2010 - %3, January

The First and Last Question Time

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 2:42 PM EST

Luke Russert tweets:

GOP aides telling me it was a mistake to allow cameras into Obama's QA with GOP members. Allowed BO to refute GOP for 1.5 hours on TV

Probably so. Which is why, even though it was fun to watch, it's unlikely to happen again. It didn't just put Obama on an equal footing with Republican attacks; in fact, the format forced Republicans to tone down their attacks and then gave Obama an inherent advantage in responding since he was guy at the mike. The guy at the mike always has the advantage.

This gets back to what I was saying earlier about the Drudge/Fox/Rush noise machine. Right now Republicans have a built-in advantage when it comes to attack politics and they'd be fools to give it up. A format like this, which puts the president front and center, allows him to directly call out distortions and lies, and rewards conversation rather than machine-gun style talking points, is something Republicans should justifiably be very afraid of. Unless they're suicidal — or somehow figure out a way to take better advantage of the format — they'll never allow this to happen again. Without the noise machine, they're lost.

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Catcher in the Rye

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 2:25 PM EST

Ezra Klein didn't like Catcher in the Rye:

Holden Caufield was a miserable punk. It might be an achievement to channel that brand of narcissistic alienation, but there's no joy to be found in its company. Similarly disappointing was the hushed promise that there was something rebellious and titillating in the book. I can't remember how that reputation was conveyed to me. Maybe my English teacher explained it explicitly, circling "banned" on the green chalkboard. But by the time I got to "The Catcher in the Rye," there was nothing rebellious about it. As Malcolm Jones writes, "any allure the book might have had as 'forbidden goods' was stripped away the day the first English teacher put it on a required-reading list."

I'm the last person who should be commenting on J.D. Salinger, but my first thought when I read this was that the problem wasn't so much with the book — or with its status as mandatory reading — but with the fact that Ezra read it around 1999. By then it had lost a lot of what made it original. Will makes this point better than I could:

My defense of Salinger is simple: I think The Catcher in the Rye is the first book that truly captures the vernacular of adolescence. In a media environment that is absolutely saturated with adolescent drama and humor, this may strike you as an unremarkable accomplishment. But The Catcher in the Rye was written just as youth culture was entering into the popular conscious, so Salinger deserves credit for anticipating a pretty significant cultural sea change.

I think that's right. In 1951, Catcher in the Rye really was rebellious and titillating. By 1974, when I read it, not so much. By 1999, it might as well have been distributed on folio leaves. It's become part of the high school canon because it's a book by a serious author that also seems genuinely appealing to teenage kids, and it's not as if high school English teachers have a huge selection of books like that to choose from. But frankly, it's probably not all that appealing anymore. By the time most kids get to their first American lit class these days, they've already spent half a decade reading stuff exactly like it. Time to revise the canon.

UBS: Bank Bailout Good Guy?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 2:19 PM EST

At this week's congressional hearings on the AIG bailout, Swiss bank UBS received some undeserved praise.

UBS was one of eight large investment banks that benefited from the now-infamous backdoor bailout of AIG—resulting in government cash infusions totaling $182.5 billion—in the dark days of September 2008. At the hearing, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Neil Barofsky, revealed to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that UBS was the only bank willing to settle its soured credit default swaps (CDS) contracts for less than their face value. Why did UBS play ball when all the other banks didn't? As the Washington Independent reported, "Barofsky speculated that the firm probably simply recognized that the American taxpayers 'had taken the global economy on its back.'"

The financial crisis has proved time and again, big banks don't account for taxpayers—except when they need their help. And that's the more likely explanation for UBS' good behavior during the AIG rescue. Like the rest of the global financial industry, UBS was hurting from the subprime mortgage meltdown. (The bank's colossally bad bet on the US housing market—it had already written down $38 billion in bad loans as of April 2008—earned UBS the nickname Used to Be Smart.) But unlike its intransigent peers on Wall Street, the Swiss banking giant also faced the mounting threat of a US federal investigation. It was in no position to play hardball.

Cell Phone Follies

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 1:59 PM EST

Michael O'Hare points today to a study that shows (a) cell phone driving is dangerous, (b) laws that ban it are effective, but (c) these laws don't reduce accident rates. Why?  Because the laws don't ban hands-free talking on cell phones, and that's just as dangerous as talking on a handset. But again: why? Why is talking on a cell phone more dangerous than listening to the radio or chatting with a passenger? Mike takes a swing at answering:

The party on the other end of the phone conversation is an adult to whom you psychologically owe attention, but unlike the adult passenger, has no idea of what you are seeing through the windshield.  A passenger will subconsciously stop talking if something untoward or just complicated is unfolding on the road ahead, and will expect you to suspend the conversation similarly, so she causes no important distraction at the critical moments when you need to be driving on all neurons, and you are aware of all this. In contrast, the person on the phone can’t do either of these things, and you are aware of that as well.  When you need to navigate a tricky bit of road, there’s no time to ask someone to be quiet, and telling a peer to shut up for a minute, in any terms, is so rude that it absolutely requires an excuse that makes it take even longer (“can you hold on for a minute? one of the kids is playing with my blunderbuss and I think it’s loaded”).

This strikes me as plausible. As another possibility, I'd add that (for reasons that escape me) people seem to be more excitable talking on the phone than in person. I'm not sure why, but maybe it has to with the nature of not having a face in front of you and not getting any nonverbal feedback. Any other ideas?

In the meantime, stop talking on your cell phone when you drive. And stop texting too. Just stop. Your signal breaks up a lot and it's hard to have a decent conversation anyway. So just stop.

Gallows Humor on Climate

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 1:57 PM EST

Climate change was apparently a laugh line in Barack Obama's State of the Union on Wednesday. Here's a video, where the laughter at the line, "I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change," is audible.

It's hard to tell whether Republicans are laughing at the idea of global warming, or if Democrats are laughing at Republicans for being skeptics:

Obama in Baltimore

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 12:56 PM EST

Obama is adressing the GOP retreat in Baltimore right now, and it's being televised live. It's remarkable that Republicans agreed to this. The guy at the mike always has an advantage in these kinds of forums, and in any case Obama is better than most at this kind of thing. For the most part, he's running rings around them. I don't know if this will have any long-term effect, but it's good for Obama and, regardless, a good show. Presidents should do this kind of thing more often.

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Obama's Blind Spot

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 12:39 PM EST

Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama finished their first year in office with the economy in trouble and their approval ratings in tatters. And yet, Obama's troubles seem much worse than Reagan's. Some of this, I think, is just hindsight bias: we all know that Reagan's presidency turned out OK in the end, so it's easy to view his problems as less severe than they were. But Bruce Bartlett argues, convincingly I think, that there's more to it: Reagan had a compelling and consistent narrative of liberal failure that got him through the bad times and set him up to take credit for eventual recovery. Obama doesn't:

I bring up this history because Obama inherited a great many problems from the George W. Bush administration similar to those Reagan inherited from Carter. But rather than draw a clear distinction between his policies and those of the past, as Reagan did, Obama has tended to continue those policies. And in those cases where his policies are sharply different, Obama has tended to downplay those differences.

Foreign policy is clearly the area where Obama had the most to gain by a break with the past. He could have easily argued that the whole Iran-Afghanistan conflict was ill-conceived, based on bad intelligence and a ridiculously Utopian idea that we could impose democracy by military force in countries that had no experience with it or any of the requisite institutions....On the economy, Obama has done a terrible job of explaining how much of the mess he is dealing with was caused by the Bush administration's policies....Obama could also have explained how the Federal Reserve's easy money policy created the housing bubble, the crash of which is at the heart of our current economic problems. Yet he reappointed Republican Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve rather than using the expiration of his term as an opportunity to break from the past and chart a new course by at least appointing a Democrat like San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen.

....Finally, on health care, Obama never once blamed Bush and his party for ramming through a massive unfunded expansion of Medicare in 2003, which in part necessitated the Medicare cuts that were part of his health reform effort....In short, at every point Obama has failed to break sharply with the Bush administration. Indeed the Cato Institute has taken to calling Obama's administration Bush's third term.

There's a lot to this, though I'd add that Reagan also passed his signature domestic initiatives — big tax cuts and defense spending increases — and rallied his base by firing the air traffic controllers. Obama hasn't done any of that. But Bruce is right when he says that although Obama may be a liberal, "he is fundamentally a moderate — what we in Washington call a 'goo-goo,' a good government person, a pragmatist who deals with problems as they arise without seeing them as part of pattern of failure and without any preconceived idea of what should be done about them based on ideology or political philosophy." That's admirable in its way, but it doesn't get things done in a hyperpartisan political swamp, and it doesn't set up Obama to take credit for things when the economy gets better. Reagan worked hard to make sure that his tax cuts would be viewed as the driving force of recovery — though Paul Volcker's interest rate cuts surely deserve most of the credit — but will Obama credibly be able to say that his stimulus package and bank bailouts were responsible for recovery when it appears this time? I doubt it.

I'm a fan of Obama's, but this has always been his big blind spot. He came to office convinced — sincerely, it seems — that he could change the tone of Washington DC. That was always a fantasy. The way to get things done is to make a case for them, build public support for them, blast your enemies for opposing them, and just generally fight like hell for them. It can be done with a smile, but it has to be done. Obama seems to have a hard time getting that.

How They Do It

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 11:46 AM EST

Sen. Dick Durbin is upset that Republicans get to cast controversial votes without any real consequence. Steve Benen comments:

Durbin's right; they did. Every reckless, irresponsible, hypocritical, dangerous, and incoherent step Republicans take, they do so "with impunity."

They do so because they're pretty confident that Democrats won't effectively raise a fuss, the media won't care, and the public won't know. And they're right.

But take a step back: how are Democrats supposed to effectively raise a fuss? Republicans can do it easily: they just start bleating, and within a few hours their complaints are splashed across Drudge, repeated on a 24/7 loop on Fox News, the topic of email barrages from conservative interest groups, and the subject du jour of every talk radio show in the country. At that point the rest of the media picks up on the story because "people are talking about it." It's making waves. Which is true: it really is making waves because this kind of attention gets the conservative base genuinely outraged. And if something is getting lots of attention, then that by itself makes it a legitimate story regardless of its intrinsic merit.

But what megaphone do Democrats have? Virtually none. If they start complaining, some blogs will pick it up. Maybe Maddow and Olberman will talk about it. And that's it. There's no noise machine. And so there's nothing to force the rest of the media to bother with it unless they decide the underlying story itself is important.

I don't really want a liberal noise machine in America that's on the same level as the Drudge/Fox/Rush noise machine. It would make life almost unbearable. But without it, Democrats will never be able to compete in the outrage department. As it is, they can complain all they want and the media will mostly yawn. But when Republicans do it, it's a story. It's hard to see that changing anytime soon.

Osama bin Laden Goes Green?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 10:11 AM EST

Is Osama bin Laden moving from holy warrior to eco warrior? The leader of al-Qeada is now expressing concern about climate change. Or, at least a desire to blame the United States for climate change. Surely this will only lead to more politicization of an issue that clearly doesn't need to get any more polarized. A. Siegel at Get Energy Smart Now tries to preempt the torrent this is likely to prompt:

That bin Laden is able to, via his distorted lens, gain a glimpse of reality and understand that climate change is a serious issue meriting attention doesn’t suddenly make climate change unreal even though there will be those who seize on this to say things like "bin Laden is against it, therefore I’m for it …"

While bin Laden's foray into climate is a bit unexpected, he's apparently seizing on an opportunity to exploit tensions between the US and other countries nonplussed with the current state of climate affairs (see: Venezuela, Bolivia, Sudan). It also shows how desperate he is for international support, as Spencer Ackerman notes. And while living in a cave might give him some green cred, I'm going to go out on a limb and say annihilating the infidels isn't really good evidence that you care about the future of humankind.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday January 29

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 7:17 AM EST

Pact Facts: The Gloucester 'pregnancy pact' wasn't fact, but Lifetime has a movie about it anyway.

Still a Majority: Sen. Kent Conrad says Congress isn't meant to have a 60-seat requirement.

Pro-Nukes: Sen. Lindsey Graham says Obama is bullish on nuclear.

Seeing Brown: Enviros say Arkansas Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln is one of Congress' dirtiest.

Tips from Kerry: John Kerry thinks climate activists can take a page from Tea Partiers' playbook.

DOA?: Now that Brown's elected, can healthcare reform be resuscitated

No Way: It may be illegal to alter healthcare bill's abortion clause, says Harry Reid's rep.

Coal Speaks: New bipartisan pro-coal group comes to Congress.

Passing Blame: Why are Democrats blamed for healthcare failure instead of Republicans?

Sneak Attack: The PR firm behind Swift Boaters may have climate in its cross-hairs.

State of Affairs: How's healthcare looking pre-State of the Union address?

Capped: Cap and trade may be truly dead now that Sen. Lindsey Graham has abandoned it.

Big Moment: Some point out that if healthcare is passed, it'll be huge historically.

Low on Totem Pole: Obama's SOTU speech gets to healthcare around the 10th paragraph.

Good News?: Some cautiously good news on prospect of passing healthcare bill.