Kevin Drum

Friday Newsletter: The End of 24

| Sat May 29, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

Here's my Friday newsletter post from this week. And it reminds me: I have virtually no TV shows left that I watch regularly. Any non-HBO recommendations from the crowd?

Two of my favorite TV shows ended their lives this week: Lost and 24. Lost has gotten endless coverage for its season finale, its fan base polarized between hating it because it failed to resolve any of the questions they've been obsessively hashing over for the past six years, and loving it for the way it mawkishly closed the loop on all the characters they've come to love, finally allowing them a well-deserved measure of peace and contentment.

You can count me among the haters. But though it got less attention, it was the finale of 24 that was a bigger cultural moment: in a way, its ending, not the 2008 election, marked the final close of the George Bush era. For nine years, starting just two months after 9/11, super agent Jack Bauer has been fighting terrorists on American soil, and in many ways the show's message was a neocon’s wet dream: America was always under relentless attack; the bad guys were from the Middle East as often as not; time bombs really, literally, ticked; and torture not only worked, it was practically a patriotic duty.

This was, in a lot of ways, a reflection of the American id during the Bush years. But there was always more to 24 than just its anti-terrorist heroics, just as there's more to the American id than fear of foreign attack. Jack Bauer may have stolen the show when the action was in the field, but it was the White House that stole the show the rest of the time. And there, its message was considerably different. The terrorists, it turned out, were often being bankrolled by American superpatriots. Hawkish foreign policy, it turned out, almost always failed miserably. Hawks themselves, it turned out, were almost always stupid, cowardly, scheming, and blinkered. And the terrorists themselves, far from hating us for our freedoms, were either pawns of powerful interests or else ideologues who hated us for things we actually did.

So while one of the lessons of 24 was the hawkish one that everyone — including its creators — always talked about, neither the show nor America itself was ever so simple. Even during the height of the war on terror, Americans wanted to be assured that this was all just a temporary frenzy, that there was a better way of engaging with the world than bluster and vengeance. That message was always a part of 24 too, and it was a big part of what made the show so successful. But when Barack Obama entered the White House and brought that better model of global engagement with him — well, we didn't really need a TV show to remind us that better days and better ways would someday be possible again. We had real life for that, and that spelled the end of 24.

So will I miss 24? Not really. It filled two needs for a decade, one cathartic and one aspirational. The aspirational message never got the same attention as the heroics, but it was every bit as central to the show's success. The fact that neither message holds our attention the way they used to is well worth the loss of an hour of Monday night escapism.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 28 May 2010

| Fri May 28, 2010 3:16 PM EDT

Domino hopped into the TV cabinet the other night and spent most of Jeopardy! staring out at us. The only way to save this moment for posterity was by using a flash, so that means today we get to see mild-mannered Domino rip off her mask and take to the blog as LaserCat, sworn foe of digital clocks and Blu-Ray players. Beware her powers. By the next day, however, she was back to being Domino, and Inkblot was willing to settle down next to her because it was nearly 5 o'clock and he didn't want to stray too far from the food bowl. Sure enough, his attentiveness paid off and food magically appeared. Assuming you consider a can of Fancy Feast to be magic. Which he does.

Have a nice three-day weekend everyone. But don't offer your pets anything in return for a job. That could spell trouble.

Dick Durbin Takes On the Debit Card Mafia

| Fri May 28, 2010 3:03 PM EDT

Sen. Dick Durbin successfully passed an amendment two weeks ago that would limit the outrageously high interchange fees that Visa and MasterCard charge merchants for debit card transactions. This was a big win that reins in some pretty indefensible industry practices, but Visa and MasterCard are (unsurprisingly) fighting back. How? Well, they can hardly expect to gain much sympathy for either themselves or the Wall Street giants whose profits might get trimmed by Durbin's amendment, so instead they're mounting a coordinated campaign that claims it's small credit unions who will suffer the most. This is despite the fact that Durbin's language specifically exempts banks with less than $10 billion in assets and specifically requires merchants to accept all cards in a particular network regardless of which bank issues them. If a small credit union charges a higher fee than Citibank, your local 7-11 would have to take their Visa debit cards anyway.

So small credit unions are pretty well covered. But that hasn't stopped Visa and MasterCard from taking to the parapets anyway. Via Annie Lowrey, though, it looks like Durbin is fighting back. Here's a letter he sent to the CEOs of Visa and MasterCard:

It appears that, in an effort to frighten small banks and credit unions into opposing the amendment, your companies are threatening to make changes to your small bank interchange fee rates and to your network operating rules. These changes, which are not in any way required by the amendment, are unnecessary and would disadvantage small card-issuing institutions.

I ask you each to state unequivocally that you are neither threatening nor planning to take steps that would purposefully disadvantage small institutions, should the amendment become law. Further, I warn you that if your companies coordinate with each other or collude with your largest member banks to make changes to your fees and rules, it would raise serious concerns that you are engaging in an unlawful restraint of trade.

Good for Durbin. I hope he follows through with this.

Chart of the Day: Median Voters Unite!

| Fri May 28, 2010 1:25 PM EDT

Has the Republican Party lost sight of its roots? Does it need to return to a purer version of conservatism in order to return to power? Alan Abramowitz takes a look at the recent evidence in Senate races and concludes just the opposite: the more conservative a Republican candidate is, the worse they perform:

The results in Figure 1 show that there was a fairly strong negative relationship between conservatism and electoral performance. The more conservative the voting record, the worse the performance of the incumbent. Republican senators with moderate voting records like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and John Chafee generally ran well ahead of the Republican presidential candidate in their state while those with very conservative voting records like John Ashcroft, James Inhofe and Jim Bunning frequently ran behind the Republican presidential candidate.

Italics mine. Abramowitz then goes on to rerun the data while controlling for things like the strength of the challenger, the national political climate, and the presence of any major scandals or controversies involving the incumbent. The results are the same: "For every additional one point increase in conservatism, Republican incumbents lost an additional three percentage points in support relative to their party's presidential candidate."

For the time being, none of this matters. Parties that suffer stunning losses — the Democrats in 1980, for example, or Britain's Labor Party in 1979 — frequently decide that they need to double down and return to the true faith. After losing a few more elections they finally move to the center and start winning again. I imagine the same will happen to Republicans. They're sure to win seats in this year's midterm, which will confirm them in their view that hardcore conservatism is what America wants, and they'll have to lose badly again in 2012 to finally convince themselves otherwise. By 2016 they might be ready for prime time again.

GOP Takes Over the Tubes

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Back in the early aughts, liberals took an early lead in the blogosphere and never looked back. Conservatives were apparently too stodgy, too top-down oriented to make effective use of online technology. But Stephanie Mencimer reports that now the worm has turned:

When it comes to employing Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social-media sites, Republicans are whipping their opponents across the aisle, creating a growing tech gulf that threatens important implications for the 2010 mid-term elections.

Boehner, for instance, has 42,967 Twitter followers. And Pelosi? Well, she can’t have any followers, because she doesn’t tweet. Patrick Bell, the director of new media for House Republican Conference vice chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, keeps close tabs on what the Dems are up to. He says that as of January 2010, only 34 percent of Democratic House members were on Facebook and only 20 percent had hit Twitter. Meanwhile, since January 2009, the percentage of House Republicans using Facebook has jumped from 37 percent to 79 percent (as of early April). Sixty-four percent of these GOPers are on Twitter, compared with 28 percent in January last year. And 89 percent now have a YouTube channel, compared with 56 percent last year.

....[An] initiative to get more members virtually engaged appears to have succeeded wildly. In April, Rodgers launched a six-week contest organized like a "March Madness" ladder that was designed to nudge members of Congress into the Twittersphere. It seems to have succeeded wildly. This "new media challenge" is about to come to an end this week, as Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) duke it out for championship title as the House member with the most increased social media use. (The winner will be announced after the Memorial Day break — on Twitter, naturally.)

I'm going to take a guess here: online technology is fundamentally more attractive for insurgents than it is for the party in power. Partly this is because the party in power already has lots of other tools available for fundraising and communications. Partly it's because the party in power is more invested in leadership keeping control of its message. Partly it's because the party in power is just flat out busier with the actual work of governing. And partly it's because online chatter is riskier: if you're tweeting all day long you're bound to screw up sometime and say something stupid. That's more dangerous for the party in power than it is for the party out of power.

The political internet, at least in its current incarnation, is fundamentally crowd-based. Anyone can jump in, nobody's in control, and it's an ideal medium for people who are pissed off at the establishment (including their own establishment) and are looking for a way to break through. In other words: people who are out of power. In the early Bush era, this was liberals, and the blogosphere was the cutting edge of online activism. So liberals took over the blogosphere and made it into a liberal duck pond. Today it's conservatives, and social media is the cutting edge of online activism. So it's not surprising that conservatives are doing the same. Nancy Pelosi probably figures she has better things to do.

That's my guess, anyway. For what it's worth, though, I don't expect this state of affairs to last much longer. The internet is very quickly outgrowing its adolescence, and before long it's not going to be any more friendly to insurgents than 30-second radio spots or mass fundraising appeals. Enjoy it while you can.

The Sestak Quid Pro Quo

| Fri May 28, 2010 11:27 AM EDT

Peter Baker provides some further information about what kind of job was offered to Joe Sestak last year:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, asked [Bill] Clinton to explore the possibilities last summer, according to the briefed individuals, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the politically charged situation. Mr. Sestak said no and went on to win last week’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary against Senator Arlen Specter.

The White House did not offer Mr. Sestak a full-time paid position because Mr. Emanuel wanted him to stay in the House rather than risk losing his seat. Among the positions explored by the White House was an appointment to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent oversight and advice the president. But White House officials discovered it would not work because Mr. Sestak could not serve on the board while still serving in Congress.

....The office of Robert F. Bauer, the White House counsel, has concluded that Mr. Emanuel’s proposal did not violate laws prohibiting government employees from promising employment as a reward for political activity because the position being offered was unpaid. The office also found other examples of presidents offering positions to political allies to achieve political aims.

This explains a lot. The job offer really was a quid pro quo because an unpaid appointment would have been an additional position, not a replacement for his current job, and it was contingent on Sestak dropping out of the primary. And since Bill Clinton was involved, this ends up indirectly involving Hillary Clinton too.

This still strikes me as big nothingburger: presidents engage in political horsetrading all the time. At the same time, it's starting to make a little more sense why everyone has been so reticent to talk about it. Regardless, I still think this is a 2-day story once the White House and Sestak produce more details. A week tops. There's just nothing serious here.

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Twenty-Somethings on Elena Kagan

| Fri May 28, 2010 1:25 AM EDT

Hey, remember Elena Kagan? Dean of Harvard Law, Solicitor General for Barack Obama, nominated to the Supreme Court a few weeks ago? Yeah, that Elena Kagan. The one who's been the subject of endless speculation about her wardrobe, sexual identity, and judicial philosophy. Well, Dahlia Lithwick says that nobody under 30 gives a fig about two-thirds of that:

Young people reading Robin Givhan's article on Kagan's scandalously open knees think they're reading something hilarious from their grandparents' stack of dating magazines from the 1950s. When they hear us yelping about racial diversity at the court, they think about the fact that their classrooms are already incredibly diverse and their Facebook friendships span continents. When they hear us shrieking over women's softball, they shake their Title IX heads and figure we're just idiots for thinking straight women don't play sports. And when they hear us whispering behind our hands about whether someone is gay, most of them tell me they think we're just freaking idiots. Just as they embody Barack Obama's post-racial America, they identify almost completely with Kagan's post-gender America — in which womanhood simply isn't defined by skirts, babies, or boyfriends anymore.

Good job, young people! But we still have that whole judicial philosophy thing to hash out. It would sure be nice if we knew a little more about that.

Why BP is the Anti-Katrina

| Thu May 27, 2010 5:15 PM EDT

Yuval Levin today:

I think it’s actually right to say that the BP oil spill is something like Obama’s Katrina, but not in the sense in which most critics seem to mean it.

It’s like Katrina in that many people's attitudes regarding the response to it reveal completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them — and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want.

This conflates two very different things. Katrina was an example of the type of disaster that the federal government is specifically tasked with handling. And for most of the 90s, it was very good at handling them. But when George Bush became president and Joe Allbaugh became director of FEMA, everything changed. Allbaugh neither knew nor cared about disaster preparedness. For ideological reasons, FEMA was downsized and much of its work outsourced. When Allbaugh left after less than two years on the job, he was replaced by the hapless Michael Brown and the agency was downgraded and broken up yet again. By the time Katrina hit, the upper levels of FEMA were populated largely with political appointees with no disaster preparedness experience and the agency was simply not up to the job of dealing with a huge storm anymore.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion is almost the exact opposite. There is no federal expertise in capping oil blowouts. There is no federal agency tasked specifically with repairing broken well pipes. There is no expectation that the federal government should be able to respond instantly to a disaster like this. There never has been. For better or worse, it's simply not something that's ever been considered the responsibility of the federal government.1

In the case of Katrina, you have the kind of disaster that, contra Levin, can be addressed by the federal government. In the case of the BP spill, we're faced with a technological challenge that can't be. They could hardly be more different.

But there is one way in which they're similar. As Levin says, Katrina would have been an immense disaster no matter what. But it was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn't very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn't very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn't pretend it's inevitable.

1Just to be clear: I'm talking here only about capping the leak itself. As T.R. Donoghue points out, the feds do have an overall plan for responding to and cleaning up spills.

UPDATE: I was only talking about the post-Katrina response by FEMA in this post, but John McQuaid usefully points out that none of the major damage would have happened in the first place if the federal government had done a decent job building the hurricane levee system in New Orleans. If you believe that this is just another example of why you shouldn't trust the government to do anything right, then that's a point in Levin's favor. If you believe that it's another example of why we should make sure government works better, then it's a point in mine.

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Oil Spill Kabuki

| Thu May 27, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

I feel like I should say something about the big press conference Obama just held. It's not like he does a whole lot of them. But it seemed pretty soporific to me. On the one hand, it's true that when he said he was "angry and frustrated" about the BP oil spill, he sure didn't seem very angry or frustrated. On the other hand, watching the CNN dimwits after the conference solemnly advising us one after one that Obama really needed to be more emotional because that's what the American people want — well, screw that. I have no idea what the American people want, and neither do they.

Honestly, this is just one of those lose-lose situations where Obama's long view of politics will hopefully serve him well. It's pretty plain, after all, that there really isn't much the federal government can do. All the expertise for dealing with stuff like this lies with the big oil companies. And every big oil company is working on it already. The problem isn't a lack of effort on their part or on the part of the government.

But Major Garrett wants to know if Obama really has his "boot on BP's neck," and everyone else seems to be nodding along. I guess it's the kabuki of our times. The president has to be In Charge whether he can actually do anything or not.

Of course, what everyone should be asking is not what the feds are going to do about capping the leak, but what they're going to do to make sure all the oil is cleaned up afterward. That's finally starting to get some attention now that oil is onshore, but the story is much bigger than that. There's 20 million or more gallons of oil sitting in a huge underwater plume off the shore of Louisiana right now, and the big question is what BP is going to do about that. And what we're going to do to make deepwater platforms safer in the future. If the "top kill" effort to stop the spill works, the dramatic part of this story will finally be over. The real part will just be starting.

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New York Has Country's Dumbest Drivers

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:36 PM EDT

The results of the GMAC National Drivers Test are out, and this year the most knowledgable drivers in the country come from.....Kansas! Hooray for Kansas. Oregon, South Dakota, and Minnesota get honorable mentions. The least knowledgable come from New York. Boo New York. New Jersey, DC, and California have nothing to brag about either. Click here to see how your state did.

Thirsting for more? The GMAC test has 20 questions, and nearly 20% of Americans failed by getting a score of less than 14. Older drivers did better than younger ones. Men did better than women. Toughest question: what should you do at a yellow light? 85% of drivers got it wrong.

(Full disclosure: I got it correct, but only by sussing out the "right" answer. My typical behavior is much more in line with the 85%. I think you can guess what I'm talking about here.)

Anyway, more details here. You can take the test here. I got 19 out of 20 correct. If you know what a diamond-shaped sign means, you have a chance of beating my score.