Kevin Drum

I, Pollster

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 1:07 PM EST

I missed this when it was first reported a few days ago, but it's genuinely interesting news from the Rasmussen polling folks:

The pollster’s newest venture, Pulse Opinion Research, will allow anyone to commission a scientific, nationwide poll for the price of an IKEA sofa. Have a long-lasting feud about what America really thinks about a topic? Settle it for $600.

“Soon, anyone can go to the [Pulse] website, type in their credit card number, and run any poll that they wanted, with any language that they want,” said Rasmussen. “In effect, you will be able to do your own poll, and Rasmussen will provide the platform to ensure that the polling includes a representative national sample.”

....The birth of Pulse has roots in frequent requests for Rasmussen to do commissioned polling. Rasmussen Reports has historically turned down outside clients in order to preserve its independence. However, to capitalize on demand, Rasmussen decided to license his polling methodology to a separate firm, Pulse Opinion Research, which plans to launch its online services sometime in February.

The interesting part of this is the potential for quick, inexpensive polling on unusual topics. Want to find out whether a bold liberal pitch persuades more Americans to support healthcare reform than a more centrist appeal? Commission a couple of quick polls with your own pet ideas and find out.

And the dark side?1 Well, if I'm rich enough to afford it, I could commission a dozen polls on the same subject and release only the one with the results most favorable to my cause. Even if the polls themselves are honestly done, you're almost certain to get a swing of ten points or so just by random chance, and if you manipulate a few other factors you can probably do even better. The opportunities for mischief are legion.

On the flip side, the opportunities for swallowing your own spin are also legion once you head down that path. But I doubt that will stop many people. A new era in polling is upon us, folks.

1One of them anyway. The other dark side is that this becomes a huge fad and we are all bombarded by robopolling calls on a daily basis. Soon we get so sick of it that no one will pick up the phone to talk to a pollster at all, and the entire industry is destroyed. That actually might not be so bad. Unfortunately, I don't suppose it's likely to happen.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Haiti and Obama

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 12:16 PM EST

Tyler Cowen, in an apparent effort to make me even more depressed than I already am, suggests that for all practical purposes, Barack Obama is now president of Haiti. And it might end up being his Waterloo:

Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President.  Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost.  Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual?  It will be a test of the American populace; at what point will people start whispering that he is "favoring the other blacks"?

Just as it's not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won't be easy to pull out of Haiti.

Maybe you thought health care was a hard problem.  Maybe you thought that cap and trade would make health care look easy.  This may be the hardest problem yet and it wasn't on anybody's planning ledger.  Obama won't have many allies in this fight either.  A lot of Democratic interest groups might, silently, wish he would forget about the whole thing.

Mass starvation wouldn't look good on the evening news either.  What does it mean to preside over the collapse of a country of more than nine million people?  It's Obama who's about to find out, not the increasingly irrelevant Rene Preval.  Everyone in Haiti is looking to President Obama.

This actually sounds overwrought to me, but I wouldn't post it if it didn't also have at least a small ring of truth to it. In fact, aid to Haiti, both in dollar and military terms, is likely to be small enough that it never becomes a big political flashpoint. And the sociopathic Rush Limbaugh aside, congressional Republicans, I think, will have a hard time making an issue of it. My guess: America will spend a billion dollars a year in Haiti for the foreseeable future and keep maybe a brigade or two of troops there. Conditions will continue to be dire, but not so dire that they affect American politics. That combination will be enough to keep it under the political radar and off the nightly news once the initial media coverage has worn off.

Nope, No Waiting Times in America

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 11:52 AM EST

California has finally decided to lay down the law to HMOs:

The regulations by the California Department of Managed Health Care, in the works for much of the last decade, will require that patients be treated by HMO doctors within 10 business days of requesting an appointment, and by specialists within 15. Patients seeking urgent care that does not require prior authorization must be seen within 48 hours.

Yes, that's right. After seven years of negotiations, HMOs have finally agreed that patients shouldn't be kept waiting more than two weeks to see a doctor, and not more than two days for urgent problems. And that's for people who have insurance coverage. Best healthcare in the world, baby, best healthcare in the world.

 

Fake Terrorism

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 11:33 PM EST

The Washington Post reports on yet another bit of intelligence community overzealousness:

The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist or simply persuading phone companies to provide records, according to internal bureau memos and interviews. FBI officials issued approvals after the fact to justify their actions.

...."We should have stopped those requests from being made that way," [FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni] said. The after-the-fact approvals were a "good-hearted but not well-thought-out" solution to put phone carriers at ease, she said.

....FBI officials said they are confident that the safeguards enacted in 2007 have ended the problems.

Good hearted! And anyway, the FBI is confident it won't happen again. Nothing to see here. Go about your business, citizens.

Incomplete

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 5:13 PM EST

Here's a selection of recent headline:

McClatchy: Obama gets an 'incomplete' in foreign policy for first year

Bloomberg: Obama Gets ‘Incomplete’ as Decisions on War, Joblessness Loom

Deseret News: Washington Post columnist David Broder gives Obama an 'incomplete'

The Hill: Cantor grades Obama: 'Incomplete'

OK, OK, we get it: he's only been president for 12 months. Of course his grade is "incomplete." Sheesh.

Chutzpah or Desperation?

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 4:38 PM EST

The finance lobby is hard at work:

Wall Street’s main lobbying arm has hired a top Supreme Court litigator to study a possible legal battle against a bank tax proposed by the Obama administration....Executives of the lobbying group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, wrote that a bank tax might be unconstitutional because it would unfairly single out and penalize big banks, according to these officials, who did not want to be identified to preserve relationships with the group’s members.

The message said the association had hired Carter G. Phillips of Sidley Austin, who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, to study whether a tax on one industry could be considered arbitrary and punitive, providing the basis for a constitutional challenge, they said.

Paul Krugman calls this chutzpah — which it certainly is — but what I'm curious about is why they're wasting their time on this. A tax on one industry might be considered arbitrary? The United States has loads of excise taxes that fall on individual industries. It might unfairly single out big banks? There's no constitutional bar to progressive taxes — and in any case, there are lots of compelling policy reasons to focus on big institutions. Beyond that, the federal government generally has lots of leeway both in tax policy and banking regulation. The tax would have to be way, way out of line before the Supreme Court would be likely to strike it down.

That's my amateur opinion, anyway, which is worth exactly what you just paid for it. But I'd sure like to hear from someone more knowledgable about this stuff. Is this idea as cockamamie as I think it is? Or might they really be able to make a case? And why bother fighting such a minuscule levy anyway? They should be celebrating for getting off so easily.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Suicide or Murder?

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 2:31 PM EST

In June of 2006 the Pentagon reported that three prisoners being held at Guantanamo had committed suicide. In Harper's this month, Scott Horton presents some eyewitness testimony suggesting that, in fact, the prisoners died as a result of torture during interrogation. According to Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman, who was on duty the night of the deaths, he observed a van used for transporting prisoners make three separate trips from Camp 1, which housed the prisoners, to a secret facility outside the main perimeter that had been informally dubbed Camp No:

The night the prisoners died, Hickman was on duty as sergeant of the guard for Camp America’s exterior security force....A moment later, two Navy guards emerged from Camp 1, escorting a prisoner....When the van reached the first intersection, instead of making a right, toward the other camps, it made the left, toward ACP Roosevelt and Camp No.

Twenty minutes later — about the amount of time needed for the trip to Camp No and back — the paddy wagon returned....The guards walked into Camp 1 and soon emerged with another prisoner. They departed Camp America, again in the direction of Camp No. Twenty minutes later, the van returned. Hickman, his curiosity piqued by the unusual flurry of activity and guessing that the guards might make another excursion, left Tower 1 and drove the three quarters of a mile to ACP Roosevelt to see exactly where the paddy wagon was headed. Shortly thereafter, the van passed through the checkpoint for the third time and then went another hundred yards, whereupon it turned toward Camp No, eliminating any question in Hickman’s mind about where it was going. All three prisoners would have all reached their destination before 8 p.m.

In all, three prisoners were ferried out. Later the van returned, but instead of returning the prisoners to Camp 1 it backed up directly to the medical clinic:

Hickman says he saw nothing more of note until about 11:30 p.m, when he had returned to his preferred vantage at Tower 1. As he watched, the paddy wagon returned to Camp Delta. This time, however, the Navy guards did not get out of the van to enter Camp 1. Instead they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.

Hickman [...] asked his tower guards what they had seen. Penvose, from his position at Tower 1, had an unobstructed view of the walkway between Camp 1 and the medical clinic—the path by which any prisoners who died at Camp 1 would be delivered to the clinic. Penvose told Hickman, and later confirmed to me, that he saw no prisoners being moved from Camp 1 to the clinic. In Tower 4 (it should be noted that Army and Navy guard-tower designations differ), another Army specialist, David Caroll, was forty-five yards from Alpha Block, the cell block within Camp 1 that had housed the three dead men. He also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the cell block itself to the clinic. He likewise reported to Hickman, and confirmed to me, that he had seen no prisoners transferred to the clinic that night, dead or alive.

The next day, Horton reports, the camp commander called a meeting of the guards and told them that “you all know” three prisoners in Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. But then he told the guards that "the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells."

There's more at the link. The evidence here isn't bulletproof, but it's strongly suggestive that the official story was a coverup. It's worth reading the whole thing.

Obama's Discontents

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 1:02 PM EST

Bernard Avishai on the election in Massachusetts:

The "undecideds" in South Boston and working class suburbs like Lynn don't like Cambridge and Back Bay, but they respect its winners, when they act like winners....They smell insincerity a mile away. I wish I had a bluefish dinner for every time Coakley referred to the health package as "not perfect." It all came out so forced and fake.

The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's seat has to speak so defensively about?

And we can look no further than Howard Dean, and MSNBC, and Arianna Huffington, and, yes, some columnists at the Times and bloggers here at TPM — you know, real progressives — who have lambasted Obama again and again since last March over arguable need-to-haves like the "public option," as if nobody else was listening. They've been thinking: "Oh, if only we ran things, how much more subtle would the legislation be," as if 41 senators add up to subtle. Meanwhile the undecideds are thinking: "Hell, if his own people think he's a sell-out and jerk, why should we support this?"

The frustration on the left with Obama — and with healthcare reform specifically — was almost inevitable. During the campaign, a lot of people chose to see in him what they wanted to see, pushing to the back of their minds not just the obvious signs that Obama has always been a cautious, practical politician, but also the obvious compromises and pressures that are forced onto any president. It was a recipe for disappointment. The striking thing to me, though, is how fast the left has turned on him. Conservatives gave Bush five or six years before they really turned on him, and even then they revolted more against the Republican establishment than against Bush himself. But the left? It took about ten months. And the depth of the revolt against Obama has been striking too. As near as I can tell, there's a small but significant minority who are so enraged that they'd be perfectly happy to see his presidency destroyed as a kind of warning to future Democrats. It's extraordinarily self-destructive behavior — and typically liberal, unfortunately. Just ask LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. And then ask them whether liberal revolt, in the end, strengthened liberalism or conservatism.

I've got all sorts of complaints about Obama. He's been weaker on civil liberties than I'd like. His approach to bank regulation has been far too friendly to financial interests. I'm not thrilled with his escalation in Afghanistan. He hasn't moved as quickly on gay rights as I hoped. And he hasn't used the bully pulpit nearly as effectively as I think he's capable of. He could afford to attack obstructionism and conservative retrenchment far more directly than he has.

Still, none of that comes within light years of providing a reason to turn on him. The national security community has tremendous influence; the financial lobby has a stranglehold on Congress; Obama told us explicitly during the campaign that he planned to escalate in Afghanistan; his caution on gay rights is quite likely smart politically; and he certainly gave us fair warning about his dedication to reaching across the aisle and trying to work with Republicans. The fact that they've spent his entire first year in a raging temper tantrum is hardly his fault. Given the cards he was dealt, he hasn't done badly. I think Andrew Sullivan — writing in his Dr. Jekyll persona — gets it about right here.

Losing the Thread

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 3:21 AM EST

Why has the public turned against Obama and the Democratic Party? Stubbornly high unemployment with no end in sight is probably the main reason, but conservatives have pitched a different story: as E.J. Dionne puts it, they blame Obama's fondness for "big government, big deficits, an overly ambitious health-care plan, a stimulus that spent too much and other supposedly left-leaning sins of the Obama regime." And their story is winning:

The success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to "own" the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much and that things have not turned around as fast as they had hoped.

....The truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right's narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.

The president's supporters comfort themselves that Obama's numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan's numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Liberals can win elections, but they still have trouble winning the narrative. There are dozens of plausible explanations for this, but the noise machine still seems like the biggest one to me. There's simply no liberal counterpart to Drudge and Fox and Rush: a conservative commentariat that concedes nothing, pounds home its points like a jackhammer, repeats its themes relentlessly, and has the ear of the Washington mainstream press in a way that liberal commentators don't. Dionne calls their approach the "audacity of audacity," and the press seems to take it as evidence of sincerity in a way that they don't with liberal arguments. As a result, even when they think conservatives are misguided the Washington press largely grants them the presumption that their beliefs are driven by deep and earnest heartland principles. Liberal positions, by contrast, are more often portrayed as a crude collection of special interests and cynical political calculations.

That's hardly the whole story, but it's a big part of it. And I'm not sure what the answer is. The noise machine, even against the backdrop of humiliating failure over the past decade, remains an overwhelming presence. For more, see Paul Krugman today.

Connecting the Dots

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 2:27 AM EST

The New York Times reports that there are even more unconnected dots than we thought in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas bomber. For example:

In September, for example, a United Nations expert on Al Qaeda warned policy makers in Washington that the type of explosive device used by a Yemeni militant in an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia could be carried aboard an airliner.

Considering that PETN is over a century old and was used eight years ago by Richard Reid to try to blow up an airplane, I'm pretty sure American intelligence was already aware it could be carried aboard an airliner. As new dots go, this is pretty unimpressive. But there's also this:

In early November, American intelligence authorities say they learned from a communications intercept of Qaeda followers in Yemen that a man named “Umar Farouk” — the first two names of the jetliner suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — had volunteered for a coming operation.

Now we're talking. So in November Abdulmutallab's father warned us that his son, Umar Farouk, had been radicalized and might be dangerous, and separately a communications intercept suggested that someone named Umar Farouk had volunteered for a terrorist assignment. I gotta admit: Unless Umar Farouk is a more common name than I think, two separate warnings about the name within a few days of each other sure seems like it should have set off sirens in a database somewhere. If this is confirmed, I think I'm swinging toward the "massive intelligence failure" camp.