2012 - %3, October

Revisiting the Debt Ceiling Fiasco

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 1:35 AM EDT

Bob Woodward's account of the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, The Price of Politics, was published on September 11. In blog time, that's about a century ago, and by now you've probably forgotten it even exists. Nonetheless, Noam Scheiber has written a very good and very detailed review/takedown that's well worth a read. Despite Woodward's conclusion that Obama was largely to blame for the breakdown of talks, Scheiber says that Woodward's own reporting suggests that Republicans were primarily at fault:

There is little in Woodward’s account that undermines this conclusion—in fact, his reporting largely supports it. In May of 2011, Boehner’s deputy, Eric Cantor, and the second-ranking Senate Republican, Jon Kyl, had opened a kind of prelude negotiation with Joe Biden and several top Democratic officials from the administration and Congress. The Republicans balked every time the subject of revenues came up. After Boehner and Obama took over the negotiations the following month, Democrats kept pressing for tax increases. Each time, according to Woodward, they ran smack into Cantor, who had joined Boehner at the bargaining table as the voice of House conservatives—the bad cop to Boehner’s good cop. At best, Cantor said, he’d be willing to close a few small tax loopholes and then offset them with new tax cuts. He reiterated this so often that it became something of a joke.

It is certainly true that, in spite of this resistance, Boehner proposed a deal involving $800 billion in revenue over a decade. The idea would be to gin up the $800 billion through “tax reform” rather than higher taxes—that is, lowering tax rates while closing loopholes in such a way as to increase the government’s take on balance. But, as Woodward shows, the distinction was lost on conservatives, who were dead-set against anything that raised money for the U.S. Treasury. When word of the negotiation leaked in early July, Boehner held a call with the entire Republican caucus to assure them that tax increases were off the table, just in case they got the wrong idea. It didn’t work—they got the wrong idea. House conservatives repeatedly told Boehner they considered “revenue increases” tantamount to the dreaded “tax increases.” Boehner himself concedes to Woodward that while he was negotiating with Obama, Cantor and his other lieutenants “kept saying we’re not going to do a big deal [involving revenues], can’t do a big deal.”

Read the whole thing.

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The Hack Gap Rears Its Ugly Head Yet Again

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 12:49 AM EDT

The hack gap is a liberal problem of long standing. Put simply, we liberals don't have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

My conservative readers may scoff at this notion, but rarely has the hack gap been on such febrile display as it has since last Wednesday's presidential debate. Ask yourself this: can you even imagine Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tearing their hair out over a weak debate performance by Mitt Romney the way that liberals have been over President Obama's? I can't.

Here's how things would have gone if liberals had their fair share of hacks. Obviously Obama wasn't at his best on Wednesday. But when the debate was over that wouldn't have mattered. Conservatives would have started crowing about how well Romney did. Liberals would have acknowledged that Obama should have confronted Romney's deceptions more forcefully, but otherwise would have insisted that Obama was more collected and presidential sounding than the hyperactive Romney and clearly mopped the floor with him on a substantive basis. News reporters would then have simply reported the debate normally: Romney said X, Obama said Y, and both sides thought their guy did great. By the next day it would barely be a continuing topic of conversation, and by Friday the new jobs numbers would have buried it completely.

Instead, liberals went batshit crazy. I didn't watch any commentary immediately after the debate because I wanted to write down my own reactions first, and my initial sense was that Obama did a little bit worse than Romney. But after I hit the Publish button and turned on the TV, I learned differently. As near as I could tell, the entire MSNBC crew was ready to commit ritual suicide right there on live TV, Howard Beale style. Ditto for all their guests, including grizzled pols like Ed Rendell who should have known better. It wasn't just that Obama did poorly, he had delivered the worst debate performance since Clarence Darrow left William Jennings Bryan a smoking husk at the end of Inherit the Wind. And it wasn't even just that. It was a personal affront, a betrayal of everything they thought was great about Obama. And, needless to say, it put Obama's entire second term in jeopardy and made Romney the instant front runner.

For a moment, ignore the fact that these talkers had a stronger reaction than I did. That's why God made lots of different kinds of people: so that we could all have different opinions about stuff. What's amazing is that, as near as I can tell, hardly any liberal pundits held back. Aside from paid campaign workers, no more than a handful decided to pretend that Obama had done well because, hey, that's how the game is played, folks. Those refs aren't going to work themselves, after all. Instead it was a nearly universal feeding frenzy.

You don't normally see the temperamental difference between liberals and conservatives so dramatically on display. Most conservatives simply wouldn't have been willing to slag their guy so badly. Liberals, by contrast, almost seemed to enjoy wallowing in recriminations. It was practically an Olympic tournament to see who could act the most agonized. As a friend just emailed me a few minutes ago, "I can't tell you how many liberals I've had to talk off the ledge today."

In the end, I doubt this will make a big difference. The polls were always going to tighten up a bit after the huge post-convention, post-47% runup for Obama, so I don't attribute as much of his recent poll decline to the debates as most people do. Obama has plenty of time to come back, and the fundamentals — his incumbency, the economy, and Romney's stiffness as a candidate — still suggest a modest Obama win in November. But if I'm wrong, and this does make a big difference, it will be 100% attributable to the hack gap. Without that, Obama's debate performance would barely have registered. This was a completely avoidable debacle.

Corn on "Hardball": Romney Attacks Obama's Foreign Policy

Mon Oct. 8, 2012 9:42 PM EDT

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn and The Atlantic's Steve Clemons joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Mitt Romney's Monday foreign policy address, where he aggressively accused the president of "leading from behind" in foreign affairs.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

And We're Off: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 1

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 6:51 PM EDT

USCGC Healy in port at Dutch Harbor, Unalaska.

Last Friday the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy sailed from the gorgeous shelter of Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, in the Aleutian Islands, bound north for the Arctic Ocean.

Healy is a research vessel carrying 38 science crew on this cruise. I'm working with Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer, and his lab, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He's collaborating with Bob Pickart from WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), a physical oceanographer. They're jointly investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic. I'll write more about that later.

But for now we're just hunkering down while Healy makes the 1,000-mile long transit from Dutch Harbor through the Bering and Chukchi Seas to the first research stations in the Beaufort Sea. We should arrive after three days, depending on weather. You can check out the view from Healy's Bridge from this webcam, which updates hourly.

So far the Bering Sea is being really kind to us. Fingers crossed.

Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy in 3 Sentences

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 5:39 PM EDT

There's so little interesting news today that I finally caved in. I read Mitt Romney's big foreign policy speech. Below, I've picked out all of the pieces that appear to represent actual policy goals:

  1. I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
  2. I will make further reforms to our foreign assistance to create incentives for good governance, free enterprise, and greater trade, in the Middle East and beyond.
  3. I will champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world.
  4. I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.
  5. In Afghanistan, I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
  6. In Egypt, I will use our influence—including clear conditions on our aid—to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel.
  7. I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.
  8. I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.
  9. I will roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military.
  10. In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.

As near as I can tell:

  • Items 1-6 are, with minor differences in emphasis, essentially the same as various bits of Obama's existing foreign policy.
  • Item 7 can be safely ignored. In the video of his Boca Raton fundraiser, Romney made it pretty clear that he thinks a Palestinian state is a lost cause.
  • Items 8-10 specify genuine differences with Obama.

Aside from a return to George Bush levels of bluster, then, Romney plans to outsource our policy toward Israel to Benjamin Netanyahu. He'll take a defense budget that's already fantastically higher than any other country in the world and add a couple trillion dollars to it. And he'll supply arms to the rebels in Syria. 

Will he close Guantanamo? End drone strikes? Issue an executive order banning the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas? Speak up against torture? Reform the military tribunal process? Nope. He appears to think everything is hunky dory on those fronts.

Bottom line: Romney will buy more ships, never disagree with Benjamin Netanyahu, and arm the Syrian rebels. If you're impressed by that, I'd guess that Romney's your man. I'd also guess that you're easily impressed.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan is even less impressed than I was: "Mitt Romney has delivered a lot of dishonest speeches in recent months, but Monday’s address on foreign policy may be the most mendacious yet." More detail — much more — here.

Romney's Foreign Policy Coming-Out, Part VII

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 4:45 PM EDT
Romney giving his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute.

The reviews of Mitt Romney's "major foreign policy speech" at the Virginia Military Institute Monday are all saying pretty much the same thing: Romney said nothing he hasn't already said, and much of what he said mirrors the current administration's policy. Romney's speech, however, seems to have focused less on introducing new policies as introducing a new Mitt.

Romney's speech took direct aim at the center of Obama's foreign policy pitch: This president is directly responsible for killing Osama bin Laden and driving Al Qaeda to the brink of defeat. Romney drew a clear link between Al Qaeda and the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, saying the assault was "the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001." It's still unclear who exactly is responsible for the attack and to what extent they're connected to Al Qaeda, but the point Romney is making is that Obama didn't finish the job, and he will. 

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Bloggingheads: Voting Rights and Debate Reax

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 3:50 PM EDT

On this episode of Adamize, The Nation/Colorlines reporter Brentin Mock and I dicuss voter ID laws and Republican "poll watcher" groups, and do a little Monday morning quarterbacking of Obama's less-than-stellar performance in his first debate with Mitt Romney:

You can check out Mock's epic piece on the conservative poll watching group True the Vote here.

If You Want to Fix the Economy, You Need to Know What's Broken

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 1:04 PM EDT

In the Washington Post a few days ago, Danielle Douglas reported that deposits in savings accounts have skyrocketed recently:

The total amount in those accounts climbed nearly 5 percent to $6.9 trillion in the spring, the highest level recorded since the Federal Reserve launched its regular reports on the flow of money in the economy in 1945. At the same time, other data show that Americans are fleeing the stock market and avoiding the purchase of new homes.

Dean Baker is not happy:

The problem with the article is that people actually are not saving excessively.... This is not a debatable point where we will have Keynesians giving one line and conservative economists giving another. This is data that is available to anyone who takes a moment to look at the Commerce Department's website.

....Unfortunately, the Post is not alone in this confusion. There are many accounts in the business press about consumers holding back as a result of concern about the state of the economy. The same is frequently claimed about investment....But if we look at the data from the Commerce Department, investment in equipment and software is almost back to its pre-recession level....Given the huge amounts of excess capacity in many sectors, this is actually an impressive level of investment. This is certainly not consistent with the story of firms who are hoarding cash and scared to go out on a limb.

....If we look at the data on the volume of existing home sales, the recent annual rate of 4.8 million is more than 20% above the 3.9 million average of 1993-1995, the last years before bubble-generated exuberance began to drive sales. The same story applies to house prices. Inflation-adjusted house prices are even with or above their long-term trend, according to the Case-Shiller national index.

....These basic, irrefutable facts are absolutely central to our understanding of the economy — yet most public debate starts from premises that are completely wrong on these and other issues.

I'd add to this that the percentage of Americans with investments in the stock market has been declining for a decade. This might have something to do with the economy, but more likely has to do with demographic trends. The usual advice given to ordinary people is to reduce their holdings of volatile securities as they age, and as the Baby Boomers have aged they've done exactly that. We should probably expect this trend to continue for some time.

In any case, Dean is right: there's plenty to argue about on the economic front, but basic economic data isn't part of it. This stuff is pretty easily available, after all. The personal savings rate is currently hovering around 4%, roughly the same as it's been for the past 15 years. Businesses are investing, and home prices are back at their historical trend level. "This matters hugely," says Dean, "because there is no possibility of changing policy if people don't have a clue as to the nature of the economy's current problems and how policy could be changed to make things better. In this sense, the confusion hugely benefits the elites. After all, they are fat and happy."

Indeed. It's too bad his piece was published across the Atlantic in the Guardian, instead of in the Washington Post, where it belonged.

Apparently Mitt Romney Needs to Lie to Americans About His Foreign Policy

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 11:53 AM EDT

Dan Drezner recommends Danielle Pletka's foreign policy advice to Mitt Romney in the New York Times this weekend. So let's take a look, shall we? Having "met him on a few occasions," Pletka believes there really is more substance to Romney than his usual campaign nonsense about never apologizing for America. Here's what he needs to do:

Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he’s not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16. He needs to understand that even though Mr. Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia is more rhetorical flourish than actual policy, it responds to a crying need.

....Mr. Romney must make clear that he has a strategic view of American power that is different from the Obama administration’s narrow and tactical approach. He must tell Americans that he won’t overlook terrorist threats, as the Obama administration did in Benghazi; that he won’t fight to oust a dictator in Libya and ignore the pleas of another revolution in Syria; that he won’t simply denounce Iran’s nuclear program while tacitly legitimizing the country’s theocratic regime and ignoring its opponents; and that he won’t hand out billions of dollars in aid and debt forgiveness to Egypt’s new leaders when the principles of religious and political freedom are being trampled in the streets of Cairo.

Stop me if I'm wrong, but as near as I can tell Pletka says in one breath that Romney needs to make it clear that he's not just a mindless hawk who's eager to go to war with Syria and Iran, and in the next breath says that he needs to make it clear that he is eager to go to war with Syria and Iran. As Dan would say, am I missing something here?

More generally, I'm really, really tired of the whole "advice to Mitt Romney" column genre. They're all basically identical: telling him he needs to do things that he has very plainly, very consciously decided he can't do if he wants to win the election. He can't beat the tar out of Obama in every stump speech because his focus groups show that independents don't like it. He can't provide details of his tax plan because all those deductions he wants to get rid of are popular with independents. He can't get more specific on foreign policy because his base demands hawkishness but independents really don't want to hear that. He can't speak honestly to the American people about entitlement reform because independents don't want to hear that their Medicare benefits are going to be cut. Etc.

Bottom line: all that stuff that columnists think would resonate like the ringing of the Liberty Bell? It won't, and Romney knows it. He knows perfectly well that the actual details of conservative policy aren't very popular at the moment, so he's fudging things. It's his only chance to win. Conservative columnists ought to be smart enough to know that.

Groupthink and the Great Debate

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 10:50 AM EDT

Dave Weigel chats up some Democrats in New Mexico:

ALBUQUERQUE — After spending a weekend talking to voters in a close state that's no longer really "swinging," the first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying "huh, well, I wanted it to be better." After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history.

Roger that. As near as I can tell, here's how things went. People who were polled during the debate thought it was about even. People polled after the debate thought Romney won. People polled a little later, after the media feeding frenzy, thought Romney crushed Obama in an epic rout. Robert Wright chalks it up to weirdly high expectations for Obama, who's never been more than a fair debater in the first place:

Rather than a tie being inflated into a Romney win, a clear Romney win — one that shouldn't have shocked anyone — was inflated into Hiroshima-level devastation. And so devastation is what happened — though, as with Hiroshima, much of the damage seems to have been done not by the blast itself, but by the after effects.

I promise not to keep droning on about this, but I remain puzzled. Even after rewatching parts of the debate and listening to several days of apocalyptic doomsaying from liberals and conservatives alike, my take remains about the same as it did on Wednesday: Romney chalked up a modest victory. That's about it.