We're Live-Blogging the First Democratic Presidential Debate of 2015

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 7:55 PM EDT

This was a very collegial debate. There were a few shots taken, but not many, and the few that were taken were pretty mild. Is this because Democrats are nicer than Republicans? Is it because there's no Donald Trump in this debate? No. I think it's because no one on the stage truly believes they can beat Hillary Clinton. So why bother making enemies?

Here's how I think everyone did:

Lincoln Chafee had an odd, stuttering style of speech, and failed to distinguish himself at all. His lame excuse for voting to repeal Glass-Steagall will haunt him. He needs to drop out.

Jim Webb did better than Chafee, but also failed to distinguish himself. His main themes were China bashing and Wall Street bashing. But Hillary Clinton has a plenty tough reputation on foreign policy, and Bernie Sanders obviously has Webb beat on hating Wall Street. So what's the point of voting for him?

Martin O'Malley did pretty well. He has a nice affect, and he gave pretty solid answers, even if he did mention "a clean electric grid by 2050" a wee bit too often. He'll probably improve his poll standing just by virtue of not imploding, but only by a little bit.

Bernie Sanders was fine, but he didn't say anything that would change anyone's mind about him. If you want the most dovish candidate on foreign policy and the most hawkish candidate on Wall Street, he's your man. But everyone knew that before. I don't think he'll lose any support, but it's hard to see this performance gaining him any.

Hillary Clinton was very polished. She obviously benefited from the reluctance of everyone else to really attack her, especially over the email server affair. Overall, I don't think she made any mistakes, and she came across as reasonable and well briefed. At the very least, this will keep her poll numbers from sliding any further. My guess is that she'll gain a little ground.

Overall, it's hard to see this debate changing the dynamics of the race by much. There were no big blunders, no memorable zingers, and no sharp attacks. FWIW, I'll predict a small bounce for Clinton and O'Malley, and that's about it.

Soon this space will be filled with lively banter about the first Democratic debate of the year. Come back a little before 8:30 Eastern and the festivities will begin.

10:55 - It's fun question time! What enemy are you most proud of? Chafee: coal lobby. O'Malley: the NRA. Clinton: health insurance companies, drug companies, Iranians, Republicans. Sanders: Wall Street. Webb: the enemy soldier who wounded me.

10:49 - Sanders: The only way to get things done is by having millions of people come together. Meh. But there's no real answer to the question of how to get Republicans to cooperate about anything, so I suppose it's as good an answer as any.

10:46 - Clinton not willing to take a stand on legalizing marijuana. Wants to wait and see how things work out in Colorado and Washington.

10:45 - Sanders says he "suspects" he would vote for Nevada initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.

10:43 - Some good Republican bashing from Clinton. Lotsa cheers. It's only Rs who say we can't have nice things. Everyone else agrees.

10:39 - Everyone wants to address climate change except for Jim Webb, who prefers a bit of China bashing instead.

10:29 - What's the one Obama policy you'd change? Chafee: end the wars. O'Malley: rein in big banks. Clinton: I'd be female. Wants to "build on" Obama's successes. Sanders: need to make government work for all of us, not just millionaires. Webb: less executive authority.

10:17 - Hillary: Republicans suck on immigration.

10:15 - There's been very little in the way of even weak attacks on other candidates. It's not quite a lovefest, but close.

10:08 - Chafee is defending a vote by saying he had just entered the Senate and his father had died. OMG.

10:07 - Minnows like Webb should stop whining about not getting enough time. If it were up to me, he wouldn't even be on the stage.

10:03 - Clinton obliquely refers to shadow banking again. Would love to hear more detail about that.

10:02 - Clinton "went to Wall Street" in 2007 and told them to "cut it out." I guess that didn't work.

10:01 - Clinton talks about shadow banking. Good for her. Not sure what she'd actually do about it, though.

10:00 - O'Malley wants to reinstate Glass-Steagall. That's a weak idea for reining in big banks.

9:58 - Cooper is now just inviting candidates to give a 1-minute version of their stump speeches.

9:52 - Cooper: "Do you want to respond?" Clinton: "No." I guess that shows how much she cares about Lincoln Chafee.

9:49 - Sanders naturally agrees with Clinton. Nobody wants to give the Benghazi committee any legitimacy. "Let's talk about the real issues." Huge cheers. Hillary and Bernie practically hug each others.

9:46 - Clinton: the Benghazi committee is just a partisan attempt to bring down her poll numbers. Big cheers.

9:44 - What is America's biggest national security threat? Chafee: chaos in Middle East. O'Malley: nuclear Iran. Clinton: nuclear weapons. Sanders: climate change. Webb: China, cybersecurity.

9:38 - O'Malley: we need better humint. Yeah, yeah. Everyone wants better humint. How do you plan to get that?

9:34 - Webb is really eager to denounce China. He probably could have waited.

9:32 - Clinton: "I'm in the middle here."

9:26 - Hillary's response to voting for Iraq war: Obama values her judgment. Interesting attempt to tie herself to Obama, who's pretty damn popular in this hall.

9:23 - Sanders: Syria is a "quagmire in a quagmire." I'd probably add one more quagmire to that, but he has the right idea.

9:21 - Chafee wants to talk to Wayne LaPierre in order to "find common ground" on gun control. Good luck with that.

9:16 - Hmmm. Hillary was pretty tough on Sanders's stand on gun control. A sign of things to come?

9:11 - O'Malley's speaking style is oddly warbly.

9:07 - Cooper after asking Sanders about democratic socialism: "Anyone else on this stage not a capitalist?" Hillary barges in. She loves Denmark and small businesses, but hates rising income inequality.

9:04 - Sanders: "We need to learn from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway."

9:02 - "Some people say you're...." This is the worst possible kind of question. Vague and trivially easy to answer. Hillary is having no problem with accusations of flip flopping.

8:59 - I guess we're all agreed: the middle class is really important.

8:48 - Chafee: "I have high ethical standards." Good to know.

8:43 - Is it just me, or was that a pretty bad rendition of the national anthem? Just me, I suppose.

8:38 - Is this intro meant to be a parody?

8:36 - Marian won't be joining me tonight. She's watching the ballgame instead. Smart.

8:35 - I think this debate is scheduled to last two hours, but I don't know for sure. Apparently it's a state secret. But I read a few items saying that CNN had decided to cut it from 3 hours to 2.

8:32 - ZOMG, Joe Biden appeared in the background a couple of times in Obama's prerecorded message! What does it mean?

8:28 - Wolf says that President Obama might watch some of the debate!

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Yes, Americans Have Become More Ideologically Polarized (Since 1994)

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 6:28 PM EDT

Over at the Monkey Cage, political scientists Seth Hill and Chris Tausanovitch argue that despite what it looks like, the American public hasn't actually gotten more polarized over the past 50 or 60 years. Lawmakers have, but ordinary citizens haven't.

But I'm not sure their own data backs this up. Unfortunately, the chart I want to talk about is a little complicated, so bear with me. The authors measure polarization by looking at answers to questions on the American National Election Studies survey, which is conducted every two years. In the chart below, they look at what percentage of respondents are as extreme as the most extreme 5 percent from the previous survey. If it's 5 percent, then nothing has changed. If it's 6 percent, then the relative number of extremists has gone up. Here's the chart:

The thing to notice is that these changes are cumulative because each year is measured relative to the previous survey. Take a look at the left-hand chart, which measures the polarization of ordinary people. Just by eyeballing and adding up the differences from 5 percent,1 I get a cumulative change of +0.7 percent between 1956 and 1992. That's a change of +0.02 percent per year, which is virtually nothing.

But if you add up the years between 1994 and 2012 (in red), you get a cumulative change of about 6.6 percent. That's a change of +0.4 percent per year.

For senators, the story is a little different. They've been getting steadily more polarized all along, but in 2004 the changes get much bigger, with no low points and certainly no negative points.

But it's ordinary people that I want to focus on. The authors look at the entire period from 1956-2012 and see little evidence of increased polarization. I think this misreads things. There's little evidence of consistently increasing polarization through 1992. But starting in 1994, which coincides with the Gingrich revolution, polarization gets steadily stronger. (For some reason there's no data for 2006 and 2010, but I suspect those are years of increasing polarization anyway.) It may be true that Congress has gotten even more polarized than the public—partly because of ideological sorting and partly because politicians tend to take politics more seriously—but ever since 1994 the public has indeed been getting more polarized too.

1This is not the right way to measure cumulative change, but it's good enough to make my point. I think you'd see the same thing if you did the arithmetic correctly.

Fox's Shepard Smith Just Tore NBC Apart for Inviting Donald Trump to Host SNL

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 5:17 PM EDT

On Tuesday morning, NBC announced that Donald Trump would be the host of Saturday Night Live on November 7. Shortly afterward, Trump confirmed the announcement on his Twitter account and expressed his excitement.

Trump seemed an odd choice, if only because in June NBCUniversal, responsible for Trump's hit show The Apprentice and a stakeholder in the Miss Universe Organization, announced with much fanfare that it was cutting ties with the real state mogul and GOP candidate, following his  controversial comments describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.

"At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values," the network said in a press release. "Due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants, NBCUniversal is ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump."

Trump retorted that NBC was "weak" and "foolish" for not understanding the "serious illegal immigration problem" facing the United States. 

This afternoon, Fox News' Shepard Smith weighed in on Trump's SNL invite, tearing into the network for cutting business ties to Trump but inviting him to host the popular show. "Nice job, NBC," Smith said. "You made a stand, you stood for your values, you did what you must, forget the money, no more Trump! Except, more Trump. Dumb, dumb, dumb."

Neither the Trump campaign nor NBC Universal responded to a request for comment. We'll update the post if we hear back.

This Aunt Is Suing Her 12-Year-Old Nephew for an "Unreasonable" Hug

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 2:00 PM EDT

Update, October 13, 3:51 p.m. EST: Jennifer Connell lost her lawsuit. It took the jury just 20 minutes to decide to decline awarding her the $127,000 she sought in damages against her 12-year-old nephew. Here she is leaving the courthouse:

Today's spotlight for some internet outrage can be directed toward Jennifer Connell, a human resources manager who hails from New York.

According to the Connecticut Post, 54-year-old Connell has filed a lawsuit against her 12-year-old nephew claiming he acted "unreasonably" after giving her a hug that caused her to fall and break her wrist.

The unabashed display of affection happened four years ago at her nephew Sean Tarala's eighth birthday. He is the only defendant identified in the lawsuit, which claims his "negligent" hug caused her serious harm.

"All of a sudden he was there in the air, I had to catch him and we tumbled onto the ground," Connell testified before a jury last Friday. "I remember him shouting, 'Auntie Jen, I love you,' and there he was flying at me."

She says she did not complain to her nephew at the time because she didn't want to hurt his feelings, she told jurors. But four years later, Connell is now seeking $127,000 in damages, which include compromising her ability to eat gracefully at social occasions.

"I was at a party recently," she explained. "And it was difficult to hold my hors d'oeuvre plate."

On Friday, local media reported Tarala sitting next to his father in court looking "confused." His mother died last year.

Here's What to Really Expect in Tonight's Democratic Debate

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 1:51 PM EDT

I assume you all know this by now, but the first Democratic debate is tonight. It starts at 8:30 pm Eastern on CNN, and I gather that it's scheduled to go two hours. It was originally going to last three hours—which is flatly insane—but apparently CNN got an earful after the endless slog of the last Republican debate and decided to take pity on us all.

So what can we expect? Really expect? My guesses:

  • The highest polling candidate will be in the center and the lowest polling candidates at the edges. Fox News seems to have set a permanent precedent here.
  • Hillary Clinton will of course get a question or 10 about her email server. She'll give a standard scripted reply, and the others will all shuffle around nervously when asked to respond. They'd love to take a shot at Hillary, but they'll be reluctant to look like they're stooges for Republican conspiracy theories.
  • Bernie Sanders will be asked if he's really a socialist. Sigh.
  • Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee will both be asked some version of "Why are you here?" This is actually a fair question since neither seems to be running a serious campaign and neither has even the slightest chance of winning.
  • There will be some kind of question about Joe Biden. Everyone will insist that they love Joe and have nothing but the highest regard for him.
  • There will probably be some kind of question that dutifully inventories all the conservative complaints about Obamacare and asks what the candidates are going to do about them.
  • They'll be asked about Syria, of course. This is an unsolvable problem,1 so no one will offer up anything worthwhile.
  • Hillary will get asked if Bill is a problem for her.
  • We'll be treated once again to a "fun" question. God only knows what it will be. Favorite song? Craziest Republican? Person they'd like to see on the 10 ruble note?

Anyway, I'll be liveblogging it. The thought fills me with dread, but I know that when the time comes, I'll be there. I'll hate myself for it, but I'll do it.

1We are opposed to Assad, ISIS, and all the al-Qaeda supported rebel groups in Syria. This is bipartisan, not something unique to President Obama. This means the only groups we support are "moderate" Syrian rebels who are willing to fight ISIS, not Assad. As near as I can tell, such groups basically don't exist and never have.

Breaking: Planned Parenthood Stops Taking Money for Fetal Tissue Donation

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 1:32 PM EDT

A handful of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country allow patients to donate their fetal tissue following an abortion, a practice that is legal in the United States and has contributed to medical research breakthroughs like the polio vaccine. And as part of their fetal tissue donations programs, Planned Parenthood typically gets reimbursed for the cost of getting the donation to researchers—about $60 per case.

But that will soon change: On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards, announced that the organization will no longer accept reimbursement to cover the cost of fetal tissue donations and will instead pay out of pocket for all donations going forward.

The change, announced in a letter to the National Institutes of Health, comes after an onslaught of conservative attempts to completely defund and attack the women's health care organization on the basis of its fetal tissue donation programs.

In the letter, Cecile Richards wrote that the policy change was intended to "completely debunk the disingenuous argument that our opponents have been using" against abortion and fetal tissue donation. She continued:

Planned Parenthood's policies on fetal tissue donation already exceed the legal requirements. Now we're going even further in order to take away any basis for attacking Planned Parenthood to advance an anti-abortion political agenda…Our decision not to take any reimbursement for expenses should not be interpreted as a suggestion that anyone else should not take reimbursement or that the law in this area isn't strong. Our decision is first and foremost about preserving the ability of our patients to donate tissue, and to expose our opponents' false charges about this limited but important work.

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Jeb's Health Care Plan: More Detail, But It Probably Wouldn't Accomplish Much

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

The standard-issue conservative "replacement" for Obamacare is a familiar hodgepodge of tax credits, health savings accounts, high-risk pools, block granting of Medicaid, tort reform, and interstate purchase of health plans. Today, Jeb Bush has broken the rules and offered up a plan that only includes the first four.

If you're grading on a curve, that's a promising start, and Jeb makes things even more interesting by actually offering up a fairly detailed set of alternatives to Obamacare. I'm not sure any Republican candidate has gone anywhere near as far as he has. A few highlights:

  • He wants to "promote innovation" by speeding up FDA approvals, increasing funding for the NIH, establishing national standards for electronic health records (but, oddly, removing any incentive to abide by them), and conducting a "regulatory spring cleaning." Some of this is standard conservative stuff, but not all of it.
  • His plan provides a tax credit that can be used to buy private health insurance for anyone who doesn't get health insurance through their employer. However, it sounds like the credit would be pretty small, probably on the order of a few thousand dollars.
  • He wants to broaden the use of health savings accounts.
  • He wants to get rid of Obamacare's "Cadillac tax," but he would replace it with something that sounds to me like it's basically identical. Maybe I'm missing something here.
  • "States would be held accountable to ensure access for individuals with pre-existing conditions." There's a fair amount of gibberish here, and even Jeb doesn't seem especially confident that it will work. However, it's meaningless anyway since insurance companies wouldn't be required to offer policies at the same rate to everyone (aka "community rating"). "States would report on access to care," but that's it. It appears that there's nothing in Jeb's plan that prevents insurance companies from simply charging sky-high prices to anyone with a pre-existing condition.
  • There is, of course, no mandate to buy insurance. This would be catastrophic for insurance companies, except for the fact that Jeb's plan doesn't require them to cover patients with pre-existing conditions in the first place.
  • Jeb almost fooled me by not mentioning block-granting of Medicaid. But of course that's in there. He calls it "capped allotments" and pairs it up with a proposal to essentially deregulate state Medicaid plans completely but still "hold states accountable for outcomes"—though there's not a single word about exactly what this means. Jeb's allotments would grow at the rate of inflation, which means they'd get smaller every year since medical costs typically grow faster than inflation.

Just about every serious health care plan that truly wants to expand coverage relies on a three-legged stool: mandates, community rating, and federal subsidies. Jeb's plan doesn't include the first two and offers only a stingy version of the third. It's much more detailed than your average Republican plan, but in the end it would probably expand coverage hardly at all.

McDonald's Spams Schools With Infomercial on the Virtues of Fast Food

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

Robust health requires nothing more than a little exercise and a daily dose or three of fast food. That's the message of the new 20-minute video 540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference (viewable here, short teaser above), being promoted in high schools and middle schools by McDonald's and uncovered by the superb school-food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel.

McDonald's recommends using the film "as a supplemental video to current food and nutritional curriculum."

The video focuses on the dietary and exercise regimen of John Cisna, who identifies himself as an "Iowa HS [high school] Science Teacher who lost over 50 lbs eating only McDonald's," who "now travel[s] across the country sharing my message about food choice." Cisna gained notoriety when he mimicked the self-experiment of documentarian Morgan Spurlock, the director and subject of the famed Super Size Me (2004), by taking his meals exclusively at McDonald's for six months straight. Unlike Spurlock, who saw his weight rise and his health falter, Cisna claims his weight plunged and his health improved. One key difference: Whereas Spurlock famously assented to any plea by a McDonald's employee to "supersize" his orders, Cisna stuck rigorously to a limit of 2,000 calories per day.

Apparently still haunted by the specter of Super Size Me a decade since its release, McDonald's embraced Cisna, taking him on as a paid "brand ambassador" and now pushing his message to school kids, both through the 540 Meals film and through appearances at schools, documented on Cisna's Twitter feed. Siegel uncovered this McDonald's-produced "teachers discussion guide" to 540 Meals. It recommends using the film "as a supplemental video to current food and nutritional curriculum," particularly in "plans that incorporate Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me." She also points to this August press release from McDonald's franchisees in the New York tri-state area, flogging 540 Meals to "high school educators looking for information to demonstrate the importance of balanced food choices."

As Siegel shows in this handy list of quotes from the film, it brims with agitprop for the famous burger-and-fries purveyor, including such wisdom as "through careful planning and mindful choices, you can still enjoy your favorite McDonald's items."

So what's wrong with pushing Cisna's message to school kids? Plenty, writes Siegel in her post, which is well worth reading in its entirety. Here's a sample:

First, neither 540 Meals nor the discussion guide ever offer young viewers the critically important disclaimer that "Your calorie needs may be significantly lower than John Cisna's," nor do they even discuss how one might go about calculating one’s daily caloric requirements. Instead, students are left with the vague but reassuring message that "choice and balance," along with a 45-minute walk (which might burn off about 1/5 of a Big Mac) will allow them to eat whatever they want at McDonald’s on a regular basis.


Ben Carson Is a Paranoid Nutcase

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 11:22 AM EDT

I'm hardly the first one to notice this, but lately Ben Carson has really been letting his freak flag fly—adding to a long history of this kind of thing. For example:

  • A few days ago Carson peddled a conspiracy theory about Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, and Mahmoud Abbas all being old pals from their days together at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1968. He refused to divulge his source for this, but instead explained it this way: "That's what I call wisdom," Carson said. "You get these pieces of information. You talk to various people. You begin to have an overall picture. You begin to understand why people do what they do."
  • He insisted that Hitler's rise to power was accomplished "through a combination of removing guns and disseminating propaganda"—despite the plain historical fact that Hitler didn't remove anyone's guns during the period when he took power.
  • Asked if the "end of days" was near, he said, "You could guess that we are getting closer to that."
  • He has suggested that being gay is a conscious choice because "a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight and when they come out they’re gay. So did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."
  • Last year, before the November elections, he predicted that President Obama might declare martial law and cancel the 2016 elections. "If Republicans don’t win back the Senate in November, he says, he can’t be sure 'there will even be an election in 2016.' Later, his wife, Candy, tells a supporter that they are holding on to their son’s Australian passport just in case the election doesn't go their way."
  • Has repeatedly endorsed the bizarre conspiracy theories of W. Cleon Skousen's 1958 book The Naked Communist. "You would think by reading it that it was written last year—showing what they're trying to do to American families, what they're trying to do to our Judeo-Christian faith, what they're doing to morality." As my colleague David Corn notes, even most conservatives agree that Skousen was a nutcase. "He was a complete crank. He maintained that the Founding Fathers were direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel and contended that a global cabal of bankers controlled the world."

This goes well beyond merely being a very conservative guy. These are the kinds of weird beliefs and conspiracy theories that marinate in the deepest corners of right-wing websites and email lists. It's Alex Jones territory. It's time to stop whispering about this, and say out loud that Carson is just not a normal conservative guy. He's a paranoid nutcase.

Critics Pan New Show "21st Century"

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 10:50 AM EDT

Charlie Stross is unhappy:

I want to complain to the studio execs who commissioned the current season of "21st century"; your show is broken.

I say this as a viewer coming in with low expectations. Its predecessor "20th century" plumbed the depths of inconsistency with the frankly silly story arc for world war II. It compounded it by leaving tons of loose plot threads dangling until the very last minute, then tidied them all up in a blinding hurry in that bizarre 1989-92 episode just in time for the big Y2K denouement (which then fizzled). But the new series reboot is simply ridiculous! It takes internal inconsistency to a new low, never before seen in the business: the "21st century" show is just plain implausible.

So far, I give the 21st century two stars. It might be better if they'd just release the whole thing at once so I could binge watch it, instead of forcing me to live through this nonsense week by week.