

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty.

As in years past, voters must present themselves in person, at a specified hour, and stay for as long as two. [...] Now some are starting to ask why the first, crucial step in that process is also one that discourages so many people, especially working-class people, from participating.

"It disenfranchises certain voters or makes them make choices between putting food on the table and caucusing," said Tom Lindsey, a high school teacher in Iowa City. Mr. Lindsey plans to attend this year, but his neighbors include a cook who cannot slip away from his restaurant job on Thursday night and a mother who must care for her autistic child.

Voting by absentee ballot is prohibited. There are no secret ballots, a bedrock democratic principle. The notion of "one-person, one-vote" does not really apply (the NYT noted that votes are weighted according to a precinct's past level of participation).

There's a legitimate debate to be had about whether Iowa deserves to go before the other 49 other states, in every presidential campaign, forever. But this is a different question altogether: if Iowa is going to go first, could they at least use a reasonable process that encourages Iowans to participate?

Worse, Jeff Greenfield adds that Dems have actually made participating more difficult than Republicans.

The Republican Party, by contrast, has recognized that the change in function, from local party business to presidential contest, requires a change in form. The GOP caucus process is straightforward and simple: You show up, perhaps listen to appeals from candidate's supporters, and then write the name of your choice on a blank piece of paper and drop it into a box. The results are phoned into headquarters and tabulated. That's it—one person, one vote; the candidate with the most votes wins.

But the Democrats have a totally different thing going on; one that discards at least two key elements of an open, fair system.... When you show up at a Democratic caucus, you and your fellow participants divide up into different corners of a room, based on who you are for. You don't submit a secret ballot; you stand up to be publicly counted. What if you're in a union and want to pick someone your union hasn't endorsed, and your shop steward is there, watching you from across the room? Or the person who holds your mortgage? Or your spouse? Tough. "It is free, it is open, and you are there of your own volition," says Carrie Giddins, the Iowa Democratic Party's director of communications. But of course, you are also in a polling place on election day of your own volition -- and most free societies think that it's a good idea to let voters keep their choices to themselves.

And just to add insult to injury, no one is allowed to know exactly how many Iowans actually voted for the different candidates -- the Iowa Democratic Party gets the numbers, but keeps them private. (The results that designate the "winner" only reflect the share of state delegates each candidate has won.) As Greenfield noted, it means "a candidate who turned out more total supporters than anyone else, across the state, could wind up in second or third place -- and no one will know."

A secretive, undemocratic process, that avoids democratic norms, and discourages participation?

Like I said, it's a silly place.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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ROMNEY TAKES THE LOW ROAD....It's likely my standards are low, but I've been relatively pleased that the presidential race has featured very little talk about the Lewinsky scandal. Going into the race, I was a little worried the media would be preoccupied with this nonsense, and Republican candidates, anxious to score cheap points, would make hay of the decade-old controversy.

By and large, that hasn't happened. But leave it to Mitt Romney to take the low road.

"We'll try and represent ourselves and our nation well also to our kids because I think, I think kids watch the White House and there have been failures in the past in the White House -- if you go back to the Clinton years and recognize that -- that I think had an enormous impact on the culture of our country," Romney said. "And we'll do our very best, our whole family will to -- well, if we can't be perfect, we'll do our best to uphold and to be a good example for the kinds of values I think people expect from our leaders."

Wow, that sure is dumb. The Lewinsky scandal had an "enormous impact" undermining American culture? Seriously?

This is actually the second time Romney has given up on decency in emphasizing this, the first coming in October when the former governor said the Clintons hurt "our nation's character."

This strikes me as misguided. First, I haven't seen any polling data on this, but I really doubt voters still care about the Lewinsky scandal a decade later. Indeed, there was scant evidence voters cared about the scandal at the time. If anyone looks bad 10 years after the fact, it's the Republican attack machine that launched an absurd impeachment crusade.

Second, if Romney really wants to go after a rival candidate over "family values," he's picked the wrong target. Indeed, the first two admitted adulterers to ever seek a major party presidential nomination are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. (Is this some kind of bank-shot attack? If it is, it's awfully clunky.)

I can appreciate the fact that Romney is in a tough spot right now, but gratuitous references to Clinton scandals in the 1990s only make him look desperate and classless.

Steve Benen 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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GOP 'IDENTITY CRISIS'....After a year of presidential politics, it's hardly a secret that the Republican Party is burdened with a none-of-the-above problem -- the GOP has, at various times, had about a dozen candidates seeking the party's nomination, and none of them can draw support from all the various Republican constituencies. It seems hard to believe, but only 42% of Iowa Republicans* say they could support any of their party's nominees (among Iowa Dems, the number is 61%).

But there are several worthwhile reports this morning that point to the broader problem for the GOP -- it's not just that their presidential field is unimpressive, it's that the fissures between the party's various factions are quickly becoming chasms.

The long-standing coalition of social, economic and national security conservatives that elevated the Republican Party to political dominance has become so splintered by the presidential primary campaign that some party leaders fear a protracted nomination fight that could hobble the eventual nominee. [...]

That instability has fueled fears that if a winner does not quickly emerge in a primary calendar loaded with contests in January and early February, a prolonged primary fight could delay the GOP's focus on election day in a campaign in which Democratic voters already have contributed more money and, according to several polls, expressed greater satisfaction with their choice of presidential contenders.

The WSJ's Jackie Calmes and Ross Douthat are thinking along the same lines.

Business interests, the religious right, and defense hawks have been kept together under the Republicans' umbrella with smoke, mirrors, and chewing gum for the better part of a generation. But now the factions are drawing lines in the sand, and making clear who they won't vote for -- business interests won't tolerate Huckabee, the religious right rejects McCain or Giuliani, and hawks look askance at everyone but McCain or Giuliani. Romney has tried for a year to tell all the constituencies that he's with them, but given that he felt the opposite up until fairly recently, no one seems to believe him.

Granted, this isn't the first time talk of a GOP "identity crisis" has emerged, but I'd argue it's probably the most credible. The Republican factions used to be able to largely ignore one another; now they're actively hoping to defeat one another, and there's no presidential candidate who can step up to keep the gang together.

Yes, this can change. Once there's a nominee, and once Dems offer the GOP a specific target, the factions tend to settle down and get back together.

But I'd argue that more so than in any cycle in recent history, this seems far less likely now. And with no frontrunner, and the possibility of a protracted nominating process, this may very well get ugly and leave the coalition in tatters.

* poll data corrected.

Steve Benen 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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January 1, 2008

WITH 48 HOURS TO GO.... Let's see, we're just two days until the Iowa caucuses; do you know where your candidates are?

* Kucinich is urging his Iowa supporters to back Obama (unlike in '04, when he partnered with Edwards);

* Edwards has picked up Ralph Nader's backing, at least for now, while the former Green Party candidate ponders his 716th independent bid;

* Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama are at odds over Edwards' controversial decision to stay within the limits of the public-financing system;

* Clinton stepped on her message a bit by getting confused about scheduled Pakistani elections (and Biden is trying to take advantage);

* Romney questioned Bush's "management" of the war in Iraq;

* Unlike the Register, the latest CNN poll shows Clinton leading Obama in Iowa, 33% to 31%, and Romney leading Huckabee, 31% to 28%;

* Huckabee is still loving those carefully-placed Christian symbols in his TV ads;

* And Nagourney raises an often-overlooked point: Don't be surprised if the results on Thursday night, particularly on the Democratic side, are so close that they "muddle things further and potentially extend the time before Democrats know their nominee." (Imagine that; we might have to wait for more than one state to participate before knowing who the nominee is going to be.)

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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HUCKABEE'S BLOOD-LUST?....I hesitate to give too much attention to Mike Huckabee's promote-my-ad-for-free attack, but Michael Crowley raises a good point.

About mid-way through the ad, during a litany of accusations against Mitt Romney, Huckabee criticizes his rival with this data point: "No executions."

Apparently, Huckabee -- you know, the evangelical, pro-life Republican -- is going after Romney for not having executed any Americans during his gubernatorial tenure.

I realize Republican politics are far more crass than norms should allow, but it's disconcerting to think "You didn't kill anyone" has suddenly become a criticism in conservative circles.

Clearly, the implication is that Romney is somehow "soft on crime." But given the Wayne Dumond controversy, this seems like a subject matter Huckabee should want to avoid.

Steve Benen 3:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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COHEN GETS MENDACIOUS ABOUT MENDACITY....It's tempting to skip past Richard Cohen columns just as a matter of habit, but today's op-ed is so odd, one wonders how Washington Post editors even let it run.

The piece, ostensibly, is about taking Barack Obama to task over a misleading statistic he used in a speech. But the piece starts out badly and goes downhill from there:

John Edwards lied about the cost of his haircuts. Fred Thompson lied about lobbying for a pro-choice outfit. John McCain insists that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation." Mitt Romney concocted the story about how his father marched with Martin Luther King Jr. And Rudy Giuliani is a one-man fib machine -- everything from why he had to provide police protection for his then-mistress to the survivability rates for prostate cancer in Britain....

The irony is rich. Cohen wrote a piece about the importance of accuracy, and the first nine words -- "John Edwards lied about the cost of his haircuts" -- are false. If Cohen wants to raise a fuss about the cost of Edwards' haircuts, that would merely be annoying (though it would be consistent with the Post's disconcerting obsession with the subject). Instead, the columnist emphasizes the importance of getting the details right, while making up a "lie" that never happened.

The McCain example is also bizarre. Yes, the Arizona senator claimed we were founded as a "Christian nation," and we were not. But that's not an example of mendacity; it's an example of ignorance. McCain wasn't lying; he was just foolishly pandering to the religious right with nonsense. That's worthy of criticism, of course, but for different reasons.

If Cohen really wanted to throw McCain into the mix, he could have at least found some actual examples of the senator's mendacity, such as McCain's lies about his criticism of the Rumsfeld policy, or his spectacular lies about going for a safe stroll in a Baghdad market in March.

One gets the impression that Cohen, who's been around long enough to know better, just casually threw in some accusations of dishonesty in the hopes of achieving some kind of "balance." Regrettably he did so a) without getting his facts straight; and b) in a column about the importance of people getting their facts straight.

It's really not a good way to start out the new year.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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GETTING STINGY WITH DEBATE INVITATIONS....After having watched every major debate for both parties' presidential candidates, I can certainly understand the temptation on the part of organizers to limit participants. The more candidates on the stage, the greater the need for shorter answers and fewer questions.

Having said that, this just isn't kosher.

Republican Rep. Ron Paul and his supporters are targeting the Fox News network today after an Internet discussion spread during the weekend that the cable network wasn't giving the Texas lawmaker a seat at the table for a New Hampshire forum scheduled two days before the state's Jan. 8 primary. [...]

This morning, Washington Wire received a mass email from an independent Paul supporter calling on his considerable online organization to write to Fox employees and protest the decision. The email listed the addresses of about 60 Fox employees, from press contacts to hosts Bill O'Reilly, Shepard Smith, Neil Cavuto and Brit Hume.

"Has Fox News Excluded Ron Paul From the Pre NH Primary Forum?" the email said, "Fox News cannot just stifle public opinion. debate and impact a primary election by excluding Ron Paul just because they don't like his message of freedom and liberty," the email said (typos included).

Fox News and the New Hampshire Republican Party will host a forum at St. Anselm College, featuring Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. Given that Paul has about twice as much support in New Hampshire as Thompson, he's likely to finish ahead of Giuliani in Iowa, and he's raised more money in the fourth quarter than any of them, it's hard to understand how the Republican network can justify excluding Paul. (Fox News has not announced its criteria for participation.)

What's more, the state GOP has said it wants Paul on the stage, meaning that it's Fox News specifically that's decided to exclude the Texas Republican from the event.

Josh Marshall added, "Paul's out because he's not a Fox News Bush-clone. Say whatever you want about the guy, Fox News shouldn't be able to silence him because they don't like his views."

I'm not even close to a Ron Paul fan, but I'm certainly willing to concede that Fox News shouldn't stack the deck like this.

Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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UNEXPECTED RESULTS FROM THE DMR....It seemed as if the political/media world had finally settled on a narrative for the Iowa caucuses -- Hillary Clinton had a reasonably solid lead, John Edwards had the big mo and was in position to pull the upset, and Mike Huckabee was sinking fast.

Of course, of all of that may still be true, but the highly-anticipated poll from the Des Moines Register doesn't fit the narrative at all.

Among Dems, Barack Obama is in the lead with 32% (up from 28% in early December), followed by Clinton with 25% (unchanged), and Edwards with 24% (up from 23%). No other candidate had more than 6% support, and Obama's seven-point lead is the largest any Democrat has enjoyed in any DMR poll this year.

Among Republicans, Huckabee leads with 32% (up from 29% in early December), Mitt Romney is second with 24% (down from 26%), and John McCain is third with 13% (up from 7%). Rudy Giuliani has dropped to a distant sixth place with 5% support -- four points behind Ron Paul.

There's no shortage of analysis about What It All Means, but here are a few points to consider:

* The DMR poll isn't exactly in line with other recent numbers from the state, but it's generally the most respected poll in the state, and has a strong track record for accuracy. (The caveat to this, of course, is that all polling over the holidays is inherently tricky.)

* Ben Smith notes the makeup of the poll participants: "The Register poll is including a surprising 40% of independents and 5% of Republicans among the people likely to attend the Democratic caucuses. If that pans out on January 4, it's hard to see how Obama wouldn't win. On the other hand, as David Yepsen points out, Hillary is actually winning among Democrats, who made up 80% of the caucus-goers last cycle."

* The Edwards campaign is arguing that the poll is exaggerating the likely participation of first-timers, which may very well be true.

* Noam Scheiber raises a very interesting point about self-fulfilling prophecies: "[T]he Register poll isn't just a description of what's going on. More than any other poll, it actually influences what goes on. Iowans will wake up [today] to find a headline that says, 'Obama Widens Lead Over Clinton.' And, human psychology being what it is, that may well push them into the Obama camp Thursday night."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 10:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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