Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 29, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TANKERS!....Northrop Grumman and EADS, the parent company of Airbus, have beaten out Boeing for a huge contract to provide aerial tankers to the Air Force. McClatchy reports the reaction:

"I am extremely disappointed in the Air Force's decision to choose Northrup Grumman/EADS over Boeing to make the critical new aerial-refueling tanker. From the beginning, the Air Force vowed to have an open competition process," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "I look forward to seeing their justification for this unfortunate outcome. If this decision holds, it will be at the cost of American jobs and American dollars, if not our national security."

Huh. I wonder why Roberts is so bent out of shape. Let's see if the LA Times has anything to say about this:

Boeing, which was considered the odds-on favorite because it built the tankers that are flying today, had planned to assemble its planes, based on its 767 passenger jet, in Everett, Wash., then ship them to Wichita, Kan., to modify them into tankers.

Ah. That explains it. Any other reaction?

In Paris, at the annual air shows, Airbus officials and Southern politicians proudly displayed the proposed European tanker offering and made the argument that if the United States wants to sell its weapons to European countries, it should also open its doors to foreign suppliers.

That's mighty open-minded of those Southern politicians, isn't it? Back to the LA Times:

In recent months, Northrop tried to burnish its bid by proposing to assemble the plane in Alabama [and Mississippi! Don't forget Mississippi! –ed.]. Its initial plans called for the planes to be assembled in France before being shipped to Alabama to undergo tanker modifications.

Gotcha. Nothing new here, of course. Just thought it was worth pointing out that all huffery and puffery from congress critters about this deal should be taken even less seriously than usual. When it comes to military bidding wars, national security is about the last thing on their minds.

Kevin Drum 6:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING.... Once every four years, on leap year day, I figure our cats need the day off. So today we have some guest catblogging, courtesy of reader Greg S. of Orlando, Florida. I'll let Greg have the floor:

A Rare Quantum Event

Three cats in a chair, spontaneously, not posed. The little kitten Cashew was first, and fell asleep upright in the corner. Then Velvet, the 2-year-old black female. Then the big 11-year-old guy Patches — without disrupting either of the other two — amazing! When Patches gets in a chair, the other two usually run.

I imagine everyone has seen though this ruse already and realizes that what really happened is that I didn't take any pictures of Inkblot and Domino this week and was saved at the last moment by Greg. But let's all pretend this was a well-planned leap year day thing anyway, OK?

Kevin Drum 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

"IT'S THREE AM"....The question in this campaign ad is: Who's going to answer the White House phone when it rings at 3 am? Jason Zengerle comments:

I actually thought this commercial was pretty effective — right up until the very end when I realized it was for Hillary. I wonder if McCain can just buy the first 25 seconds of it from her and then recut the ending so he can use it in the general election.

There's something wrong with that response. Why is it somehow OK for John McCain to run on the basis of being the guy who can protect America while Hillary shouldn't? Why are we often so eager to practically concede to Republicans exactly the stereotypes they want voters to believe about us? Seems to me that Democrats ought to get used to the idea of competing on this dimension regardless of whether ads like this are precisely the right way to do it.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (192)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE HAGEE FACTOR....I don't usually have much use for Bill Donohue, but at least he's bipartisan in his thundering denunciations:

Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in a statement today that [John] Hagee has written extensively in negative ways about the Catholic Church, "calling it 'The Great Whore,' an 'apostate church,' the 'anti-Christ,' and a 'false cult system.'"

"Senator Obama has repudiated the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, another bigot. McCain should follow suit and retract his embrace of Hagee," Donohue said.

Plus this, of course:

In "Jerusalem Countdown: A Prelude To war" Hagee has stated that Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves by rebelling against God and that the Holocaust was God's way of forcing Jews to move to Israel where, Hagee predicts according to his interpretation of Biblical scripture, they will be mostly killed in the apocalyptic Mideast conflict Hagee's new lobbying group seems to be working to provoke.

This is what is quaintly known as "pro-Israel" in conservative circles. And McCain is delighted to have Hagee's support. Because, you know, he's such a maverick.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAPPY LEAP DAY....I figure I probably have 30 or 40 readers who were born on February 29. So this question is for you: when do you celebrate your birthday in non-leap years? February 28? Or March 1?

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA vs. CLINTON....It's late and I don't have time to think of something really insightful to say about this, so I'll just throw it out. It's from the latest Pew poll, and it shows that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are likely to beat John McCain in a general election. What's odd, though, is something we've seen before: Hillary's strength among self-identified Democrats. Obama, as expected, draws a few more Republicans and independents than Hillary does, but Hillary has far fewer defections among Democrats. In all, 89% of Democrats would vote for her while only 81% would vote for Obama. Daniel Larison points out some additional detail:

Most remarkable of all is that Obama is weaker among Democrats in all age groups than Clinton. He is four points weaker, and McCain five points stronger, among Democratic voters aged 18-49 than in a Clinton v. McCain race. The losses are even greater among Democratic voters 50-64 and 65+.

In fact, in a matchup against McCain, the only subgroup of Democrats that supports Obama more than Hillary is African-Americans — and even in their case only by a tiny margin. I don't quite know what this means, but it's worth thinking about.

Kevin Drum 3:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (277)

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February 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FOR BLOGGERS....If you are a foreign national wanted in Los Angeles on suspicion of hiring a gunman to shoot down your wife in broad daylight, you should probably avoid announcing on your blog that you plan to take a trip to U.S. soil. Just sayin'.

Kevin Drum 8:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BUCKLEY PROSE STYLE...Andrew Sullivan on William F. Buckley:

I know we shouldn't speak ill of the dead — but am I the only person who found Buckley close to unreadable a lot of the time? I never read his fiction, but his nonfiction was packed [with] endless sentences, ridiculously long words, and meaning that sometimes took several reads to excavate. I don't know how many times I finished a Buckley column with the thought: what on earth was he trying to say?

Actually, that's often how I felt too, and it wasn't his vocabulary so much as it was his fondness for a veering, circuitous style that never quite seemed willing to stop poking around the edges of his ideas and finally stake out a position. But I only occasionally read his columns, and even that only recently. I always figured that maybe his writing just wasn't as sharp as it had been 20 or 30 years ago.

But maybe not. Was he always like that? Is this going to unleash an avalanche of people who take a deep breath and finally admit that they too had a hard time figuring out what Buckley was trying to say much of the time?

Kevin Drum 6:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

KITTY HAWK RUMORS....India currently has one aircraft carrier that's due to be decommissioned in a few years. Its replacement is supposed to be the Admiral Gorshkov from Russia, but the refit work on the Gorshkov has been slow, expenses have risen, and there are reasons to think that the Russian shipyard doing the work isn't up to the task in any case. In the wake of all this, Defense Industry Daily reports that India might soon have an alternative:

As reports begin to suggest that Russia and India are too far apart to agree on the Gorshkov refit, speculation grows that the USA intends to solve India's problem with a stunning offer during Defense Secretary Gates' imminent visit to india. instead of retiring and decommissioning its last conventionally-powered carrier, the 81,800 ton/ 74,200t USS Kitty Hawk [CV-63, commissioned 1961], would be handed over to India when its current tour in Japan ends in 2008. The procedure would resemble the January 2007 "hot transfer" of the amphibious landing ship USS Trenton [LPD-14], which become INS Jalashva. The cost? This time, it would be free. As in, $0.

Free aside from the billions of dollars in maintenance and fighter jet contracts India would sign with us, of course.

As it happens, the Navy has flatly denied the Kitty Hawk rumors. But a denial one day doesn't mean there will be a denial the next, does it? So, since things are a little slow today, I thought I'd pass this along for its gossip value. Today's question, then, is: Would this be a brilliant stroke or utter lunacy? Comments are open.

Originally via Winds of Change.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

GALBRAITH AND BUCKLEY....Jamie Galbraith has a brief and gracious remembrance of William F. Buckley posted over at the New Republic that's worth a look. I don't myself have anything to say about WFB because, aside from reading God and Man at Yale several years ago, I'm just not very familiar with Buckley's work other than by reputation. Better then to stay quiet and be thought ill-informed than to open my mouth and remove all doubt.

But Galbraith's piece raises a question: are there any current examples among high-profile liberals and conservatives of the kind of close friendship and mutual respect that Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith shared? Ezra Klein suggested yesterday that the era of big, popular, serious political thinkers has been permanently eclipsed with the deaths of people like WFB, Galbraith, Milton Friedman, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Norman Mailer. "Now, the space they inhabited in the discourse is held by the Coulters and O'Reilly's of the world." Maybe so, and it's hard to picture, say, Ann Coulter and Michael Moore enjoying each other's company socially and taking each other's ideas seriously.

In the blogosphere, we tend to think that's for the best. Politics is serious stuff, and if you're serious about it you shouldn't be on the cocktail circuit every night consorting with the enemy. That's the tribal path that Congress went down many years ago, and it's one that the rest of us have since followed as well. Most of us, anyway.

Still and all, it's kind of stultifying, isn't it? In the post-Gingrich/Limbaugh/Rove/Norquist era that we live in there might not be much we can do about it, but that doesn't mean we have to like it. And, most of the time, I don't.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEADERLESS JIHAD....Former CIA officer Marc Sageman has collected data on more than 500 Islamic terrorists in an effort to understand who they are, why they attack, and how to stop them. David Ignatius summarizes his new book, Leaderless Jihad, in the Washington Post today:

The heart of Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat — and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain's Web site puts it, the United States is facing "a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists" spawned by al-Qaeda.

The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a "clash of civilizations."

It's the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman's account, it's a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls "terrorist wannabes." Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.

....Sageman's harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. "Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear," he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.

This sounds genuinely fascinating, and Sageman explains his data at greater length in this month's issue of Foreign Policy. This is something I'd almost certainly read and comment on if I could, but sadly, it's for subscribers only. Maybe I'll buy a copy at lunch and report back.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NOISE MACHINE GETS NOISIER....Now see, this is why Republican strategists are cleverer than me. For the past couple of weeks they've been hammering Democrats for being weak on terror because they oppose retroactive immunity for telecom companies that may have broken the law after 9/11. And that's pretty much what I'd expect them to do. But it never would have occurred to me to switch gears and claim that the real reason Dems were opposing immunity was because they're slaves of the trial lawyer lobby. That's inspiration. Two right-wing hot buttons at once!

Of course, it's ridiculous enough that it's not getting any traction except in GOP fundraising mailers aimed at the fever swamp, but it turns out that there's actually something to this. It's just not on the Democratic side:

With the House Democrats' refusal to grant retroactive immunity to phone companies — stalling the rewrite of the warrantless wiretapping program — GOP leadership aides are grumbling that their party isn't getting more political money from the telecommunications industry.

...."There's no question that from time to time staff, and maybe some Members, say to fellow travelers: 'Are you giving us some air cover? Are you helping us help you?'"

You almost feel sorry for them, don't you? Almost.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE AWAKENING BEGINS TO NOD....Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit Paley of the Washington Post report that although U.S. efforts to manage the various Sunni Awakenings are "still largely effective," some pretty serious trouble spots have started to emerge:

Nowhere are the tensions more serious than in Diyala, one of the major battlegrounds in the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Awakening groups, also known here as Popular Committees, are demanding the resignation of the Shiite provincial police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghanem al-Qureishi. They accuse him of running death squads and torturing Sunnis, allegations that Qureishi denied in an interview. The Awakening leaders are also seeking recognition as an official force.

On Wednesday, they vowed to dissolve the committees if their demands were not met. "In the last 10 months, we haven't received any kind of assistance or help from Americans or Iraqi government," said Abu Talib, a top Awakening leader. "On the contrary, the police started to hunt us down."

....The U.S. military acknowledges that it is caught in the middle of a political struggle. "Yes, they are frustrated," said Lt. Col. Ricardo Love, commander of the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, who works in Baqubah, the provincial capital. "They think we can make the government of Iraq do anything. We tell them we don't control the government. But they think we are the mighty power."

Killings of Awakening members are up, there's been infiltration of Awakening groups by al-Qaeda in Iraq, and tensions with the Shiite central government are increasing. None of this is surprising as time continues to slip by without significant political progress, and it's probably not too dangerous until/unless it reaches a tipping point of some kind. Still, it's hardly good news. The Awakening movement was arguably more important than the surge in reducing violence during 2007, and if it starts to fray at the same time that the surge is drawing down, a lot of those gains will be wiped out. Keep your fingers crossed.

Kevin Drum 1:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

IN WHICH I SYMPATHIZE WITH CLARENCE THOMAS....The Associated Press notes an anniversary:

Two years and 144 cases have passed since Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last spoke up at oral arguments. It is a period of unbroken silence that contrasts with the rest of the court's unceasing inquiries.

....Leaning back in his leather chair, often looking up at the ceiling, Thomas takes it all in, but he never joins in.

This may actually be the only topic that I agree with Thomas about. As near as I can tell, oral arguments before the Supreme Court are treated primarily as blood sport, sort of like frat hazing but for grown men and women. The putative point of the proceedings — i.e., presentation of a legal argument — is never allowed to take unfold in anything like a judicious manner, and the lawyers' arguments are entirely contained in their briefs anyway. The questioning rarely seems to add anything to them.

Frankly, I'd be surprised if any justice ever has changed his or her mind about a case based on the questions they ask during oral arguments. My guess is that Thomas has figured this out and sees no point in joining in the charade. I can't say that I blame him.

UPDATE: Commenter Kevin provides some further insight:

I attended a speech by someone from the Office of the Solicitor General last year, and he spoke about this exact topic. He has argued many, many cases before the Supreme Court. He said that for most cases that get receive media attention (i.e. those that deal with politically sensitive issues), there is little, if any, possibility that oral arguments will make any difference. However, in some of the more technical types of cases, such as cases that deal with obscure procedural nuances, oral arguments can help to flesh out a party's case. On occasion, orals can change the opinion of a justice, but probably not in the cases that laypeople care about.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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February 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TIMETABLES....The Bush administration has finally agreed on a timetable for troop withdrawals in Iraq:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged the Turkish military on Wednesday to abandon its invasion of guerrilla-controlled lands in the northernmost reaches of Iraq by mid-March.

.... "It's very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave," Mr. Gates told reporters in India on Wednesday...."I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that, not months," Mr. Gates said, becoming the first senior American official to demand a strict timeline for the Turkish operation to end.

Oops. Wrong troops. Sorry about that. But apparently it worked:

Turkey's military operations against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq will last another three or four days, a senior Turkish official said yesterday, after Washington called for a speedy end to the incursion...."Ten days will be a good enough time for the operation. It has been going on now for six or seven days, so another three or four days should wrap it up," the official said.

Our concern, entirely reasonably, is that military action is predictably unpredictable and an extended intervention risks destabilizing northern Iraq and widening into a broader and deadlier conflict. I wonder why nobody thinks of this stuff when we're the ones doing the intervening?

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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By: Kevin Drum

GREETINGS FROM MUSIC CITY....Matt Yglesias draws my attention to a Tennessee Republican Party press release that goes the whole nine yards against Barack Obama: it's got the Hussein middle name, it's got the Farrakhan stuff, it's got the picture of Obama "dressed in Muslim attire," and it's got "more disturbing evidence of Obama's anti-Israel leanings."

Indeed. And all from the poisonous pen of Nashville blogger Bill Hobbs, who is currently the communications director for the Tennessee GOP. But Bill is fighting back against the elitists who find this stuff loathsome. He's mad because he thinks the press should be paying attention to Obama's obvious pro-terrorist sympathies, but instead, for some reason, they're getting bent out of shape about his use of Obama's middle name:

Apparently, using Barack Hussein Obama's middle name is a no-no....Silly, of course. Run a Lexis-Nexis search for the number of times the media has used Hillary Rodham Clinton's middle name, often to underscore her feminist leanings and independence from her husband. Do a search for how many times during the 1988 and 1992 campaigns the media called the first George Bush "George Herbert Walker Bush," to underscore the media's protrayal of Bush as a preppie elitist.

Well, I'm convinced! Nice work, Republican Party of Tennessee.

UPDATE: Ah, I see that the photo and the Hussein references have now been removed from the press release. Apparently someone at the Tennessee GOP has more sense than Bill Hobbs.

Kevin Drum 3:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

WE ARE ALL INSIDERS NOW....Lee Gomes writes in the Wall Street Journal that the wide availability of insider political sites (The Note, The Page, First Read, etc.) has made us all into slaves of Beltway horserace analysis and MSM conventional wisdom. Plus this:

Finally, the sites make it easy to lose perspective. Seeing a story sweep through a site like memeorandum.com, it might be difficult to resist joining the herd and its conventional wisdom. Indeed, some Web authors say they shut down their computers to give themselves a chance to think. "There is a value in crafting your post without having read what the cognoscenti have already written about it," said Marc Ambinder, who is blogging the election for the Atlantic.

Amen. I think more reporters ought to screw up their courage and do that more often. In fact, I'd say that some of the worst posts I've written (this one, for example) have come when I noticed that a lot of other people were writing about something and I felt like that meant I had to weigh in too. But, really, it's just the opposite: if everybody else is already writing about something, what's the marginal value of one more opinion? Unless I have something genuinely new to say, pretty small.

Conversely, what's the value of a personal take on events that's not heavily colored by what everybody else has said? Potentially, at least, much larger. So if that's my comparative advantage, it's probably best to stick with it as much as possible.

Via James Joyner.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC UPDATE....Yesterday: Google shares plummet. Today: Fed Chief signals yet more interest rates soon to come. Coincidence? I think not. Apparently Google even controls the Fed now.

So what happened? AP put it this way on Tuesday: "Consumer confidence plunged, the wholesale inflation rate soared, the number of homes being foreclosed jumped, home prices fell sharply and a report predicts big increases in health care costs." Bernanke puts it this way:

"The economic situation has become distinctly less favorable" since the summer, the Fed chief told the House Financial Services Committee.

....There are dangers that the economy will weaken even further. "The risks include the possibilities that the housing market or labor market may deteriorate more than is currently anticipated and that credit conditions may tighten substantially further," Bernanke cautioned.

Fasten your seat belts.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

TURKEY AND THE KURDS....Matt Yglesias comments on the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, which the Iraqi government is (a) unhappy with but (b) unable to do much about:

Given the Iraqi government's dependence on the U.S. military, a Turkish invasion of Iraq that the United States approves of isn't something the Iraqi government can or will do anything about. Thus this incident becomes one more case where U.S.-supported Iraqi leaders see their credibility as national leaders leeched away. If you think of the goal in Iraq as helping to prop up a government that'll be able to stand up on its own, this sort of thing is a disaster. If, by contrast, the idea is to ensure that the authorities governing Iraq are permanently dependent on external American support to maintain their grip on power, it's actually pretty good.

I'm not sure this is quite right. As near as I can tell, the central government in Iraq doesn't actually care all that much about the Turkish incursion. They object in a pro forma way, of course, but that's about it. Iraqi Kurdistan has been de facto independent since 1991, and in a practical sense the central government has neither the power nor the authority to do anything there. This would be true whether or not the U.S. withdrew from Iraq.

But it's only the central government that's dependent on U.S. troops. We have only a token presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the peshmerga forces there are decidedly capable of acting on their own if they choose to. What's more important, then, is whether Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani eventually decides that enough's enough and defies the U.S. by launching a counterattack using peshmerga troops — and that almost certainly depends on just how far the Turks go, how much pressure the U.S. brings to bear, and the state of public opinion in Kurdistan. So far he's limited himself to warnings, but that may or may not be as far as it goes. Judah Grunstein has a bit of background here if you're interested in the current state of play.

UPDATE: Here's the latest:

Lawmakers in northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region authorized their military Tuesday to intervene if Turkish forces pursuing anti-government rebels bring their battle into civilian areas....The Kurdish regional government's parliament held a special session Tuesday in Irbil to discuss the issue and voted to authorize the regional military force, the peshmerga, to respond if civilian areas are attacked.

But Turkey says it ain't leaving. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE WRAPUP....Was tonight's debate really the last one? Damn. And I was finally getting to like them.

Just kidding. Seriously, though, can someone please put a sock in Tim Russert? I didn't even see the entire exchange, but his badgering of Obama on the Louis Farrakhan issue was pretty wretched. It was maybe legitimate to bring it up in the first place, but to keep at it well after Obama had made his position crystal clear was beyond the pale.

Nor did Hillary cover herself with glory on this question, with her inane "denounce" vs. "reject" comeback. Obama's response — Fine, if it will make you happy, then I denounce and reject Farrakhan — was dexterous and smooth.

Overall, I thought Clinton did about as well as she could have on the attack front, but it just wasn't enough. Obama seemed the better, more grounded debater tonight. For example, when Hillary made the point that although Obama's 2002 anti-war speech was all well and good, once he was actually in the Senate he ended up voting the same way she did, I was nodding along. It's a legitimate point. But Obama's answer was pretty good:

It was not a matter of, well, here is the initial decision, but since then we've voted the same way. Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is, who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch? And the fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but in fact she was ready to give in to George Bush on day one on this critical issue.

Clinton and Obama are too skilled for either one to ever land a knockout blow in these things, but I'd give tonight's debate to Obama on points. Whether voters who are tuning in for the first time feel the same way, I couldn't say.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (156)

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By: Kevin Drum

GETTING TOUGH ON LOITERING....The last time I checked in on British attempts to keep teenagers from loitering where they aren't wanted, authorities were dispersing them by playing classical music ("The most effective deterrents, according to a spokesman for Transport for London, are anything sung by Pavarotti or written by Mozart"). Apparently things have gotten a little more hard-nosed since then:

Jordan Webb can predict the exact time of day his head will start aching. If the 10-year-old lingers outside the Reynolds grocery store past 5 p.m., a small black device latched onto the storefront and operated on a timer will emit a high-pitched sound that makes the boy's skull feel like it's popping.

....Jordan is referring to the Mosquito, a $975 transmitter designed to disperse young loiterers by making a loud humming noise that most people older than 25, such as his 41-year-old mother, can't hear. The Mosquito has sparked a new sort of buzz in Britain, this time among political and civil rights groups that say the device is discriminatory and treats young people as second-class citizens.

....On a recent sunny afternoon in this historic town near Oxford, Jordan was kicking a soccer ball outside Reynolds with four other boys his age, all wearing red Manchester United jerseys. At 5 p.m., right on schedule, the grocery store's Mosquito began squealing. Jordan said he felt a painful "scratch" in his ear, and he hustled across the road to get out of the machine's 50-foot range.

Put aside the civil rights question for a moment. Why is this even legal? If Reynolds were transmitting an 85-decibel screech in normal frequencies that extended 50 feet into public space, it would be plainly illegal, wouldn't it? It would be one thing if it were limited to their store, but surely private property owners aren't allowed to transmit irritating sounds in a 50-foot radius outside their own property, are they? How can this possibly be lawful?

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA THE PRAGMATIST?....I have to agree with Ezra about Noam Scheiber's recent TNR piece that tries to make the case that Barack Obama has surrounded himself with unusually pragmatic and independent thinking economists. The problem is that Scheiber's examples just don't back up his claim. Take this, for example:

Just because the Obamanauts are intellectually modest and relatively free of ideology, that doesn't mean their policy goals lack ambition. In many cases, the opposite is true. Obama's plan to reduce global warming involves an ambitious cap-and-trade arrangement that would lower carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. But cap-and-trade — in which the government limits the overall level of emissions and allows companies to buy and sell pollution permits — is itself a market-oriented approach. The companies most efficient at cutting emissions will sell permits to less efficient companies, achieving the desired reductions with minimal drag on the economy.

But this is precisely the same policy proposed by both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. So why does this tell us anything about how pragmatic and grounded Team Obama is?

It's probably worth adding something to this, too: the reason that all the Dems favor cap-and-trade almost certainly isn't because of any special devotion to market-oriented approaches. More likely, it's because it accomplishes much the same thing as a carbon tax but isn't actually a carbon tax. In other words, they're doing it because they don't want to take the risk of supporting a major new tax and getting attacked for it. That is pragmatic, but it's political pragmatism, not economic pragmatism. There's a difference.

Kevin Drum 12:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON ANTIDEPRESSANTS....This is obviously not the biggest deal in the world, but yesterday I noticed that a new study suggesting that certain antipressants weren't very effective had gotten big play in Britain and zero play in the U.S. Today I checked back, and the story had spread not only to more British sites, but also to news outlets in France, Germany, India, New Zealand, Canada, Thailand, and elsewhere. Mysteriously, though, the U.S. was still almost completely AWOL. There were short pieces on MSNBC and Fox, and longer pieces at the Washington Post and Time. That was pretty much it. It's really very strange that this story is being almost completely ignored here.

For what it's worth, the Time piece does a good job of explaining why the study is important:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the researchers writing in PLoS Medicine were recently able to obtain [...] data, they believe, that lets them avoid a bias that often plagues reviews of previous research: the tendency for conclusive positive results to be published, sometimes more than once, and thus over-represented, while mediocre results can be ignored or even swept under the rug.

Drug companies claim the review is still flawed, however. One massive problem: there are many more recent studies than those surveyed in the article, which looked only at pre-approval trials conducted before 1999.

....The companies are correct in claiming there is far more data available on SSRI drugs now than there was 10 or 20 years ago. But Kirsch maintains that the results he and colleagues reviewed make up "the only data set we have that is not biased." He points out that currently, researchers are not compelled to produce all results to an independent body once the drugs have been approved; but until they are, they must hand over all data. For that reason, while the PLoS Medicine paper data may not be perfect, it may still be among the best we've got.

In other words, there might be a lot more data now, but it's hard to trust it because drug companies systematically suppress negative findings after they get FDA approval and no longer have to follow FDA rules. A few weeks ago the New York Times reported on a study that looked at precisely this question:

The new analysis, reviewing data from 74 trials involving 12 drugs, is the most thorough to date. And it documents a large difference: while 94 percent of the positive studies found their way into print, just 14 percent of those with disappointing or uncertain results did.

Now, for what it's worth, I find the results of the PLoS study a little hard to believe. Like a lot of commenters on last night's post, I've just heard too much anecdotal evidence from friends who have (eventually) been helped by various antidepressants. Maybe they were all kidding themselves, but that's a little hard to swallow.

But that aside, the PLoS study is still an important one. It's not the first one to question the efficacy of antidepressants, but are we already so jaded by this stuff that a confirming study isn't even worth reporting in the U.S.? If only for the insight it gives us into drug company testing practices, it seems like it's at least worth letting people know about.

Kevin Drum 12:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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February 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE UPDATE....Did Hillary Clinton really just complain that she always has to respond to questions before Barack Obama? Yes she did! Followed by a lame reference to Saturday Night Live. Weird.

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OBAMA'S TAKE ON TERROR....On Sunday Barack Obama spoke to a small Jewish group in Cleveland, and most of the Q&A revolved around issues related to Israel and a Palestinian state. But at the very end he switched gears a bit and did a nice job summing up his attitude toward the war on terror:

I am not naïve. There is a hard core of jihadist fundamentalists who we can't negotiate with. We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them....And that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed. So all the things I've talked about in the past — improving our intelligence capacity, improving our alliances, rolling up financial support, improving our homeland security, making sure that we have strike forces that are effective — that's all the military, intelligence, police work that's required.

The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims, who are along a spectrum of belief. Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last 7 years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster.

And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women's rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrasas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable.

Nicely put.

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EMAIL HELL....Remember all those millions of emails that the White House may or may not have lost over the past few years? Henry Waxman held hearings about this today and wanted to know what happened to the Automatic Records Management System, which was installed by the Clinton administration and worked fine. Information Week reports:

Theresa Payton, CIO for the White House Office of Administration, said in her prepared statement that the incoming Bush administration transitioned from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange over a two-year period from 2002-2004, and that the ARM System established by the previous administration did not work properly with Exchange.

"ARMS was a custom-designed application," Payton testified, "and I understand that it was discovered that it just could not be effectively integrated with Microsoft Exchange."

....Payton testified Tuesday before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the Bush administration had tried to institute its own archiving system, known as the Electronic Communications Records Management System, but ultimately failed.

"For several reasons, including the need for additional modifications, the identified performance issues, and projected costs, the deployment of ECRMS was canceled," Payton said.

See? George Bush promised to run the government as if it were a business, and he did. Comparisons to the Iraq war, especially unfair but funny ones, should be left in comments.

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VANTAGE POINT....I played hooky this afternoon and went to see Vantage Point. It was wholly preposterous in a 24-ish kind of way, but aside from that the plot actually held together and kinda sorta made sense — which, frankly, isn't bad compared to most B action flicks these days. What's more, director Peter Travis played it smart and kept the running time to a svelte 90 minutes instead of padding it out and trying to pretend it was something more profound than it really was. So thumbs up!

But that's not why I'm posting about this. I just wanted to say that the final line of the movie is pure genius, the funniest thing I've heard in a movie theater in months. When the DVD is released, go ahead and rent it and see if you don't agree.

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IRAN UPDATE....So how do things stand with Iran? Laura Rozen attended a CFR speech by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns yesterday and reports back:

All were looking to Washington's top Iran envoy for a signal about what the Bush administration plans to do on the Iran nuclear issue over the next ten months....And Burns did deliver a fairly clear message on that question. He said that he did not think the Iran nuclear issue would be resolved by the end of the Bush administration and would still be outstanding when a new administration takes office.

"I don't think conflict with Iran is inevitable," Burns said. "There is plenty of space for diplomacy."

"I think the issue plays out well beyond 2009," Burns said.

There's more at the link.

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BLOGGY....In a short post today, John Quiggin rips into William Skidelsky, deputy editor of the British Prospect, for saying some negative things about bloggers. The subject is the much-mooted decline of book reviewing, and one of the things Skildesky says is this:

Lively literary websites — or online magazines with literary sections — do exist, especially in the US: Salon, Slate, the Literary Saloon. But blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.

This actually piqued my interest enough to read Skildesky's entire essay, and basically I came away wondering, again, if we bloggers are a wee bit too thin-skinned sometimes. As it turns out, literary blogging occupies only a small part of Skildesky's essay, and in any case he has both good and bad things to say about it — along with good and bad things about the rest of the literary criticism community. What's more, regarding the short excerpt John quotes, Skildesky is right, isn't he? There's some good long-form work in the blogosphere, both literary and otherwise, but generally speaking it's hardly an insult to point out that most blogging is reactive and quickly produced.

Endless battles to the contrary, it's never a matter of one medium being better than another, it's a matter of acknowledging and using the strengths and weaknesses of various mediums. TV is good at images; newspapers are good at daily news; magazines are good at long-form journalism; and blogs are good at quick reaction and two-way conversation. In fact, Skildesky himself puts it pretty well:

In the end, though, the squabbles between literary journalists and bloggers miss the point. While both parties have cast themselves as adversaries in a pressing contemporary drama, they really are (or should be) allies in a more important battle — for literature itself, and its right to be taken seriously. The significance of this struggle makes the differences between them trivial.

Quick, chatty reaction to news and books is a specialized form that some people are good at and some people aren't. Ditto for longer form journalism and book reviewing. And both have their place. So what's all the fuss about?

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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PRO-CHOICE....Via Atrios, I see that the once popular sport of Amy Sullivan bashing is back in vogue. Here's Amy, in an interview with Salon about her new book, The Party Faithful:

You're pro-choice. Does that interfere with being an evangelical?

Well, I don't like the [pro-choice] label. I guess the reason I wrote about abortion the way I did in the book is because I have serious moral concerns about abortion, but I don't believe that it should be illegal. And that puts me in the vast majority of Americans. But unfortunately, there's no label for us.

Amanda Marcotte responds:

Yes, there is. If you think abortion and other forms of contraceptive birth control should be legal — i.e. that women should have the legal right to decide when they have children — you are pro-choice. Even if you still reserve the right to judge them for it. This entire interview with Amy Sullivan, like all her talk on getting the evangelical vote, makes me tired. She appears to have a definition problem, basically, characterizing evangelicals as if they are all Bible-believing Christians, when most self-identified evangelicals are patriarchy proponents with a thin veneer of Christianity over everything as a moral justification.

Actually, I think Amy's point is precisely the opposite. In the rest of the interview, she basically suggests that about 60% of the evangelical community is politically conservative and won't ever vote for a Democrat. But the other 40% will, and those 40% are worth trying to appeal to. And one way to appeal to them is to acknowledge their moral qualms about abortion even if you don't happen to share them yourself. Like this guy:

I think that the American people struggle with two principles: There's the principle that a fetus is not just an appendage, it's potential life. I think people recognize that there's a moral element to that. They also believe that women should have some control over their bodies and themselves and there is a privacy element to making those decisions.

I don't think people take the issue lightly. A lot of people have arrived in the view that I've arrived at, which is that there is a moral implication to these issues, but that the women involved are in the best position to make that determination. And I don't think they make it lightly.

That's Barack Obama, likely the next Democratic candidate for the presidency. All he's doing is acknowledging the moral dimension of abortion, while remaining solidly in favor of abortion choice, reducing unwanted pregnancies, and encouraging responsible sexual behavior.

Now, I don't know why Amy rejects the "pro-choice" label, and it's pretty likely that I don't agree with her reasons — largely because I don't have any moral qualms about early and mid-term abortion in the first place. But then, I'm not an evangelical, am I? In any case, I've invited her to come by in a couple of weeks and guest blog about her book, so we'll all have a chance to rip into her about it then. In the meantime, keep things civil in comments, OK?

(And, of course, click the link to read the whole interview. Most of it isn't about abortion at all.)

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LATEST POLLS....Since I posted about the latest Gallup tracking poll yesterday, I guess it's worth noting that the latest CBS/New York Times poll provides wildly different results. Gallup's national poll shows Obama and Clinton virtually tied (Obama is ahead 47%-45%), while the NYT poll gives Obama a huge lead, 54%-38%. I don't know if this is related to differing methodologies or what, but maybe the race isn't quite as tied as I thought it was.

UPDATE: Via Steve Benen, USA Today has Obama ahead 51%-39% while AP/Ipsos has him ahead by only 46%-43%. So it's all over the map. I guess there's no telling what's really going on.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Jonah Goldberg:

I don't think Obama supports domestic terrorism.

But you never know, do you?

You should read the whole thing, of course. Apparently the Democratic primary campaign has been sadly lacking in irrelevant 60s-era culture war skirmishes and Jonah hopes that will change in tonight's debate. After all, if Obama and Clinton aren't willing to engage in grandstanding denunciations of 60s radicals on national TV, they're just a short hop away from nominating the head of Hamas to be secretary of state, aren't they?

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SURGE UPDATE....I guess the surge is working so well that we have to keep it up forever:

The Pentagon is projecting that when the United States troop buildup in Iraq ends in July there will be about 8,000 more troops on the ground than when it began in January 2007, a senior general said Monday.

Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that by July the troop total was likely to be 140,000. There were 132,000 troops there when President Bush approved orders to send five more Army brigades to Iraq to improve security and avert civil war.

....Asked if the total would be below 132,000 by the time President Bush leaves office next January, General Ham said, "It would be premature to say that."

I think this means that Atrios wins a bet or something.

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February 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TALKING BACK TO PROZAC....A new meta-study conducted by Irving Kirsch of Hull University and five American and Canadian researchers has concluded that Prozac and other antidepressants in the SSRI family are essentially worthless. Compared to a placebo, they improved patients' scores on the most widely used depression scale by only 1.8 points:

The review breaks new ground because Kirsch and his colleagues have obtained for the first time what they believe is a full set of trial data for four antidepressants.

They requested the full data under freedom of information rules from the Food and Drug Administration, which licenses medicines in the US and requires all data when it makes a decision.

The pattern they saw from the trial results of fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Seroxat), venlafaxine (Effexor) and nefazodone (Serzone) was consistent. "Using complete data sets (including unpublished data) and a substantially larger data set of this type than has been previously reported, we find the overall effect of new-generation antidepressant medication is below recommended criteria for clinical significance," they write.

The complete study is here. I have no particular opinion about the quality of this study, and not really any special interest in SSRIs either. In fact, what really drew my attention was the range of news outlets that reported this news. According to Google News, here they are: the Guardian, the Independent, the London Times, the Telegraph, the BBC, Sky News, the Evening Standard, the Herald, the Financial Times, and the Daily Mail. In fact, it's getting big play from most of these folks, including screaming front page treatment from some.

So what's the deal? Why is this huge news in Britain, where most of the stories are making great hay out of the amount of taxpayer money the NHS is squandering on these drugs, and completely ignored here in the U.S.? The conspiracy theory version of the answer is obvious, but what's the real version? Do American newspaper editors universally know something that I (and their British colleagues) don't?

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THE RACE....I don't have anything especially insightful to say about the latest Gallup daily tracking poll except to point out just how remarkable it is. After over a year of campaigning, 23 debates, a hundred million dollars of spending from both camps, and 37 primaries and caucuses, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are....

tied. Democratic Party voters are split almost exactly 50-50 between them.

I don't think there's any profound lesson to be drawn from this. I just think it's striking that these two very different candidates have produced such a knife edge of opinion. It's certainly nothing I would have predicted going into this thing.

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By: Kevin Drum

DON SIEGELMAN....The case of Don Siegelman, the popular Democratic governor of Alabama who was convicted two years ago on almost certainly bogus bribery charges, has been circulating for a long time. Last night 60 Minutes aired the story, and if you didn't see it you should go read the story on their website. It's too complicated to summarize, so I'll just give you the titillating bit:

Now a Republican lawyer from Alabama, Jill Simpson, has come forward to claim that the Siegelman prosecution was part of a five-year secret campaign to ruin the governor. Simpson told 60 Minutes she did what's called "opposition research" for the Republican party. She says during a meeting in 2001, Karl Rove, President Bush's senior political advisor, asked her to try to catch Siegelman cheating on his wife.

"Karl Rove asked you to take pictures of Siegelman?" Pelley asks.

"Yes," Simpson replies.

"In a compromising, sexual position with one of his aides," Pelley clarifies.

"Yes, if I could," Simpson says.

That sure sounds like Karl, doesn't it? In any case, Siegelman was almost certainly convicted on absurd charges, and almost certainly convicted as part of a partisan hit job (see here for more). Somebody ought to be in jail, but it probably isn't Don Siegelman.

POSTSCRIPT: The 60 Minutes segment was blacked out on CBS affiliate WHNT in northern Alabama. Technical difficulties. Or perhaps not.

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DRESSING OBAMA....I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Somehow I only just now noticed that the Freak Show news cycle has been dominated for the entire morning by a Drudge story claiming that Hillary Clinton's campaign has been circulating a picture of Barack Obama dressed in the traditional garb of a Somali elder. It was taken in 2006 during a visit to Kenya.

Drudge's piece is ambiguous — who distributed the picture? who did it go to? — but the Clinton campaign, given a chance to deny the charge, rather loudly declined to do so. So apparently they not only sent the picture around, but then issued a statement slamming Obama for complaining about it. Points for chutzpah, I guess, but not much else.

Peter Wehner probably has the right take:

[This] is pretty nasty stuff, with its "he's a Muslim and it should bother you" undertone....Twenty-four hours from now I suspect we'll see virtually the entire Democratic establishment, and many others, condemning this tactic. It'll advance the storyline that the Clinton campaign is spinning out of control — lurching from melancholy valedictory comments one day to faux outrage the next — and in its dying days.

During tomorrow evening's debate, Hillary Clinton will be on the defensive and very much regret this stupid and ugly effort.

Other than that, it was a swell idea.

I still want to know a few more details: namely who sent out the photo (low level staffer? senior press person?) and who received it (a couple of close friends? a large private email list?). But either way, this was spectacularly ill conceived.

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SNEAK PREVIEW....I have to hand it to Bill Kristol. He manages to sum up the upcoming conservative attack on Barack Obama in a single paragraph:

Barack Obama is an awfully talented politician. But could the American people, by November, decide that for all his impressive qualities, Obama tends too much toward the preening self-regard of Bill Clinton, the patronizing elitism of Al Gore and the haughty liberalism of John Kerry?

Yes, yes, and yes! I'd say that insinuations of preening self-regard, patronizing elitism, and haughty liberalism are almost certain to be the heavy lifters in the Republican attack toolbox this fall. Unless, of course, Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, in which case they'll attack her preening self-regard, patronizing elitism, haughty liberalism, and grating shrillness. Who says conservativism is out of new ideas?

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS....Michael Signer, who recently finished up a 10-month stint as John Edwards' foreign policy advisor, complains today that the mainstream media has spent that entire time practically ignoring the subject:

This is troubling, because what a candidate says on foreign policy matters. Often, major policy proposals are road maps to what the candidates actually do once elected. George W. Bush's famous national security speech on Sept. 23, 1999, at the Citadel in South Carolina accurately portended his most provocative policies as president, from "transforming" our armed forces through technology and lighter brigades, to disengaging from the Clinton administration's many diplomatic commitments.

....This time around, the three top Democratic candidates all proposed assertive ideas for tackling major problems in roughly the same time frame. In April, May and June respectively, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all gave major speeches on national security. Obama called for "building a 21st-century military." Edwards proposed building a "mission-focused military." Clinton called to "rebuild our strength and widen and deepen [the military's] scope."

You'd think that journalists would do a comparative analysis of what the three candidates had proposed for the U.S. military in the coming decade; what they could do, practically; and what the speeches might predict about national security during their presidencies. But no.

In one sense this is an odd state of affairs, since, as virtually everyone has noted at one time or another, presidents have a lot more control over foreign policy than domestic policy. If Barack Obama wants to withdraw from Iraq, he can almost certainly do it. All he needs is the resolve to see it through. But if he wants to pass universal healthcare, the odds are stacked pretty highly against him. Resolve isn't nearly enough.

But I'd guess that there are a couple of reasons that foreign affairs hasn't gotten a lot of deep analysis this election cycle. First and foremost is the fact that a single subject — Iraq — has dominated the campaign so overwhelmingly that it's sucked all the oxygen out of the foreign policy debate. And Iraq is simplicity itself: all the Democrats want to leave and all the Republicans want to stay. Within the Democratic camp there have been minor differences in emphasis, but hardly enough to hang a few thousand words of navel gazing on. Does anyone really think that they can tell a lot about the candidates by comparing the nuances of Hillary's residual force with the nuances of Obama's residual force?

Second, foreign policy by its very nature tends to be far mushier than domestic policy. Outside of Iraq the Democratic candidates sparred a bit over preconditions for meeting with foreign leaders and whether or not they supported covert strikes against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but at the level of speeches it was hard to suss out a lot of substantive differences. It's not an impossible task, but anyone trying it either has to admit that the differences are subtle (i.e., boring) or else run the risk of getting things completely wrong via close reading of ambiguous phrases. If candidates were willing to entertain foreign policy hypotheticals their differences would be a lot easier to figure out, but they're not. So we're stuck.

Of course, things weren't really all that different on the domestic side, were they? Domestic policy tends to be a little more specific, which makes for easier comparisons, but in the case of healthcare (to take an example) all that got us was an endless, dreary debate about mandates. That's interesting to wonks, but not to much of anyone else.

Signer suggests that foreign policy debates have been sharper in the past, but his examples are all from general elections, not primaries. This year should be no different. Iraq will still be the 800-pound gorilla, but the differences between John McCain and the Democratic candidate should be sharp enough to produce some foreign policy fireworks. Who knows? By the time October rolls around we might all be wishing that the press would shut up on the subject.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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OSCAR THREAD....I was OK with most of the Academy Awards last night except for the winners in the two supporting actor categories. Javier Bardem was fine as hit man Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, but I often wonder if intense, showy roles like this are really all that difficult to pull off. (Comments on this score are welcome from people who know more about the craft of acting than I do.) I would have chosen Casey Affleck instead for his genuinely interesting and affecting turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

And Tilda Swinton? Spare me. We've seen the cold corporate lawyer character a hundred times before, and Swinton didn't do anything new or interesting with it. I think I would have chosen any of the other nominees over her, with my top pick going to Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone. I didn't actually care for the movie all that much (more flash than substance and an ending that was too heavy handed for my taste), but Ryan's performance was pitch perfect.

But we all have our gripes. And I was certainly happy to see No Country for Old Men beat out There Will Be Blood. TWBB was arresting and, often, enthralling, but like a lot of people I'm growing tired of Paul Thomas Anderson's inability to take all his bits of interesting filmmaking and turn them into a genuine, complete film. On that level, No Country was simply a better movie.

What did you like or hate about the Oscars? The floor is open.

UPDATE: Lots of disagreement in comments over my dissing of Tilda Swinton. Will Allen: "Look at how she interacts with the Ken Howard character; it is a study in self-loathing via bootlicking servility." Ralph: "Swinton's performance was the antithesis of a cliche and made the true villain of the piece all too human." I'm not really on board here, but these are good points. Read the thread for more.

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ATTACKING AL-QAEDA....Last August, in the wake of news (here) that Donald Rumsfeld had called off a special ops mission intended to capture senior members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas, Barack Obama called the failure to act a "terrible mistake." He then went on to promise that in an Obama administration, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

John McCain has criticized that speech, and over at The Corner David Freddoso joins him today. Responding to the news that we launched a drone missile attack last month against targets in Pakistan, he says:

As much as I appreciate the idea of a dead terrorist, I don't like what we did in Pakistan, and I really don't like the fact that we're bragging about it, or that a presidential candidate would openly discuss it as an option.

....But so powerful is Obamania that liberals can now praise even George W. Bush for doing something they would oppose under any other circumstances — all because of Obama's ill-considered comments last year. That I cannot respect.

The logic for this Pakistan operation clearly flies in the face of every argument against invading Iraq — international law, sovereignty, respect for other countries, our standing in the world, etc.....That Obama's supporters would hold it up as some kind of model is deeply puzzling to me.

The dynamics here are certainly turning deeply weird, aren't they? Freddoso may have a point about liberal reaction (though a drone missile attack in tribal territories is hardly comparable to a massive invasion and multi-year occupation in the heart of the Arab world), but it looks like conservatives might have the mirror opposite problem. Is McCain going to paint himself into a corner and start claiming that he opposes covert attacks just because Obama has said he supports them? And will conservatives then be forced to follow along? This is going to be one peculiar campaign if everyone starts bending themselves into a pretzel over this, with liberals defending covert strikes and conservatives trying to paint that attitude as reckless and naive. I can't wait.

And while we're on the subject, here's a data point to suggest that Obama's position hasn't led the Arab public (or the Arab elite, anyway) to become wary of him. Marc Lynch just got back from the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha and files this report: "The US elections absolutely dominated the conversations, with Obama the runaway favorite. Most of the Arab participants I talked to seemed fascinated by Obama, and frightened by McCain." Maybe the Arabs in Doha don't have a problem with the odd missile attack on Pakistan's tribal areas either.

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February 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH TO CONGRESS: JUST KIDDING!....Republicans have spent the past week thunderously denouncing the Traitorcrats for failing to permanently adopt the Protect America Act, complete with retroactive immunity for telecom companies. But guess what? Turns out the White House was just joshing with us:

On Friday evening, Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell had said in an unusually blunt letter to Congress that the nation "is now more vulnerable to terrorist attack and other foreign threats" because lawmakers had not yet acted on the administration's proposal for the wiretapping law.

But within hours of sending that letter, administration officials told lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees that they had prevailed upon all of the telecommunications companies to continue cooperating with the government's requests for information while negotiations with Congress continue.

...."Unfortunately, the delay resulting from this discussion impaired our ability to cover foreign intelligence targets, which resulted in missed intelligence information," Mukasey and McConnell added.

Government officials declined to comment on how much intelligence data may have been lost or how serious it might have been.

One Democratic congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, expressed skepticism that any significant gap had existed, noting that existing rules permit continued monitoring of known terrorists and their associates.

...."This is serious backpedaling by the DNI," the Democratic official said of McConnell. "He's been saying for the last week that the sky is falling, and the sky is not falling."

In other words, it was just the usual partisan fearmongering from our supposedly nonpartisan intelligence pro Michael McConnell. At least now we know how seriously to take him the next time he says something like this.

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BREAKING NEWS....Cuba's national assembly has elected Raul Castro president. A shocking upset, I know.

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UPDATE FROM KURDISTAN....Now blogging over at World Politics Review, Judah Grunstein casts a gimlet eye on the recent Turkish incursion into Iraq that's aimed at beating back PKK guerrillas operating from bases just inside the border of Iraqi Kurdistan:

There are conflicting reports about just how many troops Turkey has sent into northern Iraq, with the general trend being bearish. Initial Turkish TV reports (passed on by the press) put the number at 10,000, citing unnamed military sources. Reuters put the number at 8,000, or two Turkish brigades. Later television reports lowered it further to 3,000, which the Iraqi government today bid down to 1,000, only to be undersold by the American military command in Iraq which claimed that only a few hundred Turkish troops took part. The Turkish military, meanwhile, closed the bidding by warning that "media reports about the scope of the operation were misleading and exaggerated." (If this keeps up, look for reports of a Kurdish incursion into Turkey by tomorrow.)

Actually, it's probably a good thing that everyone is trying to downplay this. But read the whole post for more.

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By: Kevin Drum

EXPERIENCE....Riffing off Scott Lemieux, Matt Yglesias takes a pot shot at Hillary Clinton's claim to be the "experienced" candidate:

If you win a primary on an "experience" argument, then you'd damn well better be more experienced than your general election opponent. McCain would make an experience argument against either opponent, so it's much better to be the opponent with a record of statements aimed at rebutting such arguments (I don't think the American people judge your qualification based on duration of service in a broken Washington system...) than to be the opponent who's been making the argument that voters need to stick with the more seasoned Washington hand.

This obviously gets into the realm of pure spin since "experience" is such an amorphous quality, but I really think that Obama partisans are missing the point here. Like it or not, most voters have a sort of vague operational view of experience that means something like "involvement in big league politics." And on that score, Hillary gets 15 years: 8 years as an activist first lady and 7 years as U.S. senator. Obama, conversely, gets a total of 3 years as U.S. senator. It may seem unfair that his eight years in the Illinois legislature don't count, but for most people they just don't. Being a backbench state legislator just isn't big league politics.

Seen through this lens, the problem with Obama isn't that he's less experienced than Hillary, but that he's inexperienced, full stop. And again, like it or not, John McCain will certainly use that as an argument in the general election campaign in a way he couldn't against Hillary. Sure, he's got 25 years to her 15, but that doesn't matter. Beyond a certain point voters aren't interested in who's got more experience, and 15 years is well beyond that point. If McCain tried to paint Hillary as inexperienced, it would be a waste of breath. Nobody would buy it.

When I decided to vote for Obama in the primary I said I had decided it was worth it to roll the dice. But make no mistake: there really is a roll of the dice here. The American public hasn't elected someone with as little big-time experience as Obama in the past century (though we've come close with Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush). I don't think that will keep him from winning in November, but it's pretty clearly a real issue.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (154)

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February 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

DNA AND THE INSURANCE INDUSTRY....Amy Harmon writes in the New York Times today that patients often refuse to undergo genetic testing because they're afraid that negative results will make it impossible to get health insurance:

"It's pretty clear that the public is afraid of taking advantage of genetic testing," said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health. "If that continues, the future of medicine that we would all like to see happen stands the chance of being dead on arrival."

....Insurers say they do not ask prospective customers about genetic test results, or require testing. "It's an anecdotal fear," said Mohit M. Ghose, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, whose members provide benefits for 200 million Americans. "Our industry is not interested in any way, shape or form in discriminating based on a genetic marker."

Still, a recent study by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute found otherwise. In 7 of 92 underwriting decisions, insurance providers evaluating hypothetical applicants said they would deny coverage, charge more for premiums or exclude certain conditions from coverage based on genetic test results.

Of course insurance companies are interested in discriminating based on a genetic markers. That's what insurance companies do: they evaluate risks and then offer pricing and coverage that are appropriate and profitable based on those risks. If they don't do that, they aren't being insurance companies.

It's worth saying this over and over: insurance companies don't discriminate because they're evil. They do it because it's what insurance companies do. It's a core part of their business, and if they don't do it they'll go belly up.

This is the biggest reason for wanting to get private insurance companies (mostly) out of the healthcare business. If it were just a matter of their being corrupt or evil, that actually wouldn't be so bad. We could figure out ways to regulate them into good behavior. But it's harder than that. The kind of behavior that most of us want — comparable coverage for everyone under nondiscriminatory pricing rules — is flatly not something an insurance company can offer. If they do, they aren't being an insurance company. And if they aren't being an insurance company, then what good are they doing?

In this case the answer is: impeding progress. In other cases they're merely adding huge amounts of overhead to the system. But positive benefits? Those are a little harder to make out.

Kevin Drum 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

COLOR LASER PRINTERS....My 8-year-old color laser printer is finally on its last legs — rest in peace Magicolor 2200 — and now I have to figure out what to replace it with. I'm a longtime inkjet hater, so my initial research has been solely aimed at newer color lasers. The Xerox Phaser 6125 and 6180 both look nice. Or maybe the Dell 1320. Or how about an HP 3600? You can hardly go wrong with HP, right? Naturally I turn to my tech savvy weekend readers for advice. What say you?

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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February 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....On the left we have Domino amongst the light and shadow. On the right, Inkblot gets rewarded for his fine work supervising Marian's gardening. As well he should, since a recent study shows that he and Domino are helping to protect us from heart attacks and strokes:

The study, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, found that feline-less people were 30 to 40 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those with cats.

Yet dog owners had the same rate as non-owners. "No protective effect of dogs as domestic pets was observed," said the study, presented Thursday at the International Stroke Conference in New Orleans.

Dr. Adnan Qureshi, a stroke expert at the university, said he decided to raise the question because other studies have suggested pets can help reduce stress. He and his team analyzed a group of 4,435 people who had answered questionnaires about pet ownership and other risk factors.

But the cat-dog differential came as a surprise. "We don't understand this," he said, but "it's probably not a coincidence."

Asked if he owns a cat, Qureshi replied: "No. Maybe I should get one, though."

And if you don't have a cat, you should at least drop by here once a week for Friday catblogging. It might help and it can't hurt.

Kevin Drum 3:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Kevin Drum

SADR'S CEASE-FIRE....This is good news from Iraq:

Influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday ordered his Mahdi Army militia to extend a cease-fire for another six months, a decision that U.S. and Iraqi officials believe will strengthen a growing sense of stability in Iraq.

....Sadr's cease-fire, which began last August, is widely credited with helping to reduce levels of violence in Iraq. Other factors in quelling the violence have been the birth of a Sunni volunteer force that turned against radical jihadists and the U.S. military "surge" involving thousands of reinforcements.

....Those who honor Sadr's pledge will be treated with respect and restraint, the U.S. military said, adding that it would welcome any opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadrists.

Elections are in October. Keep your fingers crossed that the Sadrists, the Hakims, and the U.S. military can keep things from spiralling out of control before then. This is a hopeful start.

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN AND PAXSON....Prurient innuendo aside, Michael Isikoff points out that there's a problem with McCain's claim yesterday that he never did any favors for Paxson Communications:

But that flat claim seems to be contradicted by an impeccable source: McCain himself. "I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue," McCain said in the Sept. 25, 2002, deposition obtained by Newsweek. "He wanted [FCC] approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."

While McCain said "I don't recall" if he ever directly spoke to the firm's lobbyist about the issue — an apparent reference to Iseman, though she is not named — "I'm sure I spoke to [Paxson]." McCain agreed that his letters on behalf of Paxson, a campaign contributor, could "possibly be an appearance of corruption" — even though McCain denied doing anything improper.

To be honest, it's genuinely not clear to me whether this really amounts to anything serious. It sounds more like a political misdemeanor than a felony to me. But he still shouldn't lie make misleading statements about it.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TIMES SPEAKS....Really, this is unbelievable. Here is New York Times executive editor Bill Keller in an online Q&A declaring himself surprised by both the volume and the lopsidedness of the reaction to Wednesday's John McCain non-affair story. Then his surprise continues:

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing.

[Blah blah blah]

The point of this "Long Run" installment was that, according to people who know him well, this man who prizes his honor above all things and who appreciates the importance of appearances also has a history of being sometimes careless about the appearance of impropriety, about his reputation. The story cites several examples, and quotes friends and admirers talking of this apparent contradiction in his character. That is why some members of his staff were so alarmed by the appearance of his relationship with Ms. Iseman. And that, it seemed (and still seems) to us, was something our readers would want to know about a man who aspires to be president.

The "larger point." Right. This is just embarrassing. Everybody with a pulse knows that no one is criticizing the Times for reporting that McCain was doing the bidding of a lobbyist and campaign contributor. Rather, this story has gotten saturation coverage because the Times has been careful to refer to Vicki Iseman as a "female lobbyist" on practically every occasion it can — including the introduction to the very Q&A Keller is taking part in. Times reader aren't children. We all know what this means, and we all know perfectly well that the Times piece loudly insinuated some kind of inappropriate romantic involvement between McCain and Iseman. So far, though, the Q&A has addressed only the peripheral subjects of what "Long Run" pieces are like, what the Times' policy on anonymous sources is, and the Chinese wall between the newsroom and the editorial page staff. Riveting stuff.

And the elephant in the room? Missing in action so far. Do you think they'll ever get to it?

UPDATE: Several hours into the Q&A, Jill Abramson finally gets around to the elephant:

We believed it was vital for the story to accurately reflect the range of concerns shared by our sources....If the editors had summarily decided to edit out the issue of romance, because of possible qualms over "sexual innuendo" or some of the others issues cited in the reader questions, our story would not have been a complete and accurate reflection of what our sources told our reporters. The editors and the reporting team believed it was important for readers to know what could have concerned top advisers so much that they confronted their boss. We believe the story did this fairly and accurately, giving readers as much information as we could.

That's it? Abramson acts as though the rules for dropping a tactical nuke are the same as they are for authorizing a mortar attack. But she knows perfectly well how incendiary this stuff is. Surely it requires a little more justification than "this was a vague suspicion that a few guys had at the time"?

I dunno. Abramson is right when she says, "Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required." Still, reporters don't just uncritically pass along everything every source tells them, and in this case her sources didn't provide any evidence at all that McCain was romantically involved with Iseman. It was just a concern they apparently had — maybe well founded, maybe not. Is that really enough?

But I'm also intrigued by Abramson's claim that the Times piece gave readers "as much information as we could." That's not the same thing as "all the information we had." Does this signify something, or am I reading too much meaning into her choice of words?

Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAGIARISM....I propose a moratorium on the use of the word "plagiarism" and its derivatives by all political commentators working in all mediums for all political viewpoints anywhere in the English-speaking world for the next 30 days. All in favor? Thanks. Motion carried.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE POLITICS OF TERROR....Yglesias on the politics of terror:

Democracy is a highly imperfect method of getting good government. One thing that makes it work better is the general sense that if good things happen to a country, incumbent politicians will benefit from that whereas if bad things happen, incumbents will suffer. That often leads to election results that aren't really "deserved" since Jimmy Carter didn't cause the 70s oil crisis and Bill Clinton didn't cause the 90s tech boom. But it does keep the incentives where they belong — insofar as things are under the control of politicians, the politicians try to make good things happen.

But not the post-9/11 GOP. Their political meal ticket is a population terrified of terrorism, and nothing whips that terror up quite like actual terrorism in London, Madrid, wherever. The result is a political party that simply can't adopt policies designed to ratchet-down the level of danger and anxiety.

One of the ironies of this is that conservatives have spent years accusing Democrats of, for example, not really wanting to do anything about racism because they get too much mileage out of making fiery speeches about it to the Urban League every four years. Whether there was ever anything to that or not, there's not much question that this is exactly the GOP's attitude toward terror. Their eagerness for another attack as a way of proving Democratic fecklessness is so palpable you can almost taste it.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO "HMMM"....Normally, John McCain can't talk to the press often enough. Michael Scherer reports that on Thursday that suddenly changed:

In the wake of a scandalous New York Times story suggesting a romantic fling with a lobbyist, McCain arrived at a Ford Focus car assembly plant with a decidedly tense grin plastered across his face. His campaign staff promptly separated anyone with a pen or a tape recorder from the candidate. "The McCain campaign decided who they wanted on the tour, and it's only photographers," a nice lady from Ford announced after a reporter spotted the candidate behind a car chassis and tried to approach him.

....At the end of the day, McCain boarded the plane with his wife, his staff, and his daughter, Meghan, who trailed an entourage of friends, bound for Indianapolis. On another night, he would have sauntered to the back to chew the fat with reporters. But on this night, he only came half-way down the aisle, keeping a safe distance. "Everybody happy?" he called out. "Fun day. Fun day." McCains eyebrows bounced up and down to signal his sarcasm.

His question, of course, was rhetorical. He didn't want to hear anything more. Before anyone could answer he had wheeled around and gone back to his seat, beyond the reach of reporters and their notebooks for just a while longer.

Look, there's no two ways about it it: this is very weird behavior. If there were really no story here, McCain wouldn't be avoiding reporters. He'd be yukking it up and insisting to a sympathetic press corps that he was the subject of a comically thin hit job from the Times. Instead he's acting almost like a caricature of a guilty man. What's going on here?

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAMAS....In this week's Time, Joe Klein describes his experience moderating a panel at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha:

Many of the Muslim delegates seemed stunned, finally, by the rush of history unleashed by the Bush Administration. "Everything the United States has favored is now radioactive, especially democracy," said Rami Khouri, a Lebanese journalist. The Administration had pushed for elections in places like the Palestinian territories where the essential components of democracy — a free press, a free economy, the rule of law — did not exist. Religious parties had won, or gained momentum, in most of these elections, and the U.S. had backtracked, refusing to accept the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories, re-embracing autocrats like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. "Our indigenous democratic reformers," Khouri said, "are in retreat across the region."

If you say you support democracy, you have to support democracy. And you have to support it even if people you don't like win elections. Efraim Halevy, former chief of the Mossad and hardly a wide-eyed naif, tells Laura Rozen of Mother Jones that this is one of the reasons that the U.S. and Israel should face reality and agree to negotiate with Hamas:

MJ: Again and again, Israel and Washington too have tried to engineer which Palestinians would come to power, to whom they would speak or recognize, etc. Is this itself problematic? Should the West step back from trying to manipulate internal Palestinian politics?

EH: Yes, for two reasons. First, is the sovereign right of Palestinians to decide who their leadership should be. I think that is the basis of democracy. More than that, it is the best possible way in my opinion for a country or society to determine how it wants to be governed and how it wants to be lead. And second, so far it must be admitted that attempts to do this [manipulate internal Palestinian politics] have not succeeded. After all, in the final analysis, it would not be possible to create and fashion a leadership from without.

Refusing to deal with Hamas hurts the United States — as Klein observes, nobody in the Middle East believes our democracy rhetoric anymore — and it hurts Israel too. Halevy notes correctly not just that Hamas holds effective power in the Palestinian territories, but that it will continue to hold effective power since the only competition is Fatah's "aging, tired and sad Abu Mazen." There simply won't be any progress without engaging them.

Recognizing this is both a practical and an idealistic position. Maybe Barack Obama will help lead us in that direction. It's a sure bet that George Bush won't.

Kevin Drum 1:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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February 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUESTIONS FOR THE TIMES....You'll all be excited to hear that the New York Times editors and reporters who worked on the John McCain non-affair story will be answering your questions on Friday. If you have a question, you can submit it to askthetimes@nytimes.com. Here's mine:

  1. Yes or no: do you think John McCain had an affair with Vicki Iseman?

  2. If yes, why do you think so? If no, why did you spend several hundred words insinuating that he did?

OK, that's actually two questions. Or three, depending on how you count. But, really, isn't that pretty much the whole thing? If McCain didn't have an affair, there's no story. If he did, then let's hear the evidence. The rest of the story about the Paxson lobbying is mildly interesting, but we all know perfectly well that no one really cares about it.

Kevin Drum 10:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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By: Kevin Drum

NON-STORY NON-COMMENTS....On a pure tribalism-backlash-unexpected-consequences level, I have to say that perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the John McCain non-affair story is the fast congealing conservative consensus that this will help McCain. After all, if the elite-liberal-America-hating New York Times is going after him, he can't be all bad, can he? Apparently McCain finally found a way to appeal to the conservative base.

Also worth noting, just for the hell of it, is Times editor Bill Keller's response when TNR reporter Gabriel Sherman called for comment:

This sounds like a pointless exercise to me — speculating about reporting that may or may not result in an article. But if that's what Special Correspondents of The New Republic do, speculate away. When we have something to say, we'll say it in the paper.

You know, if Keller doesn't want to comment, that's fine. It's an internal matter. But he does work in the news business, and he really has no call to act as if Sherman is some kind of squalid guttersnipe just because Keller's on the receiving end of some reporting instead of the other way around. He needs to get over himself.

Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

TNR ON L'AFFAIR McCAIN....Gabriel Sherman's TNR piece about the internal struggles at the New York Times over publication of last night's story about John McCain's non-affair with telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman is now up:

The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn't.

....By late December, the reporters had submitted several pages of written questions to [McCain lawyer Bob] Bennett for comment, and completed a draft of the piece before the New Year. But to their growing frustration, Keller ordered rounds of changes and additional reporting. According to Times sources, [Washington bureau chief Dean] Baquet remained an advocate for his reporters and pushed the piece to be published, but sources say Keller wanted a more nuanced story looking less at personal matters and more at questions of Iseman's lobbying and McCain's legislative record.

....In mid-January, Keller told the reporters to significantly recast the piece after several drafts had circulated among editors in Washington and New York. After three different versions, the piece ended up not as a stand-alone investigation but as an entry in the paper's "The Long Run" series looking at presidential candidates' career histories.

If anything, this makes the whole episode even more puzzling. The four reporters on this piece thought they had "nailed it"? Reasonable people can differ on whether they had enough to hang a story on, but there's no way that they "nailed" anything. And what made Keller change his mind? Adding a couple thousand words about the lobbying aspect of this episode did exactly nothing to take attention away from the bombshell innuendo that McCain was having an "inappropriate" relationship with Vicki Iseman — and the reporting on that central assertion doesn't seem to have changed much since late December.

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser. Sometimes stories like this get printed in hopes that they'll kick over some stones and prompt other sources to come forward, and maybe that's what happened here. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTION UPDATE (IN IRAQ)....Here's the good news in Iraq: provincial elections have been scheduled for October. And here's the bad news in Iraq: provincial elections have been scheduled for October.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: for the past few years, the south of Iraq has been the scene of a battle for control between the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization of ISCI's Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. But while the surge and the various Sunni Awakenings have gotten most of the credit for the recent drop in violence in Iraq, another key ingredient has been a cease-fire announced by Sadr six months ago — a cease-fire that's looking less and less tenable with elections coming up. Sadr didn't contest the last round of elections, which left ISCI in political control of the region, and Sadr now feels that the U.S. is taking advantage of the cease-fire to team up with ISCI to make sure things stay that way. Tina Susman and Raheem Salman of the Los Angeles Times report:

Sadr loyalists have said their foes are taking advantage of the cease-fire to try to crush the movement politically and militarily.

....Sadr aides cited military raids on the group's strongholds, such as Baghdad's Sadr City district, and they accused U.S. and Iraqi security forces of targeting loyalists in southern provinces where the movement is vying for power with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The council's leader, Abdelaziz Hakim, is a U.S. ally. Scores of Iraqis have died in clashes involving Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Council's Badr Organization.

....Salah Ubaidi, Sadr's spokesman, said the cleric, who rarely has appeared in public in the last year, would make a statement Saturday if he decided to extend the truce. That would mark the end of the six-month deadline according to the Islamic calendar.

If Sadr remains silent, Ubaidi said, it will mean the Mahdi Army is back in action.

Eric Martin suggests that although Sadr might have actually welcomed some of the early U.S.-ISCI raids as part of his "attempt to purge unruly, disloyal and radical elements from his ranks," things have since gotten out of hand:

But the US forces and ISCI went too far — creating a nearly untenable position for Sadr, who has been facing extreme pressure from within his movement's ranks to release his hold on the militia and respond to this aggression. Sadr is letting ISCI know that, going forward, full retaliation will result from any future assaults (with perhaps a bit of payback mixed in for good measure).

Like it or not, it's long been obvious that Sadr isn't going away. Eric notes that outwardly the U.S. is doing its best to treat Sadr respectfully, but that the raids on Sadr's forces have continued unabated. If Sadr decides that, deferential words to the contrary, this is our way of making sure that Hakim wins this year's elections — elections that Sadr plans to contest — he may decide that restarting the war is his only option. And that means restarting it against us, not just the Badr Organization.

There's no telling how this is going to play out, but it's definitely something to watch.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE DRUNKEN OLD GUY....Our satellite shootdown went like clockwork last night, but questions remain about why we shot down the satellite. The Chinese, needless to say, aren't buying our story about concerns over the hydrazine fuel tank, and apparently they've chosen the following cryptic Confucius-esque phrase to spread the meme that there's more to this story than the U.S. is letting on:

The drunken old guy's mind isn't really on the wine.

According to China Hand over at American Footprints, "By Google's count, there are 24,300 hits for the Chinese-language search string, 'The drunken old guy's mind isnt really on wine + U.S. satellite.' That is either a sign of the celerity of the China blogosphere's hive mind or an indication of how quickly a meme can spread when the government controls the Internet, or both."

Just thought I'd pass this along for amusement value. Any Chinese language readers have anything to add about this?

UPDATE: In comments, Kevin Miller tells us that this is a chengyu, which are idioms widely used in Chinese that have a short backstory. This particular chengyu means that someone has ulterior motives and was inspired by the story of a wine-drinking "tippler" that KM translates as follows:

Tale of Old Tippler's Pavilion

Chuzhou is embraced by mountains; to its south-west there are ridges upon ridges, of which the forests and valleys are extraordinarily beautiful and charming. The Mount Langya looks not only deep and serene, but also absolutely gorgeous. Walking along the mountain path for a few miles, one can hear the gurgling sound of water — it is nothing but a spring known mythologically as the rock-brewed spring pouring down between two peaks. The path winds through the ridges, and there appears a cozy gazebo perching on the spring — it is none other than the Old Tippler's Pavilion, of which wonder who was the builder? It was a wise monk who lived in the mountain, of which wonder who entitled the name? It was no one but the prefect himself who offered his own nickname.

Once the prefect drank wine with his guests here and very soon he got a bit tipsy after only several sips. As he was the oldest among them, he was therefore teasing himself "an old tippler".

A tippler's delight lay not in wine but in mountains and waters. The delight to enjoy mountains and waters came from the bottom of his heart, and relied on wine as well.

So there you have it.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOVE CHILD WATCH....Email from a reader:

I would like you to stay on top of this McCain story. If it gets dug into deep enough, I'm hoping we will eventually find out that McCain has been having an affair with David Broder.

Consider it done....

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

CASTRO'S LEGACY....Ezra Klein recommends Tony Karon on Fidel Castro. He's right: it's a nice piece.

Kevin Drum 10:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN AND THE TELECOM LOBBYIST....OK, let's dive into the John McCain story. According to a heavily padded piece in the New York Times today, several of Mr. Straight Talk's aides became concerned during the 2000 campaign that he was spending a wee bit too much time with an attractive, 32-year-old telecom lobbyist named Vicki Iseman:

In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, "Why is she always around?"

....A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices.

In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.

Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator. John Weaver, a former top strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, said in an e-mail message that he arranged the meeting after "a discussion among the campaign leadership" about her.

Josh Marshall thinks there's more here than meets the eye:

At the moment it seems to me that we have a story from the Times that reads like it's had most of the meat lawyered out of it. And a lot of miscellany and fluff has been packed in where the meat was.

....I find it very difficult to believe that the Times would have put their chin so far out on this story if they didn't know a lot more than they felt they could put in the article, at least on the first go....Equally telling [] is the McCain camp's response and their clear unwillingness to address or deny any the key charges of the piece. (Read the statement closely. It's all bluster.)

Radar reports that the Times, which has been chasing this story at least since December, only published now because it was forced into it:

Michael Isikoff of Newsweek and Michael Calderone of Politico were two of the reporters at rival publications who were chasing the Times story. Calderone was particularly well informed about the details of the Times investigation.

Over at Politico, though, Calderone says it was the New Republic who forced their hand:

According to [campaign advisor Charles] Black, the Times only went with the story now because The New Republic was set to run a piece next Monday about internal dissensions at the paper over whether to run the long-held article.

After the TNR reporter, Gabriel Sherman, began making phone calls to the Times and others outside the paper, they decided to publish, Black alleged.

And TNR says this:

The McCain campaign is apparently blaming TNR for forcing the Times' hand on this story. We can't yet confirm that. But we can say this: TNR correspondent Gabe Sherman is working on a piece about the Times' foot-dragging on the McCain story, and the back-and-forth within the paper about whether to publish it. Gabe's story will be online tomorrow.

That sure sounds like a confirmation to me, but I guess we'll find out more when Sherman's piece is posted. Meanwhile, over at Swampland, McCain aide Mark Salter says the whole story is a load of hooey:

Salter also said that the Senator would soon release statements from those people interviewed by the Times for the story — "dozens" according to him — who denied many of the facts alleged in the story (including Iseman's supposedly frequent presence in the Senate office), but who were not quoted in the piece. The Times also states that the lobbyist "accompanied" McCain to fundraisers. Salter was emphatic: "She ATTENDED McCain fundrasiers, she didn't ACCOMPANY McCain."

I guess that's enough for now. It's hard to say exactly what trajectory this story is going to take — McCain is a hypocrite? The media is corrupt? Disgruntled ex-aides can be a real problem? — but it's sure getting massive attention right now. It's not really ignorable.

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (128)

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February 20, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NON BLOGGING....I'm having a hard time lately deciding what not to blog about. For example: Should I not blog about the Obama plagiarism non-scandal, surely the silliest campaign kerfuffle since — well, since the beginning of the month at least? So far I've managed to not blog about this very successfully.

Or how about the Obama backlash meme? I failed to not blog about that, and got several emails telling me that I was just feeding the meme by commenting on it. Which is true. And yet, it was all over the place. To ignore it seemed like putting my head in the sand.

Then, today, we have the kinda-sorta-maybe-John-McCain-had-a-non-affair non-story in the New York Times. Should I not blog about that? If I didn't, I think I'd be the only blogger in the galaxy to avoid it.

I'm curious: what do y'all think about this? Should I stick to my guns and avoid this kind of stuff? Or is that just a ridiculous affectation? I mean, if it's good enough for CNN and the New York Times, who am I to think I'm too high-minded to blog about stories like this? Do you, my loyal readers, deserve the chance to comment on this stuff even if I think it's silly? Does it seem weird to come over here every day and see boring charts about real wage declines while the entire rest of the world is talking about other, juicier things? Would the blogosphere be a better place if I avoided navel gazing like this in public and just wrote whatever I damn well felt like? Should I just shut up? Inquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 11:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (105)

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By: Kevin Drum

BANKRUPTCY....Megan McArdle reaches back into prehistory (blog years are like dog years) and explains why the 2005 bankruptcy bill was a bad idea:

There is [] substantial evidence — good, solid research, not awful surveys — that easy bankruptcy is one of the hidden strengths of the American economy. American bankruptcy law offers an interesting natural experiment; the code, meaning the rules under which debts are discharged, is national, but the details of what is exempt from bankruptcy are done at the state level. Researchers consistently find that the more generous the exemptions are, the higher a state's rate of entrepreneurship. When failing is less risky, people are more willing to try.

Given that, my question for the bankruptcy reformers was: what problem does this change solve? It solves a problem for the credit card issuers, to be sure — but it does so by essentially allowing them to rewrite the terms under which they lent money, which was at least as unjust as any unjustice we might have been trying to rectify. The economic benefit of tighter bankruptcy restrictions is that they make banks more willing to lend, but this was hardly a problem for the economy in 2005. And the economic cost is that people are more afraid to take risks with their income.

Quite so. Credit card issuers have computer models that project delinquency rates with stunning accuracy. When, over the past couple of decades, they steadily loosened their standards for handing out cards and urged more and more debt onto less and less creditworthy customers, they knew exactly what would happen: their default rate would go up a few points. That's a risk they decided was worth taking, but then, when default rates in fact went up, they went to Congress to change the rules.

Generous bankruptcy rules tend to be good for the economy, and as long as those rules are relatively stable banks have excellent tools for managing their exposure to them. If they voluntarily choose to increase that exposure, there's no reason Congress should then bail them out later. The 2005 bankruptcy law was a corporate giveaway, not a vital reform.

Kevin Drum 7:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND PUBLIC FINANCING....Apparently John McCain is going to try to make a big deal out of Barack Obama's pledge a few months ago to "aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." Paul Waldman thinks Obama ought to opt out of that pledge by citing 527s as an excuse:

The argument would go something like this: "I said I would 'aggressively pursue an agreement to preserve a publicly financed election' with my Republican opponent. And I'm happy to have our two campaigns sit down and see if there is a way to make the debate between me and John McCain, within the publicly financed system. But as long as there are 'independent' Republican groups out there planning on spending hundreds of millions of dollars attacking me, it would be pretty foolish to lock myself into a spending limit that makes it impossible to respond. So I ask Senator McCain: Can you call off the right-wing hit squad? If you can do that, I'll be only too happy to say we should both accept public financing. But if you can't, I'm not going to sign away my ability to compete."

McCain would squawk, of course, but the real question is whether it would be enough to satisfy the press.

For the record, I think Obama made a pretty clear promise to accept public financing in the general election as long as McCain did likewise, and the 527 dodge is just that: a dodge. At the same time, I also think Obama was foolish to make his promise in the first place.

But whatever Obama does, I think one thing is clear: he should do it quickly. If he's willing to accept public financing, he should say so straight away and put this whole thing to bed. If he's not, he should lay out his reasons and make a clear and unequivocal statement about it right now. It won't hurt him even slightly in the primaries — Hillary doesn't have much of an opening to attack on this issue, and if she's foolish enough to try it might actually help Obama by giving him a chance to show that he's tough enough for bare-knuckled campaigning too — and no matter how the press reacts the issue will die quickly as long as he takes a firm position. If McCain tries to bring it up later, Obama can then wave it off as old news, a tactic that has almost a 100% success record with the mainstream media.

I'm mystified that the Obama campaign doesn't seem to get this. What do they possibly gain by allowing this issue to remain in the news cycle for weeks or months? They should get off the stick.

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (119)

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By: Kevin Drum

JUSTICE AT GUANTANAMO....A couple of months ago Col. Morris Davis, chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, wrote an op-ed in the LA Times explaining that he had resigned his post after he was placed in the chain of command under Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes. Today he sheds some further light on his decision in an interview with Ross Tuttle of The Nation:

When asked if he thought the men at Guantánamo could receive a fair trial, Davis provided the following account of an August 2005 meeting he had with Pentagon general counsel William Haynes — the man who now oversees the tribunal process for the Defense Department. "[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time," recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, something that had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

"I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process," Davis continued. "At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, 'Wait a minute, we can't have acquittals. If we've been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can't have acquittals, we've got to have convictions.'"

Davis submitted his resignation on October 4, 2007, just hours after he was informed that Haynes had been put above him in the commissions' chain of command. "Everyone has opinions," Davis says. "But when he was put above me, his opinions became orders."

The analogy to Nuremberg, of course, is pretty inexact. Nobody in 1946 was worried about whether a few acquitted Nazis were going to continue the war if they were released. But Davis's interview nonetheless highlights the fact that not only haven't we figured out what to do in cases like this, but the Bush administration isn't even interested in seriously thinking about the questions. What do you do with prisoners captured in a war where there are no uniforms, no fixed field of battle, no beginning, and no end? How do you make sure you treat them fairly? How do you gather evidence and whose testimony do you trust? What's more important in the long run: the moral high ground gained by fair trials — as in Nuremberg — or the possibility that a small number of the guilty will go free and continue to plan acts of terrorism?

These aren't trivial issues, but Haynes's approach — torture is OK, kangaroo trials are OK, just make sure everyone is convicted and locked up forever — is better suited to a banana republic dictatorship than it is to the foremost democracy on the planet. Even Colin Powell has figured that out by now; why can't George Bush?

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

INVISIBILITY....When I first read this I thought it sounded very cool:

But scientists are not satisfied. Using other new materials, some are trying to manufacture rudimentary Harry Potter-like cloaks that make objects inside of them literally invisible under the right conditions — the pinnacle of stealthy technology.

Both advances reflect researchers' growing ability to manipulate light, the fleetest and most evanescent of nature's offerings. The nascent invisibility cloak now being tested, for example, is made of a material that bends light rays "backward," a weird phenomenon thought to be impossible just a few years ago.

Known as transformation optics, the phenomenon compels some wavelengths of light to flow around an object like water around a stone. As a result, things behind the object become visible while the object itself disappears from view.

But then I thought twice about it. After all, there are two sides to this (no pun intended): the coolness of invisibility for me vs. the extreme annoyance of invisibility for all the rest of you. How does this balance out?

In my case, pretty clearly on the non-invisibility side. After all, I don't really have much use for being invisible, do I? I work at home, I'm not excited by the prospect of risk-free shoplifting, and it would probably scare the hell out of the cats. On the downside, other people being invisible could become a very serious pain very quickly. Just imagine what Michelle Malkin could do with it.

So here's today's question for you. Not "Would you like the power of invisibility?" Rather, "Would you like other people to have the power of invisibility?" Well, would you?

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHART OF THE DAY.... After several years of the most sluggish economic expansion on record, wages for non-managerial workers finally turned up in 2007. But not for long. As this EPI chart shows, in October the growth halted and for the past three months it's been, once again, negative:

A year ago, real hourly and weekly earnings grew on a yearly basis by over 2%; this January, they are both down by about 1%. Note also that over the past two months, due to the decline in average weekly hours — a function of the weakening job market — real weekly earnings are falling more quickly than hourly earnings.

But don't worry. I'm sure another tax cut for the rich is in the hopper to fix this all up.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

HUNDRED DOLLAR OIL....Via Brad DeLong, Jim Hamilton reviews some recent economic data and suggests that although oil at $100.01 might indeed be a sign of surging inflation, there are other possibilities too:

[Alternatively] you could try a line that to me seems a bit more natural: incoming data aren't confirming the initial notion held by many that a recession began in December. If so, it means that the Fed's easing will come to an end within a few months, and that the demand for oil, copper, and most everything else is going to be stronger than many of us had been anticipating as of a few weeks earlier.

If so, $100/barrel might not be as bad news as you thought.

So: we're not headed for recession, therefore demand for oil will shoot up later this year and prices are rising now in anticipation.

Well, sure. I guess that's possible, if unconvincing. But what struck me in the news reports about oil breaking the $100 barrier was the chatter about OPEC cutting production rates at its next meeting in March. The explanations were the usual ones: inventories are now at reasonable levels and OPEC always cuts production in the spring anyway. So, you know, it's not a big deal.

But this sets off alarm klaxons in my brain. It doesn't really matter whether the reason for increasing demand is economic optimism, soaring growth in China, or anything else. If it's really true that demand is high and likely to get higher — and oil at $100 a barrel certainly suggests this in the strongest possible way — then why would OPEC be talking about production cuts? Even just as saber rattling, what's the point? Are they trying to drive prices even higher? That makes no sense.

So what does make sense? My guess is that they're playing games: announce the possibility of cuts, and then, when production quotas stay level after all, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. And once again we're all distracted from the very real prospect that, quite likely, keeping production level is the best OPEC can do these days. They can't increase production anymore — not for long and not in serious quantities, anyway. Iraq is pretty much the only Middle Eastern country left with any spare pumping capacity, but for obvious reasons it can't take advantage of that at the moment.

The latest oil news is not just a short-term spike. Oil prices have been climbing steadily for six years now, and if OPEC had any real control over their pumping capacity they've had plenty of time to demonstrate it. The fact that they haven't, and are continuing to do everything they can to talk down the possibility, speaks volumes.

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

INFLATION = 4.3%....The headline inflation rate for 2007 is now official:

The Consumer Price Index rose 0.4 percent in January, a bigger gain than economists had predicted. Over the last 12 months, the index has surged by 4.3 percent, one of the highest year-over-year rates in decades, the Labor Department said.

....The core rate is 2.5 percent above its level in January 2007, above the Fed's recognized comfort zone ceiling of 2 percent.

Italics mine. I don't have any special point to make about this except to call attention to the numbers themselves. A lot of people — including a lot of reporters — are still vaguely under the impression that inflation is running at the same low rate it's been running at for the past decade. It's not. The CPI was up 4.3% last year, which means that any growth rate less than that is negative in real terms. That applies to interest rates, retail sales figures, government outlays, wage increases, etc. etc.

I'm just pointing this out as a public service. As always, "Economists predict that inflation will taper off by the second half of this year." And maybe it will. But for now it is what it is.

Kevin Drum 10:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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February 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ECHO....Sometimes there's nothing to do except agree with the conventional wisdom, so I guess that's what I'll do. Barack Obama absolutely crushed Hillary Clinton tonight, and Texas and Ohio are now the mother of all firewalls. If Hillary doesn't notch up solid wins there, it's all over. And since Obama usually does better the longer he has to campaign, the two week stretch between now and March 5th probably works to his advantage.

Unless the press decides they're tired of him, of course. Then all bets are off.

By the way, was it just me or did John McCain look unusually scripted and robotic tonight? His heart really didn't seem to be in his victory speech.

Kevin Drum 11:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN'S IDEAS....Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek today that the reason conservatism seems so tired these days is that conservatives are still fighting the ghosts of the 70s and 80s. But all those hoary old right-wing warhorses, which got cheers when tax rates were high and judges were forcing parents to bus their kids to faraway schools, now seem about as relevant as attacking the tin trust:

Today's world has a different set of problems. A robust economy has not lifted the median wages of Americans by much. Most workers are insecure about health care, and most corporations are unnerved by its rising costs. Globalization is seen as a threat, bringing fierce competition from dozens of countries. The danger of Islamic militancy remains real and lasting, but few Americans believe they understand the phenomenon or know how best to combat it.

So far, so good. And before I go on, let me say that I like Zakaria. I always wish he didn't seem to have his finger to the wind quite so much, but he's a smart guy and an engaging writer. So what explains the final paragraph of his column, which seemingly pops up out of nowhere?

Political ideologies do not exist in a vacuum. They need to meet the problems of the world as it exists. Ordinary conservatives understand this, which may be why — despite the urgings of their ideological gurus — they have voted for McCain. He seems to understand that a new world requires new thinking.

Where did that come from? Whatever else you can say about McCain, "new thinking" pretty clearly isn't part of his appeal. On foreign policy, he's for the status quo squared. His only real problem with George Bush is that he hasn't been militaristic enough. And on domestic policy he's practically famous for not paying attention to much of anything beyond his two or three pet issues. If running for president requires him to embrace Jerry Falwell, swear fealty to supply-side tax drivel, and repudiate his own immigration plan — well, he's perfectly willing to do it. As near as I can tell, he really doesn't care enough about any of this stuff to think it's worth standing up against.

Personally, I think the Republican electorate did a pretty good job of choosing the least repellent of the candidates they were offered. But they sure didn't do it because John McCain was the candidate of fresh ideas. Where did Zakaria come up with that?

Kevin Drum 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

SURVEYING THE MILITARY....Foreign Policy features a survey this month of "3,400 officers holding the rank of major or lieutenant commander and above from across the services, active duty and retired, general officers and field-grade officers." It's hard to be encouraged by the findings, though. Here's a small sample.

On torture: 53% say it's never acceptable. It's nice that this view got at least majority support, but the 44% who disagreed is a discouragingly high number.

On Iraq: 56% say the war hasn't broken the military. That's another very thin majority. Not only do 42% think the war has broken the military, but an overwhelming 88% think it has "stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin."

And then we have the results on the right. Given various ways to increase enlistment, only 22% of the senior officer corps was receptive to the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. Compare that to the 38% who supported reinstating the draft (!) and the 58% who thought it was OK to lower educational standards. You'd think these guys could have made just a wee bit more progress than this over the past couple of decades.

Kevin Drum 3:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

YOU SAY KOSOVO....Who says Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama don't have distinct policy differences? Moira Whelan offers up this fascinating tidbit:

I was looking at the statements released by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama regarding the announcement of Kosovo's independence....There are some interesting differences between the two statements that I'm sure will not be lost on a number of voters concerned with this issue who live in Ohio and Pennsylvania, let alone leaders in the rest of the world.

First and most notable is the Clinton reference to "Kosova" and the Obama reference to "Kosovo." Arguments differ, but suffice to say "Kosova" is considered the pro-Albanian reference while "Kosovo" is the historical name of the region dating back centuries. This may seem subtle to some, but speaks volumes to those who follow the issue.

Question: Is the use of Kosova intended to pander to the pro-Albanian vote? Or is it more of an anti-Serb thing? Seems like more of the latter, and it's hard to figure out what good that does Hillary or anybody else. Still, since I'm obviously in a mood to document campaign trivia today, I thought I'd pass this along.

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Kevin Drum

EQUAL TIME FOR HILLARY....An Obama backlash might not make any difference if Hillary Clinton's campaign keeps taking on water. Just today, we learned that:

  • HRC was unable to put together a full slate of delegates for the Pennsylvania primary. In practice this doesn't matter (they'll be assigned later if necessary), but it demonstrates once again just how unprepared the Clinton team was for a campaign that extended beyond Super Tuesday.

  • A "high-ranking Clinton official" confirmed to Politico's Roger Simon that Hillary would try to pick off Obama's pledged delegates prior to the convention. Not his superdelegates, who are fair game, but the delegates that Obama has won in the various primaries and caucuses so far. This strategy just reeks of desperation and prompts two questions: (a) why would she do it? and (b) why would a high-ranking campaign official actually admit it? [UPDATE: The Clinton campaign categorically denies they plan to do this.]

  • SurveyUSA reports that Clinton is only barely ahead of Obama in Texas, one of her "firewall" states.

In some ways this is a game of trivia, things that will all be forgotten almost as soon as they're reported. But a steady drumbeat of this kind of stuff can be deadly, especially for a candidate banking on her experience and party connections. She really needs to step up her game.

Kevin Drum 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

"FIRST TIME"?....Speaking of Obama backlash, could we be in for some Michelle Obama backlash as well? We've already been through the "I'm not sure I'd campaign for Hillary" thing, and now we have the "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" gaffe. James Joyner rounds up the reaction so far, mostly from conservatives. But I'll bet Hillary supporters will jump on board any second now.

Kevin Drum 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (169)

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By: Kevin Drum

BYE BYE, FIDEL....Well, "Fidel Castro Retires" sure isn't the headline I expected to see when I woke up this morning. But I guess that's why they call it news, right?

Anyway, good riddance Fidel, and a warm norteamericano welcome to Raul Castro. Or something. Meet the new boss, etc. I can't say that I have any idea what changes this will bring to Cuba itself, but speaking from a purely parochial perspective it would certainly be nice if we could use this as a fig leaf to justify ending our insane Cuba policy of the past 50 years. Steve Clemons is right when he says:

Of all the low cost opportunities to demonstrate a new and different US style of engagement with the world, Cuba is at the top of the list. Opening family travel — and frankly all travel — between Cuba and the US, and ending the economic embargo will provide new encounters, new impressions, and the kind of people-to-people diplomacy that George W. Bush, John Bolton, Richard Cheney, and Jesse Helms run scared of.

This is a huge potential pivot point in US-Cuba relations. Will Hillary Clinton step up to the plate — and will Obama move beyond the somewhat timid proposals he offered previously and go to the gold standard in US-Cuba relations articulated by Senator Chris Dodd?

And will John McCain just ignore history's offered up opportunity or will he continue to paw the dirt and blow steam at the island nation just off the Florida coast?

The accession of Raul Castro is unlikely to appease the electorally important (but less important all the time) Cuban exile community in Florida, but why not try pandering to the nation's cigar smokers instead? "Vote for me and Montecristo #2s will be legal again!" I've heard worse campaign slogans.

Kevin Drum 10:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE OBAMA BUBBLE....Paul Krugman this morning:

One thing I worry about a lot if Obama is the Dem nominee — and he's surely the frontrunner now — is that there will be a backlash against Obamamania. Actually, it's already starting — probably too late to have much effect on the nomination fight, but in plenty of time to affect the general election.

I hope I'm just a cynical baby boomer who has never really trusted any politician since 1968. But I just have a very bad feeling about the way things are going.

Right on cue, here's David Brooks tonight:

Obama says he is practicing a new kind of politics, but why has his PAC sloshed $698,000 to the campaigns of the superdelegates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics? Is giving Robert Byrd's campaign $10,000 the kind of change we can believe in?

If he values independent thinking, why is his the most predictable liberal vote in the Senate? A People for the American Way computer program would cast the same votes for cheaper.

....Does The Changemaker have the guts to take on the special interests in his own party — the trial lawyers, the teachers' unions, the AARP?

The Gang of 14 created bipartisan unity on judges, but Obama sat it out. Kennedy and McCain created a bipartisan deal on immigration. Obama opted out of the parts that displeased the unions. Sixty-eight senators supported a bipartisan deal on FISA. Obama voted no. And if he were president now, how would the High Deacon of Unity heal the breach that split the House last week?

A "backlash" from a conservative like Brooks is hardly a surprise. Still, I think Krugman is right: bubbles always burst, and Obama has been riding a major league bubble for months now. Before too much longer his supporters are going to come down to earth. Reporters will start wondering why Obama doesn't like to talk to them very much — and then they'll get bored and cynical and start doing to him what they did to Howard Dean in 2004. John McCain is going to find his rhythm (though he hasn't yet) and start making some effective jabs.

This backlash meme is already widespread, and you can almost feel in the air that it's about to explode into a feeding frenzy. In other words, it ain't over yet. Wisconsin and the two weeks after it should be interesting, shouldn't they?

Kevin Drum 2:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (197)

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February 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

MAKE IT STOP....Some blog posts can give you nightmares just by showing up in your RSS feed. Like this one:

VIDEO: Highlights from the Power Line Book of the Year ceremony. Henry Kissinger, Norman Podhoretz, Mark Steyn, and more.

Brrr. Mark Gisleson has the appropriate response (scroll down a bit for the picture).

Kevin Drum 8:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Kevin Drum

PRESIDENTS DAY....Today's topics in the liberal blogosphere appear to be these: John McCain is a hack no matter what Nick Kristof credulously believes; the Clinton campaign is lame for not figuring out the Texas delegate allocation rules until now; there's a primary in Wisconsin tomorrow; and superdelegates either should or shouldn't exercise their own judgment when the Democratic convention rolls around.

Also: Kosovo is now independent.

And with that, I'm planning to take the rest of Presidents Day off. If you're off too, enjoy yourself. If you're not, work extra hard to honor two presidents in one day. See you tomorrow.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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By: Kevin Drum

"BUSH-McCAIN"....Elisabeth Bumiller presents us with a charming President's Day story about both an actual president and a man who would be president:

Senator John McCain's campaign advisers will ask the White House to deploy President Bush for major Republican fund-raising, but they do not want the president to appear too often at his side, top aides to Mr. McCain said Sunday.

....Democrats, meanwhile, have been using every opportunity to link Mr. McCain to Mr. Bush, even defining Mr. McCain's candidacy as part of a "Bush-McCain" ticket that they say will essentially give the president another term.

Who will win this exciting battle? The answer, as always, depends on....our friends in the press! Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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February 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ROUTER WOES....Last night I went to Micro Center and told one of the salesguys that the signal strength on my WiFi router was lousy. He instantly told me not to screw around with special antennas or anything like that, but to dive in and replace my old G router with a shiny new N router. And luckily for me, they had the Linksys WRT150N on sale for a mere $89. He assured me it was so powerful I'd be lucky if my neighbors didn't start complaining.

So I got one. Installation did not go as smoothly as one might hope, but it's now up and running. Signal strength upstairs, however, still sucks. In fact, it might even be worse than before. Anybody have any relevant experience with these things that they'd like to share?

And speaking of routers, what's the deal with WPA2? I should use it, shouldn't I? First, though, I guess I have to download the appropriate XP update from Microsoft, which doesn't come preinstalled on new machines even though it was released nearly three years ago. Blah. Then I have to convince the router that it has a wired connection to my desktop machine. Half of the setup software believes this, but the other half doesn't. And Linksys tech support doesn't answer. Double blah.

Moral of the story: After spending a hundred bucks and mucking around for a couple of hours, I can say that I'm manifestly no worse off than I was before. Aren't computers great?

UPDATE: Oh hell. The Dell Latitude we bought apparently isn't N-compatible. This explains why the N router isn't doing any better than the old one. Guess I should have gotten the super-duper antenna after all.

Kevin Drum 5:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Kevin Drum

RESEARCH ON THE WEB....The world is full of advice on how to do research. There's general advice that applies to research of any kind. There's particular advice for particular fields. There's advice that applies to archival research and advice that applies to field research. There's advice for novices and advice for graduate students.

But how about bloggers doing research on the web? Here are five pieces of advice for them. Enjoy.

  1. If you use Google (and who doesn't?) don't use the default page. Use the Advanced Search page instead:


    Sure, the Advanced Search page is sort of a crutch for people who haven't memorized Google's set of Boolean operators. But that's most of us, right? And since any advanced search you use is better than any advanced search you don't, you're better off with the crutch than with nothing. So bookmark the Advanced Search page and use it.

    While you're at it, you should also free yourself from the tyranny of getting only ten results per page. The best hits aren't always in the top ten, and you're more likely to see them if you just have to scroll down a single page rather than going back and forth between different result pages. So go to http://www.google.com/preferences and set your default to 50 results per page.

  2. Whenever you read something by someone you don't know, Google 'em. Find out what axe they have to grind. Are they liberal or conservative? Do they work for a think tank? Do they have a history of being obsessed by weird stuff? What expertise do they have? The web allows you to root out this stuff in less than a minute or two for most people. Take advantage of it.

  3. If you're writing about a specific topic that you're not that familiar with, take a minute and find an article that provides a quick outline of the general subject area. Even a modest 60-second familiarity with the lay of the land can save you a lot of grief and keep you from making an idiot of yourself.

  4. Speaking of which, use Wikipedia. No, it's not 100% reliable. And given the nature of the internet community, it's better on some topics than others. You're more likely to get a useful description of the binomial theorem than you are of the objective correlative in Heart of Darkness.

    But all reference works have limitations, and virtually all popular references should be taken as starting points, not final authorities. And that's how you should use Wikipedia: as a starting point. The scope of Wikipedia is vast; it's extremely useful for recent events; it frequently does a decent job of summarizing a topic; and most articles come with a lot of highly useful links. Sure, you have to be careful with Wikipedia, but you should always be careful anyway.

  5. And while we're on the subject, always click the link. The web makes checking sources so easy that there's no excuse for failing to at least skim the primary links in an article. Click, click, click!

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

ARE YOU INTERESTED?....What is it that makes something interesting? Over at The Monkey Cage, Lee Sigelman glosses Paul Silvia on the subject and tells us there are two primary attibutes that make something interesting. The first, of course, is a particular event's novelty. If it's just the same old stuff, it's not interesting.

Second, though, is the event's potential comprehensibility, which involves considerations of whether one has the skills, knowledge, and resources to deal with the event. As Silvia puts it, "Concepts confusing to novices can be interesting to experts because experts feel able to understand them." Thus, if something I consider new and surprising happens and if understanding it seems to fall within the realm of what I consider possible for me, I'm likely to find it interesting and worth pursuing. But if understanding it seems hopeless to me, I'm likely to set it aside and wait for something else to grab me. Or just to sleep.

This is one of the virtues of blogs: at their best, they make things comprehensible that other mediums don't. Not for everybody, of course: even the chatty first-person style of the blogosphere is too opaque for some people, and the growing use of insidery jargon can sometimes make it as hard to get started with the blogosphere as it is to pick up Lost in the middle of a season.

Still, for some people it makes politics and policy interesting in a way that nothing else does. And lots of interested people is a good thing, right?

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW DUMB ARE WE?....What a remarkable essay this is. Susan Jacoby spends 1,500 words telling us that Americans are getting dumber but doesn't offer a single piece of evidence to support this notion. Not one. She tells us that we're reading fewer books. She tells us that it's bad for toddlers to watch a lot of TV. She tells us that campaign soundbites are getting shorter. She tells us that FDR urged people to buy maps so they could follow his fireside chats during World War II. She tells us that kids today don't care much about geography.

But dumber implies a comparison over time. It demands evidence that kids (or adults, for that matter) are less capable, less knowledgable, or less adept than they were 50 years ago. And who knows? Maybe they are. But I'm only willing to be persuaded if Jacoby is willing to offer up some actual evidence first.

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February 16, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS IN TROUBLE?.... Democrats are ahead by 14 percentage points in Gallup's latest generic congressional poll. That's good. It's always better to be ahead than behind.

But the number itself is misleading. As near as I can tell, Democrats routinely poll about ten points better than Republicans in these polls early in the year, so their real lead right now is probably more like three or four points. If this holds up through the summer, it means that Dems are likely to hold onto their current majority and maybe even pick up a few seats. If it expands, the results might be even better. At the very least, though, it's good news that Democrats are polling so well even though they control Congress and congressional approval ratings are in the toilet. Apparently voters aren't blaming them for the gridlock.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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February 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SATELLITE, SATELLITE, BURNING BRIGHT....So what's the deal on that spy satellite we're shooting down? Noah Shachtman talked today to a "veteran space security specialist" who said he was pretty skeptical of the official story playing up the danger from the satellite's hydrazine fuel tank. Rather, his guess is that we've been itching to do this ever since the Chinese shot down a satellite of their own last year, and this is just a convenient excuse:

My real concern is that this is simply a knee-jerk reaction made by the Administration in response to the purported threat by the Chinese. Since the April 2007 ASAT [anti-satellite] test, there have been rumors and whispers going around that the Administration and like-minded individuals are looking for more sticks (instead of carrots) to use against China. While this "shoot down" is not a direct action against China, it would be a clear signal that the US can possess an active ASAT capability at any time if it so desires. That is a serious development as the previous US ASAT system using F-15s was mothballed in the 1980's.

There are many significant political ramifications that would happen as a result of this. The US has been berating the Chinese on their ASAT test but now demonstrate that it is okay as long as it occurs at a low enough altitude to prevent long-lasting debris and can "save lives". This is close to an implied "ok" for the US and other nations to conduct more ASAT tests, which could open another arms race.

There's more at the link. It's all very mysterious.

Kevin Drum 6:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT VLOGGING....I have newfound respect for Steven Spielberg. Last week I got the bright idea of creating a cat video, and as soon as the thought entered my head I walked upstairs and found Inkblot plucking treats out of the air from Marian's outstretched hand. It was video gold!

Now, you might be thinking that 20 seconds of a cat eating treats is nothing to get too cocky about. But let me tell you: that remains my best effort even after a further week of intensive feline moviemaking. For starters, as we all know, cats mostly sleep all day. Then, whenever they started doing something, I didn't have my camera handy. So I zipped off to get my camera, and by the time I got back they were just lying around again. Are they unionized or something?

Anyway, long story short, Domino presented a considerable vlogging challenge. But I promised you a Domino video, and a Domino video you shall have. It's called "Domino on the Chaise Lounge," and the title pretty much speaks for itself. I had another one with sound effects in the same genre, but it made Domino look fat and you guys are hell on fat cats. So you get this one instead.

I learned something new this week, too. I figured that since YouTube compresses the video to 320x240, I might as well shoot at that resolution to begin with. But no. The quality of this week's offering is much worse than last week's video, which was shot at 640x480. So although the higher resolution takes longer to upload, I guess I'll go back to using it. Nothing's too good for our resident housecats, after all.

UPDATE: In comments, disparue says this thing is a "chaise longue," not a chaise lounge. And that's correct. You learn something new every day.

However, I fear it's too late. A Google search for chaise lounge returns 2 million hits vs. 1.1 million for chaise longue. I suspect that this particular bastardization of the language is here to stay.

Kevin Drum 2:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC UPDATE....The New York Times reports the latest batch of bad economic news:

The price of imports rose 1.7 percent in January and was up 13.7 year over year, the highest annual rate since the Labor Department records began in 1983....Manufacturers' woes were reflected in the Empire State Manufacturing survey, a measure of business conditions in New York State. The index fell in February to -11.7, its lowest reading since April 2003....Meanwhile, a closely watched measure of consumer confidence, the Reuters/University of Michigan survey, fell to 69.6 in February, the lowest reading since February 1992. It had stood at 78.4 in January.

Meanwhile, here in Southern California where I'm typing this, median home prices are down 18% from their peak and home sales are at their lowest level since records started being kept. And the Fed? They're lowering interest rates but it doesn't seem to be doing any good.


Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

TELECOM IMMUNITY....I mentioned yesterday that although I oppose telecom immunity in the FISA bill currently being considered by Congress, I'm not "hellbent" on it. Several readers were unhappy about that and wanted to know exactly what I meant. So here it is.

First, let's set the stage right after 9/11. Al-Qaeda had hijacked four airplanes and driven them into three buildings, killing over 3,000 people. We didn't know if more attacks were imminent. A week later people started dying from letters contaminated with anthrax and we had no idea who was behind them or if more was to come. There were seemingly credible reports at the time that Osama bin Laden might be close to acquiring a nuclear bomb. Our intelligence services were essentially running both deaf and blind.

As I've mentioned before, in a genuine national emergency like this I don't have a problem with the president assuming extraordinary powers for a short period. If, right after 9/11, George Bush asked telecom companies to open up their data streams to the NSA for a few weeks or months on an emergency basis until legislation could be passed formalizing new rules for data collection, I'd expect them to go ahead and comply.

I realize, of course, that not everyone agrees with this position. Some people have a more absolutist view of the law and believe there's no excuse for breaking or stretching it regardless of circumstances. But I'm not one of them: as long as it's limited to a short while after 9/11, I'm OK with an expanded surveillance program.

The problem, of course, is that it didn't go on for only a short while. After things had quieted down, Bush's Department of Justice produced memos justifying the continuing legality of the program even without enabling legislation. Congress was, as near as I can tell, informed about what was going on and offered no resistance. (A few Democrats have since weaseled a bit about whether they were really, truly informed, but frankly, I don't believe them. I think they knew what was going on and were too scared to register any complaints.)

And so the program continued. And the telecom companies were stuck. They couldn't go public, obviously. And there was never any appropriate time to suddenly pipe up and stop cooperating. The administration argued that the program was perfectly legal even under current law, and all along there appeared to be bipartisan support for that position in Congress. So everything just drifted along until James Risen blew the whistle in the New York Times.

And now who's being asked to take the fall? The president? The Department of Justice? Congress? Of course not. It's the telecom companies who are being sued.

Now, it's inevitable that some people are going to read this and think that I'm concocting some kind of defense for telecom immunity. I'm not. I oppose it. In the end, the telecoms are big boys with big legal staffs, and they knew exactly what they were doing — and providing them with retroactive immunity at this point sets a terrible precedent and creates all sorts of perverse incentives to break the law in the future. At this point, if they think they can make a case that they acted in good faith and shouldn't be held accountable, they need to make it to a judge and jury. If they have a good case, they'll win. If they don't, they'll lose.

Still and all, the reason I'm not hellbent on this view is because it doesn't seem right that the least culpable party is the one getting taken to court, while the most culpable parties — the president, the DOJ, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress — get off scot free. Sure, that's life. It's unfair sometimes. I get it. But I don't have to like it.

UPDATE: Just for the record, the Senate version of telecom immunity in S.2248 applies only to activities taken after 9/11. There have been reports of possibly illegal NSA/telecom activities being initiated several months before 9/11, but S.2248 wouldn't apply to them. Here's the relevant text:

[A] covered civil action...shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the court that (A) the assistance alleged to have been provided by the electronic communication service provider was (i) in connection with an intelligence activity involving communications that was (I) authorized by the President during the period beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on January 17, 2007; and (II) designed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack, or activities in preparation for a terrorist attack, against the United States....

If I'm misreading this, or reading the wrong version of the bill, please let me know in comments.

UPDATE 2: Josh Patashnik notes that it was entirely possible to target the more culpable parties if we'd wanted to: "There was an ideal solution to this problem: the Specter–Whitehouse substitution amendment, which would have allowed lawsuits to go forward but would have substituted the United States as a defendant, letting the telecoms off the hook." Needless to say, the White House opposed this.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Ezra Klein, remarking on Hillary Clinton's campaign:

During periods when I see more of Hillary Clinton and less of her campaign, I'm more favorably disposed. During periods when I see less of Hillary Clinton and more of her campaign, I'm less favorably disposed.

This, mind you, comes in a post in which he says he thinks Clinton "has run a pretty good campaign." I wonder what a bad campaign would look like?

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By: Kevin Drum

DEAD ZONES....Marine researchers appear to have figured out the cause of the massive low-oxygen "dead zones" that have reappeared off the coast of Oregon every summer since 2002:

"We couldn't believe our eyes," [Jane] Lubchenco said, recalling her initial impression of the carnage brought about by oxygen-starved waters. "It was so overwhelming and depressing. It appeared that everything that couldn't swim or scuttle away had died.

Upon further study, Lubchenco and other marine ecologists at Oregon State University concluded that that the undersea plague appears to be a symptom of global warming. In a study released today in the journal Science, the researchers note how these low-oxygen waters have expanded north into Washington and crept south as far as the California state line. And, they appear to be as regular as the tides, a lethal cycle that has repeated itself every summer and fall since 2002.

"We seem to have crossed a tipping point," Lubchenco said. "Low-oxygen zones off the Northwest coast appear to be the new normal."

....If this theory holds up, it means that global warming and the build-up of heat-trapping gases are bringing about oceanic changes beyond those previously documented: a rise in sea level, more acidic ocean water and the bleaching of coral reefs.

Probably nothing to worry about, though. Just more marine biologist fearmongering. After all, there are probably benefits to massive oxygen-starved zones in the ocean, right? And malaria abatement in Africa is more important in any case. What's more, none of this would be a problem in the first place if Al Gore would stop flying around in a private jet. Or something.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

UPDATE: Hey, it turns out there are benefits to massive oxygen-starved zones in the ocean. Well, one benefit, anyway. If you happen to be a giant squid. Details here.

Kevin Drum 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMORS AND REPORTS OF RUMORS....Why are we planning to shoot down an "out-of-control, school-bus-size U.S. spy satellite"? The official story is that it's carrying 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel that could kill a bunch of people if doesn't burn up on reentry. But not everyone is buying the official story:

The announcement set off an immediate debate on defense blogs and among experts who questioned whether there is an ulterior motive. Some experts said the military is seizing an opportunity to test its controversial missile defense system against a satellite target.

But others noted that the Standard Missile-3 has successfully been tested against warhead targets, which are far smaller than the satellite.

"There has to be another reason behind this," said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a liberal arms-control advocacy organization. "In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space."

....[Gen. James] Cartwright said that the Aegis missile system aboard the cruiser would fire an SM-3 missile with a heat-seeking nose that destroys its target by hitting it, not blowing it up. The missile, known as Block III, was developed primarily for intermediate missile defense against warheads coming in at low altitude. The Navy has spent the past three weeks modifying missile software normally set for hitting much higher targets, he said.

Asked whether the plan is really an attempt to test the Aegis system as an anti-satellite system — which would be a very controversial step internationally — Cartwright said the amount of special modifications being done to the programs used to guide the system would "not be transferable to fleet use."

Yeah, sure. Personally, I think this is actually an ill-disguised attempt to locate the Lost castaways. And speaking of lame segues, Lost is pretty cool this season, isn't it? Tonight's episode was great.

Kevin Drum 2:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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February 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH IS PISSED....FILM AT 11....I saw this headline on the Washington Post's front page a few minutes ago and thought, WTF? Eve Fairbanks apparently thought the same thing:

Seriously, though, why the hell is this the Post's headline? Here's what happened: House Democrats refused to sign the Senate's version of the FISA bill, which excused the telecom companies for their past surveillance sins, rebuking the Republicans and the Senate. Even more ballsy, the 35-strong liberal bloc in the House knocked down a temporary extension, meaning FISA will probably expire on Friday night. Then the Republicans threw a temper tantrum and walked off the House floor; Bush put out an angry statement — and the tantrum made the headline.

But it's what the Democrats did that was the news! Every time Congressional Democrats do something Bush remotely doesn't like, he puts out an angry statement. It's like writing a story about the Capitol burning down and headlining it, "Many Cameramen Gather at Capitol."

All winter Pelosi et al have been sneered for caving to Republicans; now they're sneered at for getting rebuked by Republicans when they don't cave. If I were Pelosi I'd feel like I couldn't win.

I guess "House Democrats Grow A Pair" probably wouldn't pass muster with the Post's style standards, but surely they could have thought of something? I mean, I can sort of understand why walking off the House floor is news, but Bush putting out an angry statement? You gotta be kidding. It would be news if Bush ever put out a non-angry statement.

Kevin Drum 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT THE FED HEAD SAID....Fed chairman Ben Bernanke testified before Congress today and Brad DeLong provides a pithy summary:

Further cuts in the federal funds rate are on the way. Ben Bernanke is talking about how we are in a slow-moving financial crisis of DeLong Type II: one in which large financial institutions are insolvent — "pressure on bank balance sheets" — and in which lower short-term interest rates and a steeper yield curve are a way of providing institutions with the life jackets they need to paddle to shore.

Well, that sure doesn't sound very optimistic, does it?

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY WINS! (one more delegate)....Everybody laughed last week when I forgot about the provisional ballots and declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the New Mexico primary, but it turns out she won after all. So there.

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By: Kevin Drum

POPULISM!....Some excellent bashing of credit card issuers from Barack Obama here. It's frankly incomprehensible to me that the second bullet was ever legal in the first place, let alone that it would be even remotely controversial to ban it now. It just goes to show how completely the GOP (and, admittedly, a few factions in the Democratic Party) are in the tank for the financial services industry.

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By: Kevin Drum

FISA....Andy McCarthy, after saying it would be "unconscionable" for House Democrats to let last year's FISA extension lapse on Friday, stares into the abyss:

Well it looks like the unconscionable is about to occur. I am hearing from several sources that the House is planning to recess on Friday without taking up the Senate bill. That would mean the lapse of our surveillance authority at midnight....President Bush has to keep pounding this, as does Sen. McCain. This is not politics, folks. For grown-ups, this is life and death.

Look, if it's that important, there's a simple answer: pass the bill without telecom immunity. Then come back and introduce immunity in a separate bill. If you've got the votes for it, fine. If not, too bad. I'm against immunity myself — though hardly hellbent on the subject — but whichever way the vote went, in the meantime we'd have the FISA extension and surveillance could continue normally.

But that's not on the table. The supposed grownups in the GOP are, apparently, perfectly happy to play around with "life and death" if it's in the service of a bit of demagogic brinksmanship over telecom immunity. Why?

NOTE: "FISA extension" is shorthand for the Protect America Act, which passed last November and extended (i.e., changed) the then-current FISA legislation in various ways. PAA sunsets on Saturday if a new bill isn't passed, but the original FISA legislation will stay in place.

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND CHANGE....I don't want to beat this into the ground, but yesterday I linked to an Ezra Klein post lamenting the fact that Barack Obama hasn't been using his immense rhetorical gifts to actively move public opinion in a more liberal direction. Matt Yglesias responds:

Ultimately, though, the question of whether or not deep down in his heart Obama is really the liberal Reagan or not is neither here nor there....The extent to which Obama or Clinton or anyone else governs as a progressive will have more to do with the objective circumstances in which he or she finds himself or herself — the congressional balance of power, the strength of interest groups, the quality of organizing on the ground — than it will with what lurks in the deepest recesses of his or her brain.

For what it's worth, this isn't my concern. I don't have the slightest doubt about Obama's genuine devotion to the center-left. His record is crystal clear on that point.

Rather, my question is about his political courage. Obama obviously has the talent to move people, and at some point he's going to have to decide whether he's willing to use that talent to start persuading the American public of the value of liberal policies, not merely the value of coming together and "making change." The latter might get him elected, but it won't get him elected with a tailwind of public opinion actively in favor of implementing a liberal agenda.

Now, my concern on this score is fairly minor. It's not as if Obama is hiding his views or anything, and the ideological stakes will inevitably come into sharper focus during the general election campaign. Right now he's trying to win a primary against a woman with broadly similar liberal views, so emphasizing unity over ideology is a smart tactic.

Still, speaking only for myself, at this point I'd like to see some kind of Sistah Souljah moment in reverse: something that demonstrates his willingness to take political risks on behalf of moving public opinion to the left. After all, if Obama is willing to take political risks now, it's a good sign that he'll be willing to spend political capital later.

UPDATE: I guess today is Sara Robinson day. In a post that accurately takes to task the "cult" critique of Obama's campaign, she says:

[Obama has] tapped into a deeply pressurized seam of repressed fury within the American electorate, and he's giving it voice, a focus, and an outlet. Are the results scary? You bet: these people want change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying. Are they unreasoning? The followers may be — but as long as their leader keeps a cool head, that's not as much of a problem right now as we might think; and the heat will dissipate naturally in time. Is this kind of devotion even appropriate? You bet. You don't get the kind of deep-level change we need without first exposing and channeling people's deep discontent. Obama's change talk may be too vague for most people's tastes (including mine); but the fact is that if we're serious about enacting a progressive agenda, rousing people's deepest dreams and desires and mobilizing that energy is exactly how it's going to happen. And Obama's the first candidate we've had in a generation who really, truly gets this.

This could hardly be farther away from my view of the Obama phenomenon. "Repressed fury"? "Scary"? I don't see that at all. "Change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying"? I don't think there's anyone on the planet who's terrified of Obama. Frankly, I'd be pleased to see a hint of this now and again in Obama's campaign, but I just haven't. His domestic policies aren't even as progressive as Hillary Clinton's, his foreign policy is a step in the right direction but still well within the center-left mainstream, and the "change" his audience cheers for is the feel-good U2 variety, not the mad-as-hell Howard Beale variety.

Am I totally off base here? I like Obama, but I don't really see him tapping into popular anger at all. There's a part of me that wishes he'd dip a toe in those waters occasionally, but I haven't seen it yet.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (168)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI POLITICS....Yesterday the Iraqi government bundled together three different laws and passed them as a package by consensus rather than by voice vote. The three laws are the annual budget, an amnesty for (mostly) Sunni Arab prisoners, and a law setting a date for provincial elections. Juan Cole comments on the electoral realities behind all this:

The setting of a date for provincial elections is extremely important. I have argued that elections in the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces are a necessity for calming Iraq. Diyala, for instance, is 60% Sunni Arab but is ruled by the pro-Iranian Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq....It will be easier for the US to turn over security duties to elected provincial authorities who have the backing of significant numbers of Sunni Arabs, and so the elections could pave the way to a US drawdown in those provinces.

One reason that the provincial elections have been delayed is that there are fears in Baghdad that the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr will sweep to power in the Shiite south. It from all accounts has gained in popularity as the current dominant provincial party there, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has become much less popular. (ISCI has been trying to run many of the southern Shiite provinces, but has not been able to provide security and services at the level desired by local people). Presumably one reason for bundling the law of the provinces with the amnesty law was to make Sadrist MPs vote for the package. They did not want to grant amnesty to Sunni Arab prisoners, but only by supporting this step could they get a date certain for provincial elections, which they think they will largely win.

The elections are set for October 1st. If the Sadrists win, will ISCI cede power to them in the south? Or will they figure out a way to keep the Sadrists from winning in the first place? Stay tuned.

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By: Kevin Drum

CHECKLIST FOLLOWUP....Last night I blogged about Atul Gawande's New Yorker article from December about the lifesaving benefits of using a simple checklist to reduce line infections in hospitals. I didn't see this at the time, but a reader alerts me to an op-ed Gawande wrote a few weeks after the original article appeared:

The results [of using the checklist] were stunning. Within three months, the rate of bloodstream infections from these I.V. lines fell by two-thirds. The average I.C.U. cut its infection rate from 4 percent to zero. Over 18 months, the program saved more than 1,500 lives and nearly $200 million.

Yet this past month, the Office for Human Research Protections shut the program down. The agency issued notice to the researchers and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association that, by introducing a checklist and tracking the results without written, informed consent from each patient and health-care provider, they had violated scientific ethics regulations. Johns Hopkins had to halt not only the program in Michigan but also its plans to extend it to hospitals in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

....Scientific research regulations had previously exempted efforts to improve medical quality and public health — because they hadn't been scientific. Now that the work is becoming more systematic (and effective), the authorities have stepped in. And they're in danger of putting ethics bureaucracy in the way of actual ethical medical care. The agency should allow this research to continue unencumbered. If it won't, then Congress will have to.

Wouldn't it be great if Congress held hearings on this instead of preening for the cameras over Roger Clemens's alleged steroid use? Or is that too much to ask for?

Kevin Drum 11:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

CANADIAN HEALTHCARE....Ezra Klein recommends "Ten Myths About Canadian Healthcare," by Sara Robinson, and it is indeed very good (and very fair). My personal favorite is #2, in which Robinson notes that although Canadian doctors are paid less than their U.S. counterparts, there are also upsides to practicing in Canada:

First, as noted, they don't have to charge higher fees to cover the salary of a full-time staffer to deal with over a hundred different insurers, all of whom are bent on denying care whenever possible. In fact, most Canadian doctors get by quite nicely with just one assistant, who cheerfully handles the phones, mail, scheduling, patient reception, stocking, filing, and billing all by herself in the course of a standard workday.

Second, they don't have to spend several hours every day on the phone cajoling insurance company bean counters into doing the right thing by their patients. My doctor in California worked a 70-hour week: 35 hours seeing patients, and another 35 hours on the phone arguing with insurance companies. My Canadian doctor, on the other hand, works a 35-hour week, period. She files her invoices online, and the vast majority are simply paid — quietly, quickly, and without hassle. There is no runaround. There are no fights. Appointments aren't interrupted by vexing phone calls. Care is seldom denied (because everybody knows the rules). She gets her checks on time, sees her patients on schedule, takes Thursdays off, and gets home in time for dinner.

One unsurprising side effect of all this is that the doctors I see here are, to a person, more focused, more relaxed, more generous with their time, more up-to-date in their specialties, and overall much less distracted from the real work of doctoring. You don't realize how much stress the American doctor-insurer fights put on the day-to-day quality of care until you see doctors who don't operate under that stress, because they never have to fight those battles at all. Amazingly: they seem to enjoy their jobs.

I have watched office clerks brought practically to tears trying to deal with a waiting room full of patients while simultaneously fighting over authorizations with five different insurance companies with five different sets of very complex rules. There have been times when I've seen offices practically grind to a halt because of it. It's a continuing wonder to me that U.S. doctors haven't long since rebelled against this insane system.

Kevin Drum 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEATH OF A TERRORIST....So who killed the Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh? Mossad? The Syrians? A rival faction within Hezbollah? Nobody knows, but Laura Rozen talked to some ex-spooks and came to at least one conclusion:

About one thing, the former CIA officer was sure: "I know goddamn well we didn't do it. Because it's too good of an operation. If we did it, it would be fifteen years in the making, and there'd be video surveillance from Washington....I'm serious."

Read the rest for a roundup of who the suspects are and what might have happened.

Kevin Drum 10:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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February 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN vs. THE BASE, PART 487....National Journal sets the stage for today's Senate vote on a bill banning the CIA from using torture:

Supporters will need 60 votes to advance the bill, meaning they will need some Republicans to cross party lines. [Harry] Reid said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., could be a major swing vote, given his previous support for legislation against torture. But a spokeswoman for McCain, a Republican presidential candidate who has been trying to bolster support from party conservatives, did not return telephone calls and an e-mail late Tuesday seeking comment.

And why was the famously anti-torture and press-friendly senator avoiding phone calls last night? Because he ended up voting against the bill.

But hey — who can blame him? It's one thing to be against torture in a primary debate where you're trying to appeal to independents and crossover voters, but it's quite another thing to be against torture after you've won the nomination and need to appease a conservative base that's righteously pissed off and not afraid to let you know it. A base that Joe Klein watched in action last November when McCain told Mitt Romney, "We're not going to torture people. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak":

I attended Frank Luntz's dial group of 30 undecided — or sort of undecided — Republicans in St. Petersburg, Florida, last night...and it was a fairly astonishing evening. Now, for the uninitiated: dials are little hand-held machines that enable a focus group member to register instantaneous approval or disapproval as the watch a candidate on TV.

....When John McCain started talking about torture — specifically, about waterboarding — the dials plummeted again....Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. "I don't have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

These are the voters McCain needs now, and these voters don't want a president who opposes state sanctioned torture of captive prisoners. So McCain doesn't oppose it anymore. Any questions?

Kevin Drum 9:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (121)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CHECKLIST....If you've ever been treated in an ICU, there's a good chance you've been fitted at some point with a "central line," a catheter sewn into a large vein and used to deliver medications and monitor cardiovascular status. Central lines are a critical part of modern intensive care, but unfortunately, as Atul Gawande wrote in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, they can also be killers:

Line infections are so common that they are considered a routine complication. I.C.U.s put five million lines into patients each year, and national statistics show that, after ten days, four per cent of those lines become infected. Line infections occur in eighty thousand people a year in the United States, and are fatal between five and twenty-eight per cent of the time, depending on how sick one is at the start. Those who survive line infections spend on average a week longer in intensive care. And this is just one of many risks.

In 2001, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to create a simple checklist designed to reduce line infections. The result was astonishing: line infection rates dropped to zero percent. A couple of years later, Pronovost tried out his checklist in a more demanding environment: public hospitals throughout the state of Michigan. Here's the good news — and the bad:

In December, 2006, the Keystone Initiative published its findings in a landmark article in The New England Journal of Medicine. Within the first three months of the project, the infection rate in Michigan's I.C.U.s decreased by sixty-six per cent. The typical I.C.U. — including the ones at Sinai-Grace Hospital — cut its quarterly infection rate to zero. Michigan's infection rates fell so low that its average I.C.U. outperformed ninety per cent of I.C.U.s nationwide. In the Keystone Initiative's first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated hundred and seventy-five million dollars in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives. The successes have been sustained for almost four years — all because of a stupid little checklist.

....If someone found a new drug that could wipe out infections with anything remotely like the effectiveness of Pronovost's lists, there would be television ads with Robert Jarvik extolling its virtues, detail men offering free lunches to get doctors to make it part of their practice, government programs to research it, and competitors jumping in to make a newer, better version. That's what happened when manufacturers marketed central-line catheters coated with silver or other antimicrobials; they cost a third more, and reduced infections only slightly — and hospitals have spent tens of millions of dollars on them. But, with the checklist, what we have is Peter Pronovost trying to see if maybe, in the next year or two, hospitals in Rhode Island and New Jersey will give his idea a try.

....I asked [Pronovost] how much it would cost for him to do for the whole country what he did for Michigan. About two million dollars, he said, maybe three, mostly for the technical work of signing up hospitals to participate state by state and coordinating a database to track the results. He's already devised a plan to do it in all of Spain for less.

"We could get I.C.U. checklists in use throughout the United States within two years, if the country wanted it," he said.

So far, it seems, we don't. The United States could have been the first to adopt medical checklists nationwide, but, instead, Spain will beat us. "I at least hope we're not the last," Pronovost said.

If you extrapolate what happened in Michigan to the entire country, a $2 million investment in Pronovost's checklists would save perhaps $2 billion and 10-20,000 lives each year. And yet, we're not doing it. After all, who's got both the incentive and the clout to make it happen? Insurance companies basically earn a percentage of the cost of the medical care they cover, so they don't really care if costs go down. Corporations would certainly like lower costs, but they're too diffuse to put up a united front to demand change. The federal government doesn't have the authority to mandate the checklists. Doctors don't want to be pestered about them. And patients don't know enough to even realize there's a problem.

The American healthcare system is a grand thing, isn't it? Nobody wants to be bothered with stuff like this, and in the end it will probably only get adopted thanks to another beloved American institution: fear of medical malpractice lawsuits. After a few whopping awards in cases where doctors are forced to admit on the stand that, no, they didn't use Pronovost's simple and proven line infection checklist, eventually they'll get the message.

But wait. What am I thinking? I guess they could get the message. Or it could become just another excuse for the AMA to start screaming about how the legal system is driving doctors out of business. That's an American institution too.

Kevin Drum 8:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA MINDREADING....This is spooky. I was planning to write almost this exact post, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. So today's Obama commentary is outsourced to Ezra Klein.

Like Ezra, I too think Obama has huge potential to move the country in a more liberal direction. So far, though, he hasn't been willing to take the risk of actually trying to do it. I'd really, really like to see him start.

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By: Kevin Drum

WAS THERE A HOUSING BUBBLE?....Alex Tabarrok takes a look at housing prices today and makes a seemingly odd argument about whether we're really in the midst of a housing bubble:

The clear implication of the chart is that normal prices are around an index value of 110, the value that reigned for nearly fifty years (circa 1950-1997). So if the massive run-up in house prices since 1997 was a bubble and if the bubble has now been popped we should see a massive drop in prices.

But what has actually happened? House prices have certainly stopped increasing and they have dropped but they have not dropped to anywhere near the historic average....If we don't see the massive drop back to "normal" levels then the run up in prices should be described as a shift to a new equilibrium — much as happened during World War II — see the chart. (It's an important question to ask what changed and why?). In the shift to the new equilibrium there was some mild overshooting, especially due to the subprime over expansion, but fundamentally there was no housing bubble.

But doesn't this depend on whether the overshoot really does turn out to be "mild"? I too don't expect to see home prices go down to their historical levels, but if the housing index goes from 110 to 200 and then crashes back to 160, what would you call that? I'd call it both a new equilibrium and a bubble.

As for what changed to produce this new equilibrium, I don't know. But here's my guess: it's mostly a delayed reaction to growing real incomes. In the past, lenders and buyers both believed that families couldn't afford to spend more than about 20-25% of their income on housing. And maybe that used to be true. Today it's not, and I think that in the late 90s everyone finally internalized the fact that the average family can, in fact, afford to spend more like 30% of their income on housing. Maybe even a bit more. Unfortunately, a few years later everyone started internalizing numbers more like 40% or 45%, and then the trouble started.

Result: a bubble that took the housing index up to 200, followed by a pop that will take us down to a new equilibrium around 160 or so. That's my hunch, anyway. Housing prices may be sticky downward, but eventually they'll unstick. We're nowhere near done with the housing bubble yet.

UPDATE: A reader points out that falling interest rates were obviously one of the drivers of the bubble too. That's true. More efficient credit markets helped as well (though those markets turned out not to be quite as efficient as everyone thought). But even if interest rates eventually go back up to historical levels, I suspect that housing prices won't go down to theirs. We're probably still going to end up at a higher equilibrium than in the past.

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NEGATIVE?....David Kurtz characterizes Hillary's latest offering in Wisconsin as a "negative ad," and I suppose that technically it is. But if this is what we're going to start calling negative, the bar has been lowered several stories. This is a powderpuff.

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"VOICES FROM BEYOND"....In an apparent effort to keep me permanently gobsmacked, ABC News put the following headline on a blog post about Hillary Clinton's latest campaign stop:

Clinton Hears Voices from Beyond: 'Keep Going'

Speaking about her work in South Texas as an organizer for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, Clinton said two strong Texas women inspired her — Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Texas Governor Ann Richards.

Clinton said they taught her about courage and determination. Then she suggested that she is hearing from them even as her campaign struggles to compete after a string of losses.

"I can hear their voices saying, 'You keep going! You give the people a real choice about the future!'" she said at a campaign event.

Look. I know that campaign coverage can get mighty dull and the search for something resembling actual news can get pretty desperate. But seriously, folks, this is what we professional writers call a "figure of speech." Hillary is not suggesting that she hears "voices from beyond." OK?

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By: Kevin Drum

POLLSTER UPDATE....A couple of days ago, after I published SurveyUSA's pollster report card, several commenters complained that SUSA had ranked pollsters by mean error, not median. This meant that one large error could make an otherwise good pollster look artificially bad.

Well, apparently the folks at SUSA read your comments, because SurveyUSA editor Jay Leve emails to tell me that they've updated their report card through last night's contests and now rank them by both mean and median error. I've compressed the results to show only the eight pollsters (out of 39 total) who have done ten or more polls, and the results are on the right. Full results, including ranking by mean scores, are here.

If you're interested in learning more about this, Mark Blumenthal evaluates SUSA's ranking methodology here. Beyond that, if you're interested in following SUSA's commentary on a regular basis, their blog is here.

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THE SURGE....McClatchy reports that the surge may be starting to lose its effectiveness:

After months of declining violence, February is certain to be the third straight month to see increases in the numbers of Baghdad residents killed in car bombings and suicide attacks.

....Monday, a suicide car bomber drove his car into the Baghdad residence of a prominent leader of the Anbar Salvation Council....Later, Sheik Ali Hathem al Suleiman al Duleimy, who was injured in the attack, went on Iraqi TV and declared war against his enemies. He said that his militia, many of whose members are paid by the United States, no longer would allow the U.S. or Iraqi government to interfere with its work.

....Meanwhile, parliament Speaker Mahmoud al Mishhadani said that the legislature was paralyzed over budget disputes involving the Kurdish region and warned that other key pieces of legislation, such as an amnesty for prisoners and more power for provincial governments, could fail in the bickering.

Overall civilian fatalities in February, though still running at less than half the peak rate of 2006-07, are noticeably higher than in the past few months. Tension in the Sunni Awakening movement seems to be on the rise. Parliament is still deadlocked. Infrastructure improvements are nonexistent. And the surge is running out of time. I wonder what Plan H is?

UPDATE: On the other hand, here's some breaking news on the legislative front:

Iraqi lawmakers overcame weeks of deadlock today to pass three key measures: a $48-billion national budget, an amnesty law and legislation paving the way for provincial elections by Oct. 1.

....Mahmoud Mashhadani, the parliament's Sunni speaker who the previous night had said he should disband the legislature altogether, told reporters: "Today is a celebration for the Iraqi parliament."

This is modest progress, but welcome. Stay tuned.

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THE FRONTRUNNER....So what's the state of play in the Democratic race after last night? Things could still go either way, but unquestionably Hillary now has a pretty serious uphill climb. Obama has shown a very strong ability to make up ground on Hillary if he's got time and money to devote to a state (even in the big states he lost on Super Tuesday, he did about 10 points better than polls had shown a few weeks earlier), and he now has that. He gets to concentrate on Wisconsin for a few days, and then has two full weeks to work on Texas and Ohio, followed by another few weeks to concentrate on Pennsylvania. And if Josh Green is to be believed, Hillary's campaign burned through money at such a fantastic clip earlier this year that even with her current fundraising going well she's still way behind Obama.

So Obama has time and money. He's got momentum. And he's now demonstrated an ability to appeal to the demographic groups that were supposed to be Hillary's firewall in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Hillary won't make it easy — and, yes, weird stuff can happen at any time in a campaign — but is there any question that Obama is now the frontrunner?

And one other thing: as I said the other day, if the race ends up in a dead heat going into the convention, then superdelegates should be free to vote for whoever they want to. But if Obama is ahead by more than, say, 200 delegates or so, the people really have spoken. Hillary would risk fracturing the party if she then tried to pull out a victory by holding floor fights over Michigan and Florida and twisting arms to get a lopsided win among the supers. Let's all pray it doesn't come to that.

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February 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ETHANOL: IT'S EVEN WORSE THAN YOU THOUGHT....A few days ago two studies were published showing that biofuels like ethanol had no positive effect on global warming. In fact, it turns out that they're actively bad for the environment. One of the studies concluded that use of corn-based ethanol produces twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline over a 30-year period, and only becomes carbon neutral after 167 years.

I didn't blog about it at the time because I was waiting for biofuels guru Mike O'Hare to weigh in and tell me if these studies were legit. Last night he finally did, and he says this is the real deal:

There is now more than good reason to expect that no biofuel from seeds, possibly none (even cellulosic) grown on land that could grow food, will reduce global warming if substituted for petroleum products. The insight of the papers discussed in the article, and work by some others who have been worrying at this bone for years without anyone paying enough attention, is a remarkable synthesis of economics and plant/earth science.

The first piece of the puzzle is the recognition that if a piece of forest is cut down, or natural grassland plowed up, to grow biofuel, decay and/or burning of what was there before releases an enormous puff of carbon into the atmosphere that needs to be counted along with the carbon releases of the biofuel crop. Even spreading the initial release over decades of biofuel growing, it is large enough to push almost any biofuel's global warming intensity way above that of gasoline, especially because it all occurs right at the beginning of the future rather than a few years or decades down the line.

[Further technical discussion.....]

Small amounts of diesel and ethanol will probably be available from trash and agricultural waste like the tree branches and bark scraps the logging industry leaves around to decay, or cornstalks, or McDonald's used frying oil, and these are environmentally OK because they don't induce land use conversion....And many smart folks in this business expect that algae growing in tanks in the desert (for example) can eventually be taught to make a lot of diesel cheap, with no land use implications. But for now, and for a while, biofuels generally are going over a very rough patch of road, a patch that may go on for years before new technologies smooth it out again.

I've never been a fan of corn ethanol, and now it looks like cellulosic ethanol might not be worthwhile either unless it's grown on wasteland. Better technology might eventually help out with that, or maybe those algae tanks will pan out. In the meantime, though, corn ethanol subsidies, which looked merely stupid in the past, now look catastrophically idiotic. With the Iowa primaries safely over, surely it's safe for our brave presidential candidates to use these studies as an excuse to do an about-face and promise to kill corn ethanol subsidies in their first term. Right?

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VIRGINIA AGAIN....And how about the Republican race? What's going on there? Answer: the exit polls have Huckabee beating McCain 45%-44%. This is obviously well within the margin of polling error, so McCain might still win. But even in the best case, not by much.

Isn't that great? I don't actually want Huckabee to win the nomination, but I'd love to see him continue to humiliate the presumptive nominee as long as possible. Let's keep that anti-McCain sentiment seething for at least a couple more months, OK?

UPDATE: Damn. CNN calls it for McCain. But still mighty close for a guy that Republicans should be rallying around by now.

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VIRGINIA....So did Hillary lose in Virginia? Or did she get smoked like a Virginia ham? Answer: things are looking pretty hamlike tonight. Obama seems set to carry at least 60% of the vote, and maybe as much as two-thirds. Rough night for Hillaryland.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SHAKEUP....In the Atlantic today, Josh Green writes a fairly devastating account of the recent shakeup in Hillaryland and the firing of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle:

Even after grasping the magnitude of the [Obama] threat, the Clinton campaign didn't react quickly and stuck to the strategy of trying to project an aura of inevitability. Here, too, Solis Doyle was disastrous; her lack of skill in areas other than playing the loyal heavy began to show. The first public sign of this came just after Clinton's reelection to the Senate. Even though Clinton had faced no serious opponent, it turned out that Solis Doyle, as campaign manager, had burned through more than $30 million. As this New York Times story makes clear, the donor base was incensed. Toward the end of the Senate campaign, Solis Doyle did her best to bolster the impression of the inevitability of Hillary's nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, spreading word that Clinton's Senate reelection fund-raising had gone so exceptionally well that $40 million to $50 million would be left after Election Day to transfer to the incipient presidential campaign. But this turned out to be a wild exaggeration — and Solis Doyle must have known it was. Disclosure filings revealed a paltry $10 million in cash on hand; far from conveying Hillary's inevitability, this had precisely the opposite effect, encouraging, rather than frightening off, potential challengers.

Rather than punish Solis Doyle or raise questions about her fitness to lead, Clinton chose her to manage the presidential campaign for reasons that should now be obvious: above all, Clinton prizes loyalty and discipline, and Solis Doyle demonstrated both traits, if little else. This suggests to me that for all the emphasis Clinton has placed on executive leadership in this campaign, her own approach is a lot closer to the current president's than her supporters might like to admit.

That's brutal. And Green is unsure whether the campaign can still recover: "Solis Doyle's replacement, Maggie Williams, is thought to possess many of the skills her predecessor lacked, while enjoying a relationship with Clinton that is every bit as close. Every reaction I've gotten from inside the campaign has been exuberance at Williams's arrival — followed by concern over whether the change was made too late."

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AFTER NOVEMBER....David Brooks writes today that a Democratic president would face a ruined presidency if he or she tried to make good on a promise to immediately withdraw American troops from Iraq. Unfortunately, I find his argument scarily plausible:

Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seductively hinted that they would withdraw almost all U.S. troops within 12 to 16 months. But if either of them actually did that, he or she would instantly make Iraq the consuming partisan fight of their presidency.

There would be private but powerful opposition from Arab leaders....important sections of the military....nonpartisan military experts....Republicans and many independents....They would accuse the new administration of reverse-Rumsfeldism, of ignoring postsurge realities and of imposing an ideological solution on a complex situation.

.... Therefore, when a new Democratic administration considered all these possibilities, its members would part ways. A certain number of centrists would conclude that rapid withdrawal is a mistake....The left wing of the party would go into immediate uproar. They'd scream: This was a central issue of the campaign! All the troops must get out now!

Bill Arkin, a reliably lefty military expert, said much the same thing yesterday: neither victory (McCain) nor withdrawal (Obama) is really a feasible option anymore. His reasoning is similar to Brooks's, but a bit more focused:

If either victory or withdrawal is elected, I imagine that the public will expect its new president to implement his campaign pledge. Yet both, at least according to shrewd observers of the United States military and senior officers in the U.S. military command, are impossibilities.

One might say it doesn't matter what the U.S. military wishes and that the new president will decide and issue the orders. Actual governance, of course, doesn't work that way, and every sign and precedent point to a national security establishment that has already come to conclusions as to what is possible.

....Of course there's rhetoric involved what the candidates say, and maybe by next January McCain and Obama will move closer to Hillary Clinton in their recognition of what is possible given how much has already been thrown into the effort and the "trend lines" that the military is creating. Come 2009 though, boy won't the American public be shocked to find out despite what their candidates pledged, the powers that be in the national security establishment have other ideas of what will be.

I'm not sure whether I completely buy these arguments or not, but they're food for thought. Both Clinton and Obama have been pretty careful to hedge their withdrawal commitments even though they're running in a Democratic primary that strongly rewards a firm stand on the subject. So what are the odds that they'll tack even further to the center in a general election? Close to certainty, I'd say.

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THE POTOMAC PRIMARY....There's an election today. If you live in the Potomac area, go vote.

I gather that the main topic of conversation isn't about who's going to win, it's about whether Barack Obama is merely going to win or whether he's going to smoke Hillary into a cinder. And secondarily, about what spin Hillary's team is going to put on this and whether we should believe it.

Speaking for myself, it seems as if the Democratic primary race is plainly so close that it's time to stop paying attention to all the expectations nonsense. Both candidates obviously have substantial bases of support, so why not just let everyone vote and see what happens?

But that's crazy talk, I know, so I'll add this: it really does seem as if a big Obama victory, expected or not, is going to be a considerable blow to Team Hillary. That'll be, what? Seven straight blowout victories in a row following a pretty good Super Tuesday showing? And with a full three weeks for everyone to munch on this before the next contest? I'm not counting Hillary out by any means, but it's sure starting to feel like a helluva uphill battle for her.

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LIVING WITHOUT THE HEALTH INSURANCE INDUSTRY....The LA Times reports on the latest from the health insurance front:

Blue Cross of California is sending physicians copies of health insurance applications filled out by new patients, along with a letter advising them that the company has a right to drop members who fail to disclose "material medical history," including "pre-existing pregnancies."

....The letter wasn't going down well with physicians. "We're outraged that they are asking doctors to violate the sacred trust of patients to rat them out for medical information that patients would expect their doctors to handle with the utmost secrecy and confidentiality," said Dr. Richard Frankenstein, president of the California Medical Assn.

Blue Cross may or may not be within its rights to send out this letter, but they aren't doing anything either illegal or unusual. After all, any profitmaking insurance company is going to do its best to avoid covering people who are likely to incur large medical expenses. It's just the nature of the beast. If they don't do it, they'll go out of business.

So let's get rid of health insurance companies. They cherry pick clients, add huge administrative costs to the system, and do nothing to drive innovation or bring down costs. What good are they? Tyler Cowen answers:

Let me be clear: the incentives today are screwy. Let me also tell you my ideal world. Insurance companies are judged by honest third party intermediaries. Insurance companies compete like heck to make customers satisfied. Insurance companies monitor doctors, read Robin Hanson, and require evidence-based medicine. Insurance companies which fail at these pursuits either go bankrupt or they must abide by an ex ante contract to permit the exile of their CEOs to Greenland. Every year prices would fall in real terms, quality would improve, and coverage would be expanded. Imagine the whole health care sector working like laser eye surgery or cosmetic surgery.

....I believe we know why insurance companies don't work this way, namely monitoring problems; they screw you over instead of serving you and they can get away with it. Go ahead, call me a pollyanna, but modern information technology and measurement can indeed resolve many monitoring problems. We can now monitor central bank performance quite well or show up in Sicily with a credit card and rent a car. Neither was the case forty years ago.

Maybe. But I'm pretty skeptical. The problem is that the incentives to make money the old-fashioned way are huge, and the level of monitoring by "honest third party intermediaries" — i.e., the government, in any realistic scenario — would have to be fantastically onerous to keep insurance companies on the straight and narrow. It seems likely to me that the only way to provide universal coverage and keep insurance companies from cheating would be regulation so heavy that you'd end up with something more like a public utility than a private corporation.

But if it's price signals and competition you're after, why not cut out the middleman and have consumers pay doctors directly? For example, imagine a national healthcare plan that paid 75% of all medical expenses but required you to pay the other 25%. Your maximum out-of-pocket expense each year would be capped at, say, 5% of income at low income levels, 15% in the middle, 30% at the next level, and 50% for the rich. Or something like that. It covers everyone, it limits catastrophic medical expenses, and it eliminates insurance companies and their bloated administration costs. But the copay is high enough that it gives consumers an incentive to shop around and doctors an incentive to compete.

This kind of single-payer system obviously requires lots of government funding, but on the regulatory front would probably be more conducive to competition and innovation than desperately trying to bring down ever-bigger hammers on private insurance companies who are gaming the system. And since the government would basically just be in the check writing business, not the spending business, deadweight costs would be fairly low.

Obviously libertarians would (I assume) prefer that the government not be in the business of providing universal healthcare at all. But if you're willing to entertain the idea, why not a simple single-payer system with copays instead of a massive new regulatory structure designed solely to keep health insurance companies in business? What's the point?

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BOOT ON McCAIN....I have to give Max Boot credit: he doesn't beat around the bush. He thinks Iran, Syria, and North Korea are thumbing their noses at us and that John McCain is the right guy to make them stop:

Clearly, these rogue regimes do not fear the consequences of waging a proxy war on America and our allies. They think they can get away with killing and maiming American soldiers — and so far they have been right.

....It is hard to see how Bush could reverse this decline in America's "fear factor" during the remaining year of his presidency. That will be the job of the next president. And who would be the most up to the task?

To answer that question, ask yourself which presidential candidate an Ahmadinejad, Assad or Kim would fear the most. I submit it is not Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Mike Huckabee. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the leading candidate to scare the snot out of our enemies is a certain former aviator who has been noted for his pugnacity and his unwavering support of the American war effort in Iraq.

There you have it. If you think the most important apect of a president is the ability to "scare the snot out of our enemies," then McCain's your guy.

Now, you might think that after seven years of trying exactly this, with only the current collapse in our fortunes to show for it, the neocon establishment might at least pause for a moment to wonder if there's more to foreign policy than scaring the snot out of our enemies. But no. The real problem, apparently, is simply that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration wasn't good enough at it. Not bellicose enough. Not unilateral enough. Not warlike enough. What America needs is someone even more bloodthirsty than the crew that got us into this mess. Time to double down, folks.

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By: Kevin Drum

CARBON TAXES....Carbon taxes are clearly a more efficient way of reducing greenhouse gases than a growing hodgepodge of environmental regulations, so it would make sense to quit adding regulations to the pile and instead enact a carbon tax, right? But we don't. Mark Thoma is puzzled:

Despite the economic superiority of taxes over mandates in terms of the efficiency properties, there is substantial public support for mandates such as CAFE standards over taxes, and mandates continue to garner enough votes in the legislature to pass and be signed into law.

Why might that be? In thinking about efficiency as the primary reason for promoting one policy over the other, I think we might be missing something important: equity. More choice is best most of the time, but when it's a matter of being constrained, of not being able to do something you want or need to do, people want that constraint on behavior to be shared equally — especially when it involves something as essential to daily life as energy.

....I don't think policies that allow certain segment of the population to "buy out" of the constraint will find much popular support. If the poor are passed by roaring, gas guzzling, sports cars on the freeway as they drive their gas saving, small hybrid, they won't feel that is fair.

Hmmm. There's probably something to this, but I wonder if the initial assumption is really correct? According to the boffins at the Carbon Tax Center, a couple of recent polls suggest otherwise: A Field poll in November showed 72% of Californians in favor of a carbon tax (though, amusingly, "this declines to 53% if the tax were to result in Californians' paying higher prices for goods and services") and a BBC poll found 74% of Americans in favor of taxing coal and oil as long as the revenues are earmarked for energy research. So Americans may actually be pretty open to the idea of a broad-based carbon tax.

Republican politicians, of course, are a whole different story. Greg Mankiw can yell "Pigou Club" until he's blue in the face, but as a Republican himself he knows perfectly well that it won't do any good because Grover Norquist and the Wall Street Journal editorial page will cheerfully eviscerate any Republican who dares to raise any tax of any kind, regardless of how efficient it is, what it's funding, or whether it's revenue neutral. So while transforming public opinion is always important, in this case a salutary drubbing at the polls for the GOP is probably more likely to move us in the direction of a sensible carbon policy. It certainly can't hurt, anyway.

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February 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE CREDIT CRUNCH....For several months we've been reading about how the credit bubble has burst and capital markets are all battening their hatches and refusing to underwrite new business. At the same time, the actual dollar volume of bank loans has gone up. So what's the real story here? Paul Krugman offers an explanation:

Here's what I'm told by people who know these markets better than I do: the increase in bank lending is basically a statistical illusion — in fact, it's in large part a consequence of the credit crunch.

One example of how this might be happening is the now-famous "liquidity put". Suppose that a bank has created a SIV (special investment vehicle) with an agreement to provide a credit line to pay off investors if they want out and new investors can't be found. That obligation doesn't show on the bank's balance sheet — but when investors cut and run, and the line of credit is called on, the bank is obliged to pony up — and hey presto, it looks as if bank credit has expanded.

A subtler example would involve a firm that has good credit, but finds that security markets have dried up — so it goes back to old-fashioned borrowing from banks, instead. Again, it looks like a credit expansion, but it's really a sign of tight credit.

Bottom line: yes, there is a credit crunch, and it's not contained.

Just thought I'd pass this along in case you, like me, have been puzzled by this conundrum. The answer may be bad news, but at least there's an answer.

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLL REPORT CARD.... This chart comes from SurveyUSA, which obviously has a dog in this fight, but it's still an interesting look at how the various pollsters have performed this year up through Super Tuesday. More details are here, including a race-by-race breakdown.

Now, some of this is plainly unfair. The LA Times, for example, polled the two early races of Iowa and New Hampshire, which produced significant errors from nearly everybody, and since that was two-thirds of their polling it makes them look pretty bad. Overall, in the six races they polled (NH, IA, CA), they were in the middle of the pack. SurveyUSA, by contrast, didn't poll the early races at all, which almost certainly boosts their average.

For my money, it looks like Research 2000 might actually be the best of the bunch. They've polled 11 races, including the tough early ones, and have only been off by double digits once. Not bad.

Via Taegan Goddard.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH WASHINGTON?....The behavior of the vote counters in the Republican caucus in Washington is truly bizarre. With 87% of the vote counted on Saturday night and McCain ahead of Huckabee by a razor thin margin of 26%-24%, state GOP chair Luke Esser just stopped counting and declared McCain the winner. Josh Marshall makes the the right analogy here. Weird.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

SHALLOW BARACK?....Matt Yglesias hangs a long post about Barack Obama on this opening sentence:

One anti-Obama meme that I notice has gotten a lot of support even among people sympathetic to his cause is the notion that he's somehow shallow or insufficiently well-versed in policy matters.

I'm confused. Who says this? There are no links in the post, and virtually everything I've ever read about Obama acknowledges that he's scary smart and extremely well briefed.

Now, it's true that Hillary Clinton is often portrayed as a policy wonk and Obama isn't. It's also true that Obama's stump speech is full of soaring rhetoric rather than policy talk. And it's additionally true that Obama is sometimes criticized for his lack of experience on the national stage. But those are different things entirely. Who are these people who think Obama is a policy naif? Let's name some names.

UPDATE: Jon Chait tosses out a name: Time's Mark Halperin. Seems like a little bit of a stretch to me, but judge for yourself. It's #16 on Halperin's list.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (244)

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By: Kevin Drum

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM WATCH....Brendan Nyhan crunches some numbers to test the conventional wisdom about Barack Obama's support and concludes that some of it is true and some isn't. He looks at five pieces of CW: (1) Obama does better in caucus states, (2) he does better in states with either few blacks or lots of blacks, (3) he does worse in states with lots of Hispanics, (4) he does worse in big states, and (5) he does worse in heavily Democratic states. He concludes that only (1) and (2) are true:

It's hard to separate the associations between these variables because larger states are (on average) more black and Hispanic, more Democratic, and less likely to have caucuses. But when we put all these factors together in a linear regression (including both black population and black population squared), we find that the U-shaped quadratic relationship for black population and the positive relationship for caucuses are statistically significant, while the other factors are not. In other words, the evidence so far is consistent with the conventional wisdom that Obama does best in heavily black and heavily white states and in caucuses and he does less well in moderately black states and primaries.

I'd add a caveat to this. Brendan actually finds that all five pieces of CW are true, but that the last three aren't statistically significant. In other words, there's at least a 5% possibility that they might be the result of chance.

But this is a one shot deal, and I wonder if the results are significant at, say, a 90% level? In an academic setting this wouldn't be good enough, but in a real-life setting where this is the only data you have (no followup studies, folks!), most people would probably think that 90% certainty was fairly convincing. For better or worse, it looks to me like the CW is likely true on all five counts.

UPDATE: In a demonstration of the blogosphere at work, Brendan responds almost instantly:

To answer the question, the other variables aren't close to being significant. However, I wouldn't put too much stock in the results of any of these hypothesis tests because (a) hypothesis testing is riddled with epistemological problems and (b) it's difficult to achieve significance in small samples.

So don't pay any attention to any of this stuff. But at least there are some nifty charts for you to go look at.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW MEXICO....The gutless milksops at CNN still refuse to project a winner in New Mexico, but we're made of hardier stuff here at the Washington Monthly. So here it is: With 99% of the precincts finally reporting in, it looks like Hillary Clinton will win the state, and with it 13 of its 25 enchanting delegates.

And speaking of the Democratic race, did you catch 60 Minutes tonight? Talk about a contrast. Barack Obama got quizzed by Steve Kroft, who conducted a fairly ordinary softball interview, while Hillary Clinton was forced to put up with a relentlessly witless interrogation from Katie Couric. Do you like Barack Obama? Do you take vitamins? Why are you so polarizing? In high school were you the girl in the front row taking meticulous notes and always raising your hand? Was your nickname really Miss Frigidaire? In your deepest darkest moments are you afraid you might lose? Really? Are you sure? Huh? Are you? Crikey.

UPDATE: Uh oh. Maybe the milksops at CNN are on the ball after all. That'll teach me to make dumb jokes without thinking first. But the stuff about 60 Minutes was totally serious.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (181)

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February 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CREDIT CARD FOLLIES....What's a bank to do when its profits fall thanks to the subprime debacle and a slowdown in consumer borrowing? You guessed it:

Hundreds of thousands of Capital One and Bank of America cardholders have been notified in recent months that their interest rates are going up — in some cases to as much as 28% — even though they haven't been missing payments.

...."They need to raise rates because they can't raise fees anymore," [David] Robertson said. "It's politically untenable."

Politics also seems to be behind a subtle shift in language that's appeared in the terms and conditions of several top card issuers. Increasingly, lawmakers have been taking a skeptical view of banks' long-standing insistence that they can raise people's rates at any time for any reason.

Citibank announced last year that it would no longer make this claim. Instead, the bank now says people's rates may rise because of "general market conditions." Similarly, Capital One introduced language last year asserting that cardholders' rates could go up "if market conditions change." More broadly, BofA declares that credit card rates could increase due to "market conditions, business strategies or for any reason." [Italics mine.]

...."The card issuers are moving from a risk-management strategy to a revenue-generating strategy," [Robertson] said. "Credit cards are consistently the most profitable retail banking product," Robertson observed. "The growth is not there anymore. And with a recession coming down the pike, there's no expectation of more spending by consumers. The industry needs to raise prices to keep profits where they need to be."

The net result of this, of course, will be to scare the crap out of every credit card owner in the country, which will lead to even less consumer borrowing, which in turn will lead to even bigger problems for the banks. In other words, credit card issuers aren't just evil, they're stupid too. If Democrats in Congress had any guts at all (I know, I know), they would have long since introduced legislation to put an end to this and dared Republicans to vote against it. The campaign ads practically write themselves, don't they?

Kevin Drum 9:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND CAUCUSES....So why is Barack Obama so awesome in caucus states? Except for Nevada, he's won every single one going away. Here are some speculations from the comment thread to last night's post:

  • PTS: I think the best explanation is a combination of a) Obama's team put a lot of resources into organizing the caucuses and b) Clinton's people decided not to contest them. You can't organize in a week.

  • ikl: A couple of things: (1) Obama tends to be more popular in the great plains and interior west which account for most caucuses (he won pretty big in the Utah primary, for example), (2) Obama voters are more enthusiastic in most states, (3) Obama voters are more likely to be high information voters, (4) in most caucus states, Obama voters are less likely to work odd shifts or have childcare obligations that they can't get out of....

  • BRM: A larger subset of Obama voters are very committed to him, and thus more likely to go to the trouble of caucusing. I think a larger subset of Clinton's supporters are more passive. There are some passionate Clinton supporters, but they are rarer.

    I causused today in Washington, and it takes a lot of planning, research into finding your site, and commitment to go. If I wasn't very strongly supporting Obama, I just wouldn't have committed three hours on a Saturday to go sit in an elementary school gym.

  • Nate: The press surely isn't talking about it, but caucuses seriously disenfranchise working class and older voters. I know personally that in Iowa, near half of Hillary's supporters were older women who could not make it to the caucus for fear of the drive, the weather, etc. Working class people often can't or won't show up to a caucus if it requires getting a babysitter or missing a night shift.

  • BombIranforChrist: Primaries are private, caucuses are public. People seem to have an easier time voting for Obama in public than voting for Hillary in public. Hillary is not really that well liked, not even by some of her supporters. Fairly or unfairly, a lot of people, including some of her supporters, are not totally enamored by her and in a caucus, people have to stand up and say, "Yup, I support this person who a lot of us don't really even like. Yay me!"

  • BDB: Caucuses tend to be dominated by democratic party elites and activists, Obama's base.

  • Callimaco: Everyone knew Clinton was going to run a big state, traditional Democratic campaign....[Obama] used a two prong strategy to build a stalemate through Super Tuesday: 1) remain close enough in the big state, 2) trounce Clinton in the small states.

    Given that strategy, and give the clear fact that he intended that strategy from the start, it makes sense to invest very, very heavily in caucus states because those are the elections over which a campaign can exercise the most control. More, organizing takes time and people and those are things Obama had in abundance. Those are also the states in which Clinton was investing the least resources because they seemed almost irrelevant to her campaign strategy.

  • Mnemosyne: Given the demographics of the voters for each candidate, it makes perfect sense that Obama is doing better in the caucuses than Clinton. Obama's voters tend to be young and middle-class; Hillary's voters tend to be older and working-class. Which of those two groups has a lot of time and energy to spend at a caucus?

  • Monica: We live in SW Washington, not too far from Vancouver (WA) and Portland (Ore). The site for the caucus this afternoon was a local grade school. Inside the cafeteria where everyone first assembled there were Obama buttons available, piles of Obama flyers and some Obama posters on the precinct tables. There was no evidence that the Clinton campaign had sent anything at all over. Talking to some friends who gathered at other sites, it was much the same story. Obama literature and signs scattered around, nothing much, if anything at all from the Clinton side.

To summarize: Caucuses require organization and Obama was better organized. They require enthusiasm and he has more enthusiastic supporters. They require time, and his demographic has more free time. They're mostly in small states, and Obama targeted small states. They're dominated by activists, and activists tend to support Obama.

Interesting stuff. Some of it (for example, that women, the elderly, and working class voters are underrepresented at caucuses) can be tested by looking at exit poll data, and maybe I'll do that later. The other stuff is harder to get a handle on. But worth thinking about anyway.

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (178)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRANK RICH....I've never quite understood Frank Rich's popularity among liberals. He's always struck me as a guy who has an OK prose style but otherwise does little except regurgitate conventional lefty wisdom at far greater length than it deserves. And when it comes to the Clintons, he's completely unhinged. Check out today's column where he complains about Hillary's pre-election special on the Hallmark channel:

The campaign's other most potent form of currency remains its thick deck of race cards. This was all too apparent in the Hallmark show. In its carefully calibrated cross section of geographically and demographically diverse cast members — young, old, one gay man, one vet, two union members — African-Americans were reduced to also-rans. One black woman, the former TV correspondent Carole Simpson, was given the servile role of the meeting's nominal moderator, Ed McMahon to Mrs. Clinton's top banana.

So Hillary chooses a black woman to moderate the show and Rich insists that what she's really doing is putting her in a "servile role"? Jeebus. The guy's got a serious screw loose. And the rest of the column is no better, just a 1,500 word harangue of tired anti-Hillary screechiness. Andrew Sullivan probably loves it, but why would anyone else want to read this nonsense?

Kevin Drum 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (119)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEAD MAN WALKING....I know I'm repeating myself, but the rebuke of John McCain by Republican voters tonight has been stunning. Sure, Kansas and Louisiana are prime Mike Huckabee territory, so maybe you can rationalize McCain's losses there. But what about Washington state? McCain managed only 26% of the caucus vote there, barely edging out not only Huckabee, but Ron Paul and Mitt Romney as well — the first a protest candidate and the second a no-show. These were caucus goers, not primary voters, and they knew perfectly well that Romney had pulled out of the race, but they voted for him anyway. Why? To thumb their noses at McCain, presumably.

(Did you get that? 26%! For a presumptive nominee!)

Bottom line: this has been a disastrous night for McCain. Sure, he'll win the nomination eventually, but he looks like a goner in the general election. He's either going to be forced to spend so much time pandering to pissed-off conservatives that he loses the independent vote, or else he's going to beg for independents and wake up on November 5th to find out that half his base decided to stay home rather than vote for him. He's screwed either way. This is a mighty narrow tightrope he's walking, and it looks like he's going to be fighting gale-force crosswinds the whole way.

On the Democratic side, it was a very impressive clean sweep for Barack Obama, including two big caucus wins in Nebraska and Washington. Which reminds me of something: I'm a little puzzled about Obama's consistent success in caucuses, which usually seems to get chalked up to his background in community organizing. Somehow, though, that doesn't really seem like a persuasive explanation. After all, I'm sure Hillary Clinton's team knows perfectly well how to organize in a caucus state. And yet Obama has won every caucus state but one, most of them by wide margins. Does anybody have a good explanation for this? (And no, "Obama is teh awesome" doesn't count as a good explanation.)

Kevin Drum 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (216)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUPERDELEGATES....Chris Bowers unleashes a cri de coeur against the possibility that superdelegates will end up determining the winner of the Democratic primary:

If someone is nominated for POTUS from the Democratic Party despite another candidate receiving more poplar support from Democratic primary voters and caucus goers, I will resign as local precinct captain, resign my seat on the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee, immediately cease all fundraising for all Democrats, refuse to endorse the Democratic "nominee" for any office, and otherwise disengage from the Democratic Party through all available means of doing so.

This is not a negotiable position. If the Democratic Party does not nominate the candidate for POTUS that the majority (or plurality) of its participants in primaries and caucuses want it to nominate, then I will quit the Democratic Party.

I don't quite get this. The very existence of superdelegates assumes that they'll vote their own consciences, not merely parrot the results of the primaries. After all, why even have them if that's all they do?

More importantly, though, who decides what the popular will is anyway? Is it number of pledged delegates from the state contests? Total popular vote? Total number of states won? What about uncommitted delegates from primary states? Or caucus states, in which there's no popular vote to consult and delegates are selected in a decidedly nondemocratic fashion to begin with? And what about all the independent and crossover voters? Personally, I'd just as soon they didn't have a say in selecting the nominee of my party at all, but the rules say otherwise. If I'm a superdelegate, do I count their votes, or do I pore over exit polls to try to tease out how Democratic Party voters voted? And how do I take into account the obviously disproportionate influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, two tiny states that have far more power than any truly democratic process would ever give them?

I'm not very excited at the idea of superdelegates deciding the nomination either, but the only way that will happen is if the primaries end up nearly tied in the first place. Then factor in the number of ways in which the primary/caucus process is nondemocratic from the get go, and it hardly seems practical to insist that superdelegates should all somehow divine a single "democratic" result from a very close race. I'm just not sure how you can do it. Better to simply respect them as human beings and party loyalists, and allow them to vote their consciences.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (106)

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February 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

A STAR IS BORN....Inkblot has asked me to pass along his thanks to everyone who viewed his debut performance on YouTube today, skyrocketing him to #6 in the "Pets and Animals" category. What's more, of the higher-ranked videos, one is about a chimp, two are about dogs, and two are about wild cats. So that makes "Inkblot's Evening Snack" the #1 ranked YouTube video in the prestigious housecat subcategory. Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. America!

Kevin Drum 6:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

KANSAS....In a way, the fact that Mike Huckabee won the Kansas caucuses isn't all that surprising. It's fertile evangelical territory for him, it's right next door to his home state, and the caucus format probably helps him.

But....still....what a blowout. Usually, even among true believers, you expect a party to rally around its presumptive nominee. Even the hardcore wingers at CPAC, who booed McCain at the beginning of his speech on Thursday, warmed up to him by the end. But Kansas Republicans weren't buying, and they weren't content just to show a pro forma lack of enthusiasm. They crushed McCain like a bug, voting for Huckabee 60%-24%. Hell, "other" almost beat McCain.

There's no point in making too much of this. McCain is going to win the nomination and the party faithful will support him. But it's going to be a fight for McCain to win their love, and that fight might well keep him from broadening his appeal to the middle. Come November, liberals might not be the only ones asking What's the Matter With Kansas?

Kevin Drum 6:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NOMINATION....Matt predicts that Hillary will win the Democratic nomination. That's still my guess too — though barely, of course. My reasoning is super simplistic: with Super Tuesday over and both candidates essentially tied, the rest of the primary season will be one long stretch of trench warfare. And there's no one better at trench warfare than the Clintons.

There are, of course, a million and one reasons I could be wrong. The most likely one, in my mind, would be wholesale defections by superdelegates who come to the purely selfish conclusion that they themselves would do better on a ticket headed by Obama. I'm sure you'll let me know about the other million possibilities in comments.

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTION MADNESS....Wait a second. There are more elections today? Oh jeez.....

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February 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT VLOGGING....Last night it occurred to me that my new camera also shoots video, so I decided to forge boldly into new frontiers and give it a try. Domino was sacked out in her pod and completely immobile, but luckily for me, Inkblot was puttering around at the time and eager to become a matinee idol. So today he makes his debut in a modestly budgeted YouTube production called "Inkblot's Evening Snack." Click for dramatic snacking action!

So that was fun. Turns out I shot the thing at the wrong resolution, but I guess that doesn't really matter. And I should probably track down some kind of simple freeware video editor for this stuff. Any suggestions? Also, why does my embedded clip pop up a bunch of links to other videos when you scroll your mouse over the bottom of the screen? Other embedded YouTube videos I've seen don't do this. How do I get rid of this?

[UPDATE: Hmmm. The popup links only appear in Explorer, not in Firefox. What's up with that?]

[UPDATE 2: Thanks, jerro!]

Next week: Domino's star turn! But first I need to get her to do something. Does rolling around in the backyard count?

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

MISCELLANY....Matt Y. tries to break through the lefty blogosphere cocoon:

I keep encountering people whose view of the [Democratic primary] race seems to be shaped by the assumption that it's not possible that good-faith disagreements exist about national security issues among Democrats. That, in essence, all Democrats have very lefty ideas about this stuff and all deviations from an ideal plane of leftiness are explained by political cowardice. I'm not really sure what evidence anyone would find convincing on this score, but perhaps part of the value of having an inside-the-beltway corrupt Villager on your list of blogs-I-read is that I can tell you that in my experience this is false. There are lots of strongly partisan Democrats who very much think Bush has taken the country in the wrong direction but who vigorously disagree among themselves about what national security policy ought to look like.

This is absolutely true. The bulk of the Democratic Party — not to mention the bulk of the country — is simply not as uniformly noninterventionist as the lefty blogosphere often seems to think it is. I think the blogosphere has probably had some impact in moving this debate in a good direction, but it's still only moved a few inches.

Relatedly, Matt also offers up a list of issues he wishes Democrats would address. It mostly looks like a bunch of landmines to me, though. Overall, it's a list of issues that I'll bet most Democrats want to avoid at all costs.

UPDATE: Here's another list that's mostly landmines. And a friend emails to comment about Dems being afraid to talk about guns.

Sheesh. At least all this stuff is being posted on Friday afternoon when no one is reading.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE HEALTHCARE INSURANCE BIZ....Tyler Cowen argues against healthcare mandates:

The way most goods and services become excellent — I mean really excellent — is through competition. Yes, right now health insurance has lots of screwy incentives, most of all cost shedding. But if you stifle competition and write off hope of getting a better-functioning private insurance market...well...I believe you have not thought long and hard enough about just how much of the social value on Planet Earth has come, ultimately, from competition in the provision of goods and services.

....If someone needs covering, for whatever reason, give them some stuff. If need be give them some government stuff. Some kind of plan. Give them whatever. But don't overregulate private insurance companies and take them off the table as a source of future productivity improvements and super cheap coverage, however partial it may be.

Here's what I don't get. If you were to argue that we should do away with group insurance entirely and move back to a 19th century model in which people simply pay doctors and hospitals for their services directly, I'd get it. I wouldn't be in favor of it, but at least I'd understand the argument: namely that this sets up a competitive industry with plenty of price signalling, and competitive industries are, in the long run, the most efficient and most innovative.

But that's not what's on the table. Instead, Tyler is arguing for keeping the insurance industry competitive. But I simply don't see what that buys us. Even if the health insurance industry were dramatically improved, this wouldn't especially make healthcare any more efficient. It would only make the insurance industry more efficient. That would be nice, but hardly earthshaking — and in any case, many decades of keeping healthcare insurance regulation at a modest level have produced one of the least efficient industries on the planet. What makes us think that's going to change anytime in the near future?

Competitive industries, generally speaking, are good things. But right now in the United States we have a Rube Goldberg system that gives us the worst of both worlds: the administrative inefficiencies and lack of universality that comes from a private system, combined with the bureaucracy and lack of effective price signalling that comes from shielding consumers from having to pay for healthcare directly. The former could be addressed with national healthcare, which is difficult but at least feasible. The latter, conversely, could be addressed only by getting rid of employer-supported healthcare and forcing consumers to buy either health insurance or health services directly with their own money. That's just flatly not going to happen. It's an absolute political nonstarter.

It seems to me that libertarians would be better off accepting that, and instead spending their time figuring out the best possible way to construct a national health plan that still retains elements of competitiveness and incentives to innovate. It wouldn't be perfect from their point of view, but it would be better than banging their heads against a wall that just gets higher and harder every year. Healthcare is an unusual market, and it's one in which "insurance," which is something of a misnomer in the first place, simply hasn't produced either innovation or lower costs, and probably never will. Why keep fighting for it?

UPDATE: Matt unpacks "It's an absolute political nonstarter" here and makes the appropriate point a little more plainly than I did: a more efficient health insurance industry might be a good thing in some purely economic sense, but it would produce results that are wildly unacceptable to the electorate. It ain't gonna happen.

Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REAL DEAL....So why did Mitt Romney crap out against a field of weak competition? The press narrative is pretty clear:

Boston Globe: "In the end, his campaign foundered for one basic reason: He lacked authenticity." New York Times: "Mr. Romney's advisers...conceded that they had failed to overcome doubts about Mr. Romney's authenticity as they sought to position him as the most electable conservative in the race." LA Times: "Romney failed the 'authentic' test." Slate: "[Romney] faced one fundamental problem that almost all the papers summarize with one word: 'authenticity.'"

Well, maybe. That's certainly how Romney seemed to me. Still, I can't help but notice that none of the news pieces hawking this narrative really presents much evidence for it. And based on a scientific poll of a friend I had lunch with yesterday, I'm beginning to wonder about this. To battle-hardened reporters and cynical liberals, Romney probably did seem phoney. But when I mentioned this offhandedly at lunch, not really expecting an argument, my Romney-supporting friend was clearly taken aback. That had never occurred to him. To him, Romney seemed like the real deal: conservative, good business background, command of the issues, good looks, etc. etc.

So I'm not sure. But I will say this: it felt to me that Romney's real problem was a lack of passion from his opinion-leader supporters. I read National Review's The Corner pretty regularly, and the magazine was editorially committed to Romney. Despite that, The Corner's actual support was lukewarm at best: only a few of their contributors agreed with the editorial line, and even those who did never seemed especially committed to the cause. He was sort of the anti-Obama in that regard.

But judging from his spittle-flecked CPAC speech yesterday, he's learning. Maybe by 2012 he'll have figured out how to act more authentically wingnutty and he'll be ready for a second losing run. And why not? He even has the "little man atop the wedding cake" look made famous by the Republican Party's best known two-time loser, so he's well cast for the role. Now about that Mormon thing.....

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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RANDOM THOUGHT....Old CW: Senators never win presidential races. They have too long a paper trail. New CW: The U.S. Senate, birthplace of presidents!

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW MEXICO....It's now Friday. So who won Tuesday's election in New Mexico? Answer: there are 16,000 provisional ballots left to count, so we still don't know:

With all votes counted Thursday except the provisionals, preliminary results showed U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton holding a lead of 1,123 votes — 68,654 votes compared with 67,531 for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

....Party rules allow provisional ballots to be cast so voters in the wrong place — such as state lawmakers in Santa Fe for the legislative session instead of their home towns, for example — could cast a ballot....As the questions pile up — along with reports of would-be voters who were discouraged by long, slow-moving lines and other problems at various polling sites — discontent with the party is growing.

My understanding is that the delegate count is unlikely to be affected regardless of how this turns out, but apparently New Mexico Democrats are pretty pissed off at the party for this mess. Bill Richardson's VP odds just took a tumble.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

CHANGE IN TACTICS....Amit Paley of the Washington Post reports that the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq is (a) far smaller than it was a year ago and (b) working to turn that around:

From internal documents and interviews with members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a picture emerges of an organization in disarray but increasingly aware that its harsh policies — such as punishing women who don't cover their heads — have eroded its popular support. Over the past year, the group has been driven out of many of its strongholds. The group's leadership is now jettisoning some of its past tactics to refocus attacks on American troops, Sunnis cooperating closely with U.S. forces, and Iraq's infrastructure.

...."We do not deny the difficulties we are facing right now," said Riyadh al-Ogaidi, a senior leader, or emir, of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the Garma region of eastern Anbar province. "The Americans have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the Sunnis against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully."

...."We made many mistakes over the past year," including the imposition of a strict interpretation of Islamic law, he told a Washington Post special correspondent. Al-Qaeda in Iraq followers broke the fingers of men who smoked, whipped those who imbibed alcohol and banned shops from selling shampoo bottles that displayed images of women — actions that turned Sunnis against the group.

Ogaidi said the total number of al-Qaeda in Iraq members across the country has plummeted from about 12,000 in June 2007 to about 3,500 today.

Fascinating. I wouldn't be surprised if even that 3,500 number is exaggerated, but it appears that AQI and its fellow takfiris are nothing if not adaptable, even on the kind of core religious principles that supposedly they'd never compromise on. Apparently, if they need to compromise in order to step up recruitment of Sunni tribe members, then compromise they will. But will it work?

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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February 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FAT CAT CANDIDATES....Question: has a self-funded presidential candidate ever been successful? Mitt Romney? Nope. Steve Forbes? Nope. Ross Perot? Nope. Anyone? John Kerry loaned himself a few million dollars in 2003 and went on to win the Democratic nomination, but that's the closest I can think of.

On the other hand, self-funded candidates have certainly won other offices. Michael Bloomberg in the New York City mayor's race and Jon Corzine in the New Jersey governor's race, for example. And they spent a ton of money: about $73 million for Bloomberg and $60 million for Corzine. Romney, conversely, spent only about $18 million of his $250 million fortune.

So maybe the problem with presidential self-funders isn't that they're rich, but that they're too damn cheap. If Perot had spent, say, a billion dollars in 1992 instead of a paltry $60 million, could he have won? What if Romney had blown $100 million instead of $18 million? I guess we'll never know.

Kevin Drum 9:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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WHO'S YOUR VEEP?....Assuming that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama chooses the other as their running mate, who would be their top choice? Lee Sigelman has applied Science™ to this question and concludes that the first pick for both candidates is.....

Ohio governor Ted Strickland.

The implicit electoral cynicism of this choice is pretty overwhelming, but still, I guess I'll buy it. A lot of people assume that one of the primary also-rans is the most likely choice, but in fact winning nominees rarely choose one of their erstwhile competitors. Kerry did it in 2004 and Reagan did it in 1980, and then you have to go all the way back to 1960 to find another example. That's a grand total of three times in half a century.

FWIW, Sigelman figures that Obama's top three choices are Strickland, Sam Nunn, and Jim Webb. Clinton's top three are Strickland, Sam Nunn, and (in a tie) Jim Webb and Mark Warner. (I assume that "John Warner" is just a typo....) He also notes that in his model, neither Joe Lieberman nor Dick Cheney made it into the top dozen in 2000. "One could take that as an indication of the weakness of our model, or — my preferred interpretation — as proof (as if further evidence were needed) that both presidential nominees that year chose the wrong running mate."

Kevin Drum 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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ECONOMIC UPDATE....I'm not trying to compete for the doom-and-gloom world record or anything — honest — but the economic outlook just continues to look really gloomy:

The UBS-International Council of Shopping Centers preliminary sales tally of 43 retailers rose 0.5 percent in January, well below the original 1.5 percent forecast....Michael P. Niemira, chief economist, said January's performance was the weakest ever, according to records that go back to 1970. It is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year.

....Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, reported a 0.5 percent gain in same-store sales....Wal-Mart noted in its news release that gift card redemptions were below expectations and that customers appear to be holding gift cards longer and ''using them more often for food and consumables rather than discretionary purchases.''

As usual, you should adjust for inflation: an increase of 0.5% is a decline in real terms of more than 3%. That's very gloomy indeed — though not really surprising. After all, the job market is weakening, incomes aren't rising, the home equity ATM has been shut down, and credit cards are maxed out. Where's the money supposed to come from? Senate Republicans?

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

"SURRENDER TO TERROR"....Mitt Romney, classy to the end, explains his decision to quit the presidential race:

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Sens. Clinton or [Barack] Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," Mr. Romney planned to say in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

So electing Obama or Clinton would be a "surrender to terror"? Republicans really know how to bow out gracefully, don't they?

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (122)

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McCAIN AND THE GOP....By now, everybody knows that the Senate version of the economic stimulus bill failed to overcome a Republican filibuster yesterday. You need 60 votes for that, and the final tally was 59-40. (Harry Reid changed his vote at the end for parliamentary reasons, so the reported tally was 58-41)

Part of story here is that John McCain, alone among senators, failed to show up to vote, and his vote could have made the difference. Mr. Straight Talk apparently didn't want to risk conservative backlash by voting in favor of moving forward, but also didn't want to risk his beloved independent cred by joining a party line vote against it. So he stayed home. It was a real profile in courage.

Mocking McCain's pretensions is always worthwhile, but there's a much bigger point to make too. The differences between the Senate bill and the original House/Bush bill were pretty modest. The Senate bill changed the distribution of the tax breaks slightly, extended unemployment benefits a few weeks, and offered heating aid for the poor, along with a few goodies specifically designed to appeal to Republicans. The grand total of the changes amounted to $44 billion over two years. This is not a huge amount of money.

Now, it's obvious that everyone believes a stimulus bill of some kind is a good idea (the House bill passed nearly unanimously), so it's not as if anyone voted against the Senate version because they believe it's a fundamentally flawed concept. And since the last month's worth of economic news has been uniformly bad, no one who believes in stimulus has any real reason to balk at fattening up the package a bit. This wasn't a principled stand about letting the economy work things out on its own.

But what happened? Republicans filibustered the larger bill and then sustained the filibuster on virtually a party line vote. Why? Because it had a few billion dollars of spending targeted at Democratic priorities. There's nothing more to it.

The moral of the story is this: Republicans have no intention of ever working with Democrats on anything remotely like a bipartisan basis. Even on something as trivial as this, they filibustered and won. They will do the same thing next year no matter who's president. They will do it on every single bill, no matter how minor. They will never stop obstructing. Period. Presidential hopefuls, take note.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND THE PRESS....If you've been waiting for the inevitable press backlash against Barack Obama, this piece from Jake Tapper might be a harbinger:

Obama supporter Kathleen Geier writes that she's "getting increasingly weirded out by some of Obama's supporters....Describing various encounters with Obama supporters, she writes, "Excuse me, but this sounds more like a cult than a political campaign."

....Joe Klein, writing at Time, notes "something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism" he sees in Obama's Super Tuesday speech....The always interesting James Wolcott writes that "(p)erhaps it's my atheism at work but I found myself increasingly wary of and resistant to the salvational fervor of the Obama campaign."

When I wrote my Monday post about voting for Obama I got several jokey emails from friends lamenting that I'd finally joined the cult ("Now you'll have to buy a Mac and start blogging about The Wire...."). And it's undeniable that there really is a movement fervor surrounding the Obama campaign — something that even the press has gotten caught up in. Eventually, however, especially among jaded reporters who are (a) looking for a new angle and (b) a little more aware than most that Obama's actual political career has been good but not world-changing, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few more stories along this line.

Not saying it's fair. Just saying that it's out there and might get a little more attention now that it's obvious we have a few more months to go in this race. Newton's Third Law isn't just about physics, after all.

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (333)

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THE CLINTON SURGE....This is just weird. Here is Gallup's latest daily tracking poll:

The increase in support for Hillary Clinton at the national level that Gallup saw in interviewing conducted Sunday and Monday continued in interviewing Tuesday night. Gallup Poll Daily tracking conducted Feb. 3-5 now includes three consecutive days in which Clinton has done well, giving her a 13-percentage point lead over Barack Obama, 52% to 39%.

This polling was all done before the election, so it has nothing to do with last night's results. But what on earth happened on Sunday to raise Hillary's stock so dramatically? And why didn't it show up in Tuesday's election? Was her surge concentrated in states that weren't voting? Why?

This is inexplicable. Gallup is obviously a reliable outfit, and these numbers are far too big to be merely a fluke. What the heck is going on?

Kevin Drum 12:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (175)

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February 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FUNDRAISING....Referring to the graphic on the right (from the Obama campaign), Atrios asks:

The question really is about why Obama can raise $5 million in a day and (presumably) Clinton can't.

The obvious answer is something related to Obama's ability to inspire rapturous support from his legion of fans. But I think there's probably more to it than that. Hillary Clinton obviously has plenty of ability to raise money from big donors, but as we all know from endless regurgitation of exit poll results, her supporters tend to be older, lower income, less educated, and more likely to be working class. On a mass basis, (a) they just don't have as much money as Obama's supporters and (b) they don't hang out on the internet a lot. Obama's fans, conversely, are heavily made up of white collar, college educated folks who might not be accustomed to writing $2,300 checks but are perfectly able to comfortably write a few $200 checks here and there — and aren't rattled at the idea of filling out a donation page on a website to do it. Hillary's plant workers and Social Security recipients, not so much.

That said, this morning I figured that last night's results suggested that Hillary still had a slight edge in winning the nomination. But if Obama is really out-fundraising her by 2:1 or more, that's a big deal. It probably means Obama is the slight favorite instead.

UPDATE: The Clinton campaign emails the news that Hillary has raised $3 million in the past 24 hours. That's less than Obama, but still pretty impressive.

So what does this say about my theory above? Beats me. Seriously, I guess we should all just shut up and wait to see what happens. I really have no idea what's going on anymore.

Kevin Drum 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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OVERTIME....Reuters reports (via email, no link) that the Obama campaign is predicting a dead-even delegate race when primary season is over:

By the time the last primary is held June 7, Obama's advisers project he will have 1,806 delegates to 1,789 for New York Senator Hillary Clinton, according to a document outlining the scenario that was inadvertently attached to a release on delegate counts from yesterday's Super Tuesday primaries.

OK, fine. But if they're going to accidentally attach internal projections to press releases, how about attaching the details too? Inquiring minds want to know which states Obama thinks he can win and which ones he doesn't.

In any case, I guess this means that superdelegates can now expect the Obama folks to start recruiting them like high school football stars. And wouldn't you like to see the memo for that game plan?

Kevin Drum 6:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

CARBON NEWS....Right now I'm wandering aimlessly around the web looking for news — any news — that's not election related. After all, there's only so much you can say about a day when both Democratic candidates tied and their demographic appeal stayed pretty much the same as it's always been. So how about this item passed along by Kate Sheppard?

Three of the biggest investment banks — Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley — announced this week that they're creating new environmental standards that will make it more difficult for companies to secure investments for new coal-fired power plants. The standards will require utility companies seeking funds to build new plants to demonstrate that the plants will be economically viable under carbon constraints, and mandates that new plants take actions to be more energy-efficient, incorporate renewable energy sources, or put in place carbon capture and storage technology. The fact that major financial institutions are realizing that coal is becoming an expensive, dirty habit is very good news in the battle against climate change.

The downside to this news is that I don't really have anything very insightful to say about it. But it certainly brightened my day. It's nice to know that serious carbon constraints are now such a widely accepted part of our political future that Wall Street is no longer willing to take anyone seriously who thinks otherwise.

Kevin Drum 5:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SECURITY GUARANTEES IN IRAQ....Apparently President Bush has abandoned his effort to unilaterally conclude a security treaty with Iraq by calling it a "Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship" instead of a treaty:

"It's not going to have a security guarantee," a senior administration official said Tuesday. [...]

The administration has maintained that the agreement would not rise to the level of a treaty. The "security guarantee" statement appeared in the announcement because Iraqis wanted it on the table, the administration official said. But, he said, the United States does not believe it to be necessary. "We say, look, if you want a security guarantee, that will be a treaty, and a treaty will have to go to our Senate," endangering the whole agreement, he said.

Some rare good sense from the Bush administration. Good to hear.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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POOL RESULTS....So who won our delegate pool yesterday? Here's a projection from Chuck Todd:

It looks like Obama, by the narrowest of margins, won last night's delegate hunt. By our estimates, he picked up 840 to 849 delegates versus 829-838 for Clinton.

So figure it's roughly 845-836 in Obama's favor, which is precisely the prediction from Lerxst at 3:41 pm yesterday. Eerie. I'm actually not sure if we'll ever get an absolutely precise delegate count from Super Tuesday, so this might be the best we do. Congratulations, Lerxst!

UPDATE: If this holds up, by the way, it means that Obama won 50.2% of the delegates to Clinton's 49.8%. This is remarkably close to the two-person total of the state vote, which Obama won 51-49. Kinda makes you wonder why we even bother with all this state-by-state folderal in the first place.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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EXIT POLLS....Michael Sean Winters grouses about the media's continuing reliance on exit polls despite the fact that they seem to be consistently inaccurate these days:

The problem last night was that the exit polls were way wrong. At about 6:35 p.m., the Huffington Post leaked the exit polls, predicting that Obama would win New Jersey, Arizona and Massachusetts. In fact, he won none of those states. But, the expectations were set.

....Bill Schneider gave thoughtful analyses from the same exit polls, telling America how women had voted, how Latinos had voted, what issues mattered most. He neglected to say that the polls had failed to get the winning candidate correct. On ABC, Charlie Gibson noted that the exit polls indicated that late-deciding voters had broken towards Clinton by a significant margin, but did not share the bad news about those same polls misjudging entire states.

There's really something to this. Four years ago I had exit poll fever too, but this year I don't. Why? Because they've been wrong so often. Why would I get all excited about data that's little better than random noise?

Once all the slicing and dicing is done, exit polls provide useful demographic information. But if I were a professional reporter or talking head, I'd actively try to avoid early exit poll data these days. Why run the risk of twisting my expectations in the wrong direction and then having to clear my head later on? You wouldn't wait breathlessly for the afternoon astrological predictions, so why do the same for the afternoon exit polls?

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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SUPERDELEGATES!....Ezra Klein comments:

I really, really hope the Democratic primary doesn't come down to superdelegates — the privileged class of delegate that gets to vote however they want, and were created to ensure that party elites didn't lose too much control over the process.

Maybe I'm just being contrarian here, but why would this be so bad? After all, the only way it could happen is if the voters themselves split nearly 50-50. And in that case, the nomination would end up being decided by a massive effort to sway uncommitted delegates anyway. So who cares if that massive effort is directed at superdelegates (senators, governors, etc.) or the more plebeian regular delegates (typically county chairs, local activists, etc.). And in any case, why shouldn't the party elders, many of whom have to run on the same ticket as the presidential nominee, get a little extra say in the process?

If, say, Obama wins 1,800 delegates to Clinton's 1,400, and superdelegates end up reversing a convincing Obama win, that would be a problem. That's pretty unlikely, though. On the other hand, if primary season ends up basically tied at 1,600 apiece, I don't see why superdelegates aren't as good a way as any to break the deadlock.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (128)

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By: Kevin Drum

ON THE COUCH AGAIN....I have no idea what the right narrative is for yesterday's Democratic primary. I can only say what's inside my own head, rational or irrational as it might be. And although Obama obviously made up a huge amount of ground over the past two weeks, what it felt like to me was disappointment. He seemed to be coming on so strong that it seemed inevitable he'd win one or two of the big Hillary states — or at least make them into close races — but he didn't. In the end, Hillary won California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts by double digit margins. It really seemed to take a lot of wind out of the Obama surge.

The other thing inside my head that I didn't expect was that as the results came in, I found myself sort of rooting for Hillary. Why? Buyer's remorse? Rooting for the underdog? Guilt for having "betrayed" her by voting for Obama? A feeling that although I preferred Obama, I really didn't want to see Hillary humiliated? I think the last one is it, though I really don't know. The human mind is a devious little lump of protoplasm, isn't it?

UPDATE: Armando also thinks that last night ended Obama's momentum and pushed the race in Hillary's direction. I'm not sure I agree with everything he says, but I suspect he's in the right ballpark.

UPDATE 2: Harold Meyerson summarizes the basic state of play going forward here. Nickel version: the next few weeks (Louisiana, Nebraska, Maine, Washington, Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Hawaii, Wisconsin) look generally promising for Obama, but the big states that come after that (Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky) look a lot friendlier to Hillary. "Or, as my friend Ron Brownstein might put it, February is a wine track month, but March, April and May look good for beer track candidates."

On the other hand, Obama has more money than Clinton. For now, anyway. That might make a difference.

Kevin Drum 11:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (213)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECULATION OF THE DAY....Fact 1: John McCain is weak among evangelicals and hardcore conservatives. Fact 2: He was kissing Mike Huckabee's ass big time in his victory speech last night. Fact 3: He and Huckabee cut a deal on Tuesday to keep Mitt Romney from winning in West Virginia. Fact 4: Huckabee isn't going to win the nomination, but he's staying in the race anyway. There must be a reason, hmmm?

Speculation 1: McCain will choose Huckabee as his VP in order to shore up his demographic weaknesses for the general election. Speculation 2: He'll throw Huckabee under the bus just as soon as he has this thing sewn up. Which is it?

Kevin Drum 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE POPULAR VOTE....Wow. The Democratic race tonight was really, really close. Among people who actually turned out to vote, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 49%-48%, according to CNN. However, if you look at the total state populations carried by each candidate, it works out just the opposite. There were 22 states in play with a total population of about 147 million, and with the final numbers in, Barack Obama won about 49% of that population vs. 47% for Hillary. (The exact numbers, of course, will depend on the final result in California. As I write this, it looks to me like it's going to break about 54-44 for Hillary.) (California ended up 52-42 for Hillary.)

So what does this tell us? Nothing except that this was a really, really close race. The good news: Exciting! The bad news: Contrary to the storyline the talking heads have been feeding us, this hasn't really been a very nasty race. But it might turn into one now. Fasten your seat belts.

Kevin Drum 2:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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McCAIN'S PROBLEM....Mark Steyn explains the reality on the ground to his fellow conservatives:

The real story of the night, when you look at their rallies and their turn-out numbers, is that the Dems have two strong candidates either of whom could lead a united party to victory. Forget the gaseous platitudes: in Dem terms, their choice on Super Duper Tuesday was deciding which candidate was Super Duper and which was merely Super. Over on the GOP side, it was a choice between Weak & Divisive or Weaker & Unacceptable. Doesn't bode well for November.

That's about the size of it. McCain may have won Super Tuesday, but Rush & Co. don't like him, the South pretty clearly thinks he's inadequate on the Bible-thumping front, and he continues to do weakly among self-described conservatives and catastrophically badly among those who say they're "very conservative." That's a bummer for Republicans, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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February 5, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ROMNEY'S SPEECH....Matt Yglesias comments on Mitt Romney's post-election address tonight:

Right now I think he's delivering a pretty damn good speech. Education policy expert Sara Mead says "this isn't a winning message for him" — too negative — but it taps into my anti-Beltway rage (anti-Beltway rage only gets worse when you move all the way into the District of Columbia and realize that the country is run by jerks who ride the Orange Line).

I'm with Sara. Anti-Beltway populist spleen might work from, say, Mike Huckabee or even John McCain. But Romney? The guy looks and sounds exactly like the well-coiffed, bespoke-suited, technocracy-loving financial executive he is. The Huey Long act just doesn't work for him. The whole thing sounded phoney from beginning to end.

Which, of course, is exactly how he's sounded throughout the entire campaign. So I guess it's only fitting that he sounded that way tonight too.

Kevin Drum 11:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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CALIFORNIA....Hmmm. Exit polling suggests that Hillary Clinton won California by seven points, 51-44. If she won the absentee ballot race even more strongly, she'll beat Obama by 10 points or more.

More broadly, it's a little surprising that there have been so many big victories tonight on the Democratic side. Obviously the states with lopsided results get called first, so there's some selection bias here, but of the 18 states that have been called so far, 17 22 states contested tonight, 18 have been double-digit victories for either Hillary or Obama. Why aren't there more close races?

Kevin Drum 11:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUPER DUPER TUESDAY....Here are the results so far on the Democratic side of things.

Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton

  1. Georgia (66-32)

  2. Illinois (65-33)

  3. Delaware (53-43)

  4. Alabama (56-42)

  5. North Dakota (61-37)

  6. Kansas (73-27)

  7. Connecticut (51-47)

  8. Minnesota (67-32)

  9. Utah (56-40)

  10. Colorado (66-32)

  11. Idaho (81-17)

  12. Alaska (73-27)

  13. Missouri (49-48)

  1. Tennessee (54-41)

  2. Arkansas (73-24)

  3. Oklahoma (55-31)

  4. New York (57-40)

  5. Massachusetts (56-41)

  6. New Jersey (54-44)

  7. Arizona (51-42)

  8. California (52-42)

And in the all-important Pacific Islands vote, Hillary Clinton handily won the caucus vote in American Samoa, 163-121.

Kevin Drum 8:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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REPORT FROM BOSTON....A friend of mine was at the big Obama rally in Boston last night and sent along a few impressions. Take 'em for what they're worth:

  • 90% of the people there were younger than I am [he's 49] and most were under 30.

  • Lots of blacks and a surprising number of Asians, but a largely young white audience of equal gender.

  • I was surprised how down his supporters are on Hillary. They seem to dislike her as much as Republicans.

  • Given his oratorical gifts, his stump speech could be much better. He needs Ted Sorensen.

  • Was watching the faces of Ted, Caroline, Deval and Kerry and they sure seem to like him a lot.

  • The biggest applause line of the night was Ted Kennedy's booming voice telling the crowd that in one year's time the Bush administration will be over.

  • Barack's biggest laugh of the night came when he talked about his lineage being traced to Dick Cheney.

  • Barack's most disingenuous lines are when he panders to the Edwards supporters. The gratuitous populism just seems cheap next to his grander ideas.

  • None of the five or six Larouchies working the line outside were able to convince me to join the group to prevent the "biggest greatest economic collapse since the fall of the Roman Empire."

My friend and I both used to do a lot of PowerPoint presentations back in the day, so the bullet point format here is pretty appropriate.

Kevin Drum 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND MANDATES....Ezra Klein says that Barack Obama is "simply lying" when he attacks healthcare mandates by comparing them to solving homelessness by mandating that everybody buy a house. That's pretty far over the top. I think Obama is wrong on the merits and wrong to attack mandates, but his analogy doesn't register more than 3 or 4 on the Richter scale of political mischaracterization. He deserves grief for his position, but he's not lying.

That said, here's what I don't get. Ezra asks, "Why won't he stop?" and that seems like a pretty good question to me. When Obama is in a debate and has to defend his position, that's one thing. But why continue to push this line so hard in settings where he could brush it off if he wanted to? Does he seriously think this is a core part of his appeal? Has he drunk his own Kool-Aid so much that he's genuinely convinced that mandates are evil? Or what? He knows he's going to get attacked by potential supporters every time he brings this up, so why not just soft pedal it? He's got plenty of other fruitful lines of attack against Hillary, after all.

Kevin Drum 5:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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DELEGATE POOL....There are 1,681 pledged delegates up for grabs in the Democratic race today. So today's pool is: How do you think they're going to split up? The winner gets the warm feeling of being the smartest political prognosticator in the room.

My guess: Hillary 880, Obama 801. Leave your guess in comments.

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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MORE DOOM AND GLOOM....Despite December's gloomy news, forecasters continued to predict through January that the economy was still expanding. But although the manufacturing sector grew a bit, the much larger service sector took a huge and unexpected nosedive:

On Tuesday, the Institute for Supply Management reported that its January non-manufacturing index slid to a reading of 41.9, from December's revised figure of 54.4....Readings over 50 indicate growth, and forecasters had expected the overall index to have hit 52.5 in January.

....The survey results are "downright disastrous. These are recessionary readings," said Stephen Stanley of RBS Greenwich Capital. "The tea leaves are quickly accumulating. Payroll employment has flattened. The Christmas retail season was weak. Consumer spending seems to have weakened further in January, as auto sales fell noticeably and chain store reports seem to have been quite soft. And of course the housing sector is a mess."

According to ISM, only three industries reported growth in January: Utilities; Professional Services; and Educational Services. The other 14 all contracted, including: Arts, Entertainment & Recreation; Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting; Construction; Accommodation & Food Services; Transportation & Warehousing; Management of Companies & Support Services; Health Care & Social Assistance; Finance & Insurance; Information; Wholesale Trade; Retail Trade; Public Administration; Other Services; and Real Estate, Rental & Leasing.

In other words: it's not just the financial and real estate sectors anymore. Everyone is suffering. Presidential hopefuls take note.

UPDATE: More here from Paul Krugman. This looks ugly.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE POWER OF THE PURSE....Bruce Fein is a conservative legal scholar who long ago turned against George Bush. Here's one of the reasons why:

Jan. 28, 2008, is a date that will live in congressional infamy. Congress surrendered the power of the purse over national security affairs to the White House.

President Bush appended a signing statement to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 denying the power of Congress to withhold funds for establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, or to control its oil resources. The statement tacitly averred that Congress was required to appropriate money to support every presidential national security gambit, for example, launching pre-emptive wars anywhere on the planet or breaking and entering homes to gather foreign intelligence.

....The National Defense Authorization Act's restrictions on President Bush in Iraq were no novelty. Congress has repeatedly legislated to constrain the president's projection of the military abroad or has otherwise overridden his national security policies.

....Yet Congress acquiesced....

Bush has appended so many signing statement to so many bills that this one got only a smidgen of extra attention at the time. All part of Bush fatigue, I guess. But it really deserves more. The appropriations power is fundamental to congressional authority, and this was an unusually direct affront to that authority even for the current crew in the White House. If Congress doesn't have the power of the purse, what does it have?

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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THE FRIENDLY SKIES....Here's the latest news from the airline industry's continuing effort to piss off the most people for the least return:

United Airlines will begin charging some passengers $50 to check in a second piece of luggage on domestic round-trip flights, becoming the first big carrier to impose a fee for a service that has long been included in the price of a ticket.

As of late Monday no other major carrier had followed United, but some analysts said that if the move didn't generate significant resistance from consumers, the traditional two-free-bag rule was likely to go the way of other amenities such as free meals and pillows.

Sounds like a boon for makers of large suitcases.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNDRAISING NEWS....Until today, I wasn't quite sure how impressive Barack Obama's $32 million fundraising haul in January really was. After all, maybe Hillary raised $33 million. But no. According to Terry McAuliffe, she raised about $13 million. Wow.

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By: Kevin Drum

FINAL SUPER TUESDAY POLLING MADNESS....For your viewing pleasure, here's the down-to-the-wire, hot-off-the-preses, absolutely positively final set of recent national polling results as collected by RealClearPolitics. If they're to be believed, in a mere two days Hillary Clinton's lead has slipped from 8 percentage points to 2.5.

But as we found out on Sunday, they play those games for a reason. So get out there and vote, OK?

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By: Kevin Drum

PENTAGON SPENDING....Fred Kaplan notes that the FY2009 Pentagon budget includes $184 billion for major weapons systems and that not a single one is even a candidate for termination:

Is it remotely conceivable that the Defense Department is the one federal bureaucracy that has not designed, developed, or produced a single expendable program? The question answers itself.

There is another way to probe this question. Look at the budget share distributed to each of the three branches of the armed services. The Army gets 33 percent, the Air Force gets 33 percent, and the Navy gets 34 percent.

As I have noted before (and, I'm sure, will again), the budget has been divvied up this way, plus or minus 2 percent, each and every year since the 1960s. Is it remotely conceivable that our national-security needs coincide so precisely — and so consistently over the span of nearly a half-century — with the bureaucratic imperatives of giving the Army, Air Force, and Navy an even share of the money? Again, the question answers itself. As the Army's budget goes up to meet the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force's and Navy's budgets have to go up by roughly the same share, as well. It would be a miracle if this didn't sire a lot of waste and extravagance.

You know, I wouldn't even mind the waste all that much if we were actually spending the bulk of this money on contemporary threats — like, say, global terrorism — that are supposedly our top priority. But if that's the case, why do we keep spending vast sums on weapons systems designed to fight a massive conventional war against Russia or China? Money talks, and I'm pretty sure that F-35s, new carrier groups, and Virginia-class subs aren't going to root Osama bin Laden out of his cave. Gives you pause, doesn't it?

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February 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Josh Patashnik, on the McCain campaign's contention that a Supreme Court full of elderly justices is a good reason to vote for him instead of sitting home and allowing a Democrat to win in November:

Is McCain endorsing the view that public officials over the age of 70 aren't likely to last until the end of the next president's first term? That's, ah, interesting.

Indeed. In other McCain news, Matt Yglesias highlights a Pew poll that shows something odd: among McCain voters, only 88% view McCain favorably. 5% are unsure and a full 7% don't like him. What's up with that?

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By: Kevin Drum

GEARING UP....Jon Cohn has some good news on the universal healthcare front:

Today the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced it would be launching a $75 million election-year campaign on behalf of universal coverage....But it's not just a bunch of television and magazine spots the union has in mind. They're also planning to finance what sounds like a pretty substantial ground effort, including a rolling publicity tour to stage events across the country.

....As veterans of the 1993-94 Clinton health care fight know, [one reason] that effort failed was the fact that the political pressure came overwhelmingly from one side....This time, fortunately, it looks like the interest groups in favor of reform are getting an early start....At a time when all of the fighting over universal coverage has many people (myself included) worried that its prospects are suddenly diminishing, this is a reminder the political pressure for it is only going to get stronger in the coming months.

There's more at the link.

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By: Kevin Drum

RUNAWAY SPENDING....Paul Krugman writes about the "myth of runaway federal spending under the Bush administration":

But where did that increase come from? Three words: defense, Medicare, Medicaid. That's the whole story....Behind these increases are the obvious things: the war McCain wants to fight for the next century, the general issue of excess cost growth in health care, and the prescription drug benefit.

So the next time Mr. McCain or anyone else promises to rein in runaway spending, they should be asked which of these things they intend to reverse. Are they talking about pulling out of Iraq? Denying seniors the latest medical treatments? Canceling the drug benefit? If not, what are they talking about?

For what it's worth, that's not quite the whole story. Domestic discretionary spending really has increased considerably under Bush. If my arithmetic is right, it increased about 6% under Bill Clinton (adjusted for inflation and population growth) and 16% so far under George Bush. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Still, Krugman is right: the absolute size of domestic discretionary spending is tiny compared to the big ticket items, and this means that it should be a good campaign tactic to demand that Mr. Fiscal Responsibility tell us what he wants to slice out of the budget to pay for the tax cuts he now favors. And yet, that never works, does it? I mean, it never works. Candidates universally blow smoke when the question is asked, reporters universally decline to insist on an answer, and voters universally shrug their shoulders. Weird, isn't it? But still true.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

PULLING THE LEVER....So who am I going to vote for tomorrow? Answer: Barack Obama.

I've got some good reasons and some bad reasons for changing my mind. The good reasons include (a) the ugliness coming out of the Clinton camp over the past couple of weeks, which has turned me off, (b) a growing sense that Obama's steadiness running his campaign under fire is a good sign of what he'd be like as president, and (c) some of the red state endorsements Obama has gotten recently, which speak well for his potential to produce strong coattails in November.

There are also some not-so-good reasons. I'm half embarrassed to admit that this stuff even affects me, but the fact is that the actions of both the candidates' supporters and detractors has had an impact. Watching Andrew Sullivan rant and rave on a daily basis about Hillary, for example, has had the perverse effect of keeping me on her side. I just hated the thought of fever swamp hatred like that influencing my party's nomination. Conversely, today's Paul Krugman column, which was yet another installment in his months-long anti-Obama jihad, had the opposite effect. I don't like Obama's mini-demagoguery of Hillary's healthcare plan either, but for chrissake, it's an election. A bit of hardball is to be expected and I can't for the life of me figure out what Obama has done to drive a sensible guy like Krugman over a cliff.

Anyway, I realize that this stuff shouldn't matter, but it's all part of the mix. And while I still like both candidates a lot (which is what's kept me on the fence for so long), I guess I finally decided that Bill Clinton was right: voting for Obama is a roll of the dice. I still don't know whether Obama is likely to be the Democratic Ronald Reagan (my hope) or the next Democratic Jimmy Carter (my fear), but I like his temperament, I like his judgment, I like his foreign policy, I like his obvious ability to inspire, and I think he's more likely to be RR than JC. I guess I'm willing to roll the dice.

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By: Kevin Drum

BETTING ON HILLARY OBAMA....Obama supporter Mark Kleiman sent me an email this morning about my Intrade post from a week ago. At that time, Intrade bettors thought Hillary Clinton was more electable than Obama: they gave her a 66% chance of winning the presidency if she were nominated, vs. 47% for Obama.

So what do they think now? Answer: HRC has lost her edge among the punters. They give Hillary a 64% chance of winning if she's nominated and Obama a 69% chance. Click on last week's post for caveats, warnings, and methodology.

I have no idea what this means, if anything. But whatever concerns the Intrade crowd had about Obama's electability has apparently been assuaged. They're now betting — accurately, I think — that either candidate is highly likely to beat John McCain in November.

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By: Kevin Drum

"DIGITAL PAMPHLETEER"....Hey, guess who had a short video made about him? Friend o' the blog and frequent contributor Steve Benen. The video was made by Bill Simmon and won an award at the Vermont International Film Festival last fall. Steve talks about the video here. You can view it here (Quicktime format) or here (YouTube).

Luckily for me, none of my friends are filmmakers, so you'll never see me starring in a video like this. But if you're curious to see what that Benen fellow looks like in person, check it out. It's nicely done.

Kevin Drum 11:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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February 3, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

POLL MADNESS....The national polls conducted in the past couple of days are all remarkably consistent on the Democratic side, showing Hillary Clinton leading Barack Obama by an average of 47%-39%. Here are the individual numbers:

  • Fox: 47-37

  • Gallup: 48-41

  • Rasmussen: 49-38

  • Pew: 46-38

  • ABC: 47-43

Hillary's 8-point lead has been steady for several weeks now. If it holds up, and if undecided voters break evenly, and if delegates get split in about the same proportion as the vote, this means that Hillary will win about 1,127 delegates to Obama's 937. If Obama makes a late surge, it'll be closer. In other words, there's virtually no chance that Super Tuesday will decide the Democratic race. So for all of you who are already sick and tired of the primaries, you better buck up. The real race is just getting started.

UPDATE: Gallup has just released its latest tracking numbers and now has Clinton leading by only two points, 46-44. Is this a fluke, or an Obama surge? Might as well wait until Tuesday to find out.

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA IN CALIFORNIA?....Ezra Klein comments on results from a new Zogby poll showing Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton in California:

They track with what I'm hearing on the ground out there, even though, fundamentally, it remains hard for me to believe Obama can actually take the Golden State.

I'm not hearing anything in particular from my particular patch of ground, but I don't have any trouble believing Obama could win here. In fact, he seems like just the kind of candidate California Democrats would normally get pretty excited about. Hillary obviously has fairly deep pockets of support here, but I certainly won't be shocked if Obama pulls out a victory.

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By: Kevin Drum

A CIVIC MAN....Guess what? We're about to enter a "Joshua generation."

According to Morley Winograd and Michael Hais in the Washington Post today, there have been three elections in American history that ushered in an era of dominance by a "Moses" or idealist generation: 1828, 1896, and 1968. "Members of idealist generations embroil the nation in heated debates on divisive social issues as they try to enact their own personal morality and causes through the political process."

Likewise, there have been two elections that ushered in a "Joshua" or civic generation: 1860 and 1932. "Civic generations react against the idealist generations' efforts to use politics to advance their own moral causes and focus instead on reenergizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues." We're due for another civic generation to take over this year.

Do I buy this? No, I do not. (You can read more about the "saeculum" theory of generational waves here.) But if you're in the market for an abstract and academic sounding argument about historical inevitability to prove that Barack Obama is The One, look no further. Click and read. Or read Obama's own version here.

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February 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CALIFORNIA STUFF....Here in California we're not just voting for presidential candidates on Tuesday. We're also voting on a couple of initiatives. So what do I think of them?

From my point of view, there's an easy one and a hard one. The easy one is Prop 93, which changes our term limits law. Currently, you're limited to 14 years: three terms (6 years) in the assembly and two terms (8 years) in the senate. The problem with this is that a limit of three terms in the assembly, for example, means that the Speaker of the Assembly never has more than four years of experience before taking over the top spot. This is dumb. The point of a term limits law should be to prevent people from making careers out of a single political office, not doing away with experience altogether.

The new law is simpler: it limits service to 12 years total, in either house. This is how I would have written the law in the first place, and it's a good compromise between limiting legislative service while still allowing politicians to gain enough experience to know how to run things. This is one of those rare initiatives I'm in favor of.

The harder one is Props 94-97, a series of identical referendums that allows an expansion of slot machine gaming by four California Indian tribes. Basically, though, I don't have a problem with it. The governor negotiated the deal, the legislature approved it, it would bring in a fair amount of new revenue to the state, and the opposition comes primarily from (a) other gaming interests who don't want increased competition (Nevada casinos, other tribes, and horse racing interests) and (b) the teachers union, which is unhappy that the additional revenues aren't specifically earmarked for education. Since I don't care about increased competition, and I'm actively opposed to earmarking revenue via initiative, their opposition doesn't carry much water with me. There's also some opposition from unions, who are unhappy that the tribes refused to accept their collective bargaining terms in the new compacts.

But I'm fundamentally in favor of letting the legislature and the governor run the state (which is one of the reasons I default to No on most initiatives), and none of the opposing arguments seems quite strong enough to override the deal as approved by the legislature. Unless I hear something more persuasive in the next few days, I'm inclined to go ahead and vote Yes.

There are also a couple of bond measures on the ballot. On those, I have no particular opinion.

UPDATE: Props 91 and 92 aren't bond measures. Sorry about that. I wasn't paying attention. From SteveK in comments:

Prop 91, the transportation initative has been made obsolete by statute. No one, not even the people that qualified it for the ballot, is supporting it.

Prop 92, the community college constitutional ammendment, makes some sense, and remedies historical funding gaps for the CCs, but is just too damn expensive. And it's one of those crappy initiatives that locks funding percentages in the constitution.

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By: Kevin Drum

YOU AND YOUR TAQI A REPEAT FRAGMENT LENGTH POLYMORPHISM....Some of us are raging partisans. Some of us are mushy independents. According to Christopher Dawes and James Fowler of UC San Diego, part of the reason is in your genes. In particular, partisanship is mediated by the TaqI A repeat fragment length polymorphism in the DRD2 gene.

Here's the deal: Compared to people who have two copies of the major A2 allele, it turns out that people with the minor A1 allele are less partisan. "Holding the control variables at their means and changing the number of A1 alleles from zero to one decreases average partisanship by about 4 percentage points and from zero to two by about 8 percentage points."

And how does this break down for the population as a whole? Like so: 54% of us have two copies of the A2 allele, 37% have one A1 allele, and 8% have two A1 alleles.

For obvious reasons, don't take this too seriously. But still, be honest: doesn't this give you the urge to rush out and get your DRD2 gene tested to find out just how partisan you are? And don't you have a few friends you'd like to get tested too?

Via The Monkey Cage.

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February 1, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....On the left, we have your basic cat-in-a-shopping-bag picture. But cats in bags are always cute, and when it's Inkblot it's extra cute. Meanwhile, Domino spent Tuesday afternoon basking in the sunshine with her favorite garden rabbit and her favorite tree. What more could a cat ask for? (Aside from a shopping bag and endless bowls of free cat food, that is.)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL SCIENCE TEA LEAVES....Who's really the most liberal senator? Over at OTB, Chris Lawrence has more on this subject, including yet another measure that goes by the shorthand nickname CJR:

The results suggest that Obama has the 9th most liberal voting record in the Senate, with rival Hillary Clinton in 11th place and very little daylight between them.

....On the Republican side, John McCain appears in the middle of the GOP pack, as the 20th most-conservative senator, with no credible chance of being the "most conservative" (a rating that South Carolina's Jim DeMint runs away with). McCain is, however, more conservative than GOP stalwarts like Orrin Hatch, Thad Cochran, Sam Brownback, and Lamar Alexander.

So there you have it. If you average this with the Lewis/Poole OC results, it seems likely that Obama is about the 10th most liberal senator and Clinton is probably around 15th or so. McCain is Clinton's mirror image, with an average ranking that places him around the 15th most conservative senator.

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....Here are the monthly civilian casualty figures from Iraq, once again plucked from our friend Engram, who is plenty pissed:

What you see is yet another month of dramatically reduced casualties, an outcome that almost no one thought possible as recently as August of 2007 (when violence was still very high). Why isn't this chart (or one just like it) on the front page of every newspaper in America? Because it is not important news? Or because it is important news that would help Bush?

....The number of lives being saved per month now exceeds 1000 according to ICCC. However, the real number is closer to 2000 per month according to more complete statistics maintained by Iraq Body Count....Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seem to care at all about a reduction in civilian casualties of 2000 per month. Their hearts have become so hard that they cannot even concede the remarkable progress that has obviously occurred as a result of George Bush's troop surge. They should be congratulating George Bush for his excellent judgment on this issue, and they should be apologizing both for their own misguided assessment of the situation and for their callous disregard for innocent human life in Iraq.

Matt Yglesias, noting the news that the highly touted de-Baathification law is not only a bad law, but probably will be vetoed anyway, has a different take:

Meanwhile, if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times — the [stated] purpose of the surge was to lay the groundwork for political reconciliation, reconciliation looks further away than ever and the surge is about to run out of time. That's a failed policy.

The reduction in violence is important news, and unlike Engram it seems to me that it's gotten a fair amount of attention — although obviously the news cycle ebbs and flows on this. Needless to say, though, I think Matt has the better of the argument. The point of the surge really was to provide "breathing space" for political reconciliation, and there's just been no movement on that score. Unless decades of tribal history in Iraq suddenly turn around in the next few months and the Maliki government produces a genuine and lasting peace — something there's no sign of so far — violence will continue into the foreseeable future and the surge will indeed have been a failure.

Would things have turned out differently if we'd given the Iraqis a real incentive to make progress by setting out a credible timeline for withdrawal? There's no way to know. What we do know, however, is that in the absence of a timeline the Iraqis have done nothing — and that's even with the tailwind of a dramatic reduction in violence. For five years we've tried the same policy of open-ended support over and over, and for five years it hasn't worked. It's well past time to try something different.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....Matt Welch on John McCain's strange appeal to antiwar independents:

The voters most hostile to the war are backing a potential commander in chief who makes Bush look gun-shy.

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA ON HEALTHCARE....Just when I'm warming up to Obama, his campaign pulls something like this. Yuck.

There's nothing odious or unfair about this mailer. It's perfectly normal hardball politics. But it doesn't help the progressive cause on healthcare one whit. I sure wish Obama could figure out a better way to contrast himself with Hillary.

As a side note, when the subject of healthcare mandates came up last night, I was surprised that Hillary didn't take (yet another) opportunity to suck up to John Edwards by using the argument Edwards himself put forward at the last debate to criticize Obama's voluntary plan. As John Edwards has said, the problem with Senator Obama's argument is you can make exactly the same argument about Social Security. I mean, you think about the analogy. What George Bush says is he wants people to be able to get out of the Social Security system, choose, elect to get out of the Social Security system. Well, that's exactly what Senator Obama's plan allows for healthcare.

I dunno. Maybe the Social Security analogy isn't as good as I think it is. But it sure seemed like a quick, effective argument when Edwards made it.

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By: Kevin Drum

RECESSION POOL....Anybody want to start a pool? Here's the bet: when NBER eventually gets around to dating the 2008 recession, when will they decide it started? My money is on December 2007.

And when will they date the end? I'd guess March 2009.

Alternatively, we're not in a recession now and we're not going to fall into one. What's your guess?

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA ON THE WAR....One more note about yesterday's Democratic debate. I haven't watched every speech Barack Obama has given, so maybe I've missed this in the past, but it struck me that last night, for the first time, he edged closer to making the real case for why his 2002 opposition to the Iraq war is important. He's previously argued that this is an example of his superior judgment, but on Thursday he went a bit further:

I was opposed to Iraq from the start. And that — and I say that not just to look backwards but also to look forwards, because I think what the next president has to show is the kind of judgment that will ensure that we are using our military power wisely.

This is the right idea, but it strikes me that Obama really needs to make this argument more explicit. The last time a U.S. president faced an unexpected crisis, he panicked and pushed us into a disastrous and unneeded war. Senator Clinton went along with him. We can't afford for that to happen again. The next time terrorism tests a president, we need someone in the White House who won't panic, someone who has the confidence and judgment to keep from being pushed into bluster and bombs as their first option, etc. etc.

For obvious reasons I'll leave the speechwriting to someone else. But you get the idea. Obama always sidles right up to the edge of this argument, but he never seems to be quite willing to make it explicitly. But if judgment is his key selling point, he needs to make it clear that he thinks Hillary's judgment will — somehow, someday — lead us into unnecessary military adventures in the future. Ditto for whoever wins the Republican nomination. I know it seems like this is the obvious implication of what he normally says, but sometimes implication isn't enough. He needs to come right out and say it.

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL SECURITY....The emerging consensus about the lovefest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last night is that Clinton was better in the first half, when they discussed domestic policy, and Obama was better in the second half, when they discussed Iraq.

Maybe so. But here's the difference I noticed: they were both good in the first half and they were both lousy in the second half. When they were discussing domestic issues they were both sharp, well-briefed, and obviously engaged. But when the conversation turned to foreign policy, they became mushy, vague, and meta. For my money, they both need to hone their foreign policy message considerably for the general election.

Another thing the debate brought home to me is something Matt Yglesias complains about frequently. Both candidates claimed that Democrats understand national security and terrorism issues better than Republicans ("Democrats have a much better grasp of the reality of the situation," as Hillary put it), and both agreed that a successful Democratic candidate would need to be able to make that case to the public. Obama thought he could make that case better because he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, while Clinton thought she could make the case better because she's better prepared. But neither of them actually made that case. Both Obama and Clinton had a national stage where they had more time than usual to explain the liberal position on how to combat terrorism and make the world safer, and neither of them did it. They just said they needed to do it.

And they're right. They do need to do that. So why didn't they start last night?

Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

I'M BACK....A million thanks to Steve Benen for taking over the blog on short notice yesterday. He's a real lifesaver, and I just want to say publicly as well as privately how much I appreciate his help.

The reason I got called away so suddenly on Wednesday was because we learned that Marian's father had passed away. He had been fighting cancer for several years, but at the end he died peacefully and among family at his home in the desert, which is probably as much as any of us can hope for. He was one day past his 79th birthday.

He was the rock of Marian's family, and we're all going to miss him terribly. Rest in peace, Harry.

Kevin Drum 11:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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