Kevin Drum

A Republican's Guide to Gotcha Questions

| Sat Sep. 5, 2015 6:35 AM EDT

Are "gotcha" questions unfair? It depends. I'm personally averse to Jeopardy-style factual quizzes, but not because it's out of line to probe presidential candidates about what they know. Rather, it's the form of the question itself. It treats presidential candidates like schoolchildren being quizzed in front of the class. It's inherently demeaning for any self-respecting adult—and for politicians too.

That said, there are gotchas and there are gotchas, and some are worse than others. Here's a taxonomy:

SEVERE: "Can you name the president of Chechnya? The president of Taiwan? The general who is in charge of Pakistan? The prime minister of India?" Only an asshole asks questions like this.

Recommended answer: "Oh, go fuck yourself."

HIGH: "Have you ever used cocaine?" This is moderately nasty, but there are dangers to a straightforward refusal to respond. Humor is worth a try.

Recommended answer: "Once, but only accidentally when I picked up a friend at Mena airport in the 90s and left the car door open."

ELEVATED: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" This is a double-edged sword. Answer it properly and you sound like you actually know something about Islam. Waffle and you sound stupid. Your best bet is to turn it into an attack.

Recommended answer: "ISIS terrorists are Sunni. President Obama is a Shiite. That's why he hates those guys so much. It all goes back to the seventh-century, when Obama's 18th cousin 43 times removed insisted that someone from Mohammad's family should take up the leadership of the Muslim Ummah."

GUARDED: "What's your favorite Bible verse?" This is basically a hanging curve. If you ever went to Sunday School, you shouldn't have any trouble hitting it out of the park.

Recommended answer: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. I try to live up to this every single day. There will be no appeasement of America's enemies on my watch."

LOW: "What newspapers and magazines do you regularly read?" This is pretty much the opposite of a gotcha. It's the human interest version of "hello," a way of easing into an interview with a friendly little softball.

Recommended answer: "All the usual suspects. The Times, the Post, Human Events, and the Journal of Econometrics. Did you see their paper last month critiquing the Fed's easy money policies by applying a Tobit regression to a fixed-effects nonparametric model with time-aggregated panel data? It was killer."

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Friday Cat Blogging - 4 September 2015

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 3:06 PM EDT

Like Hillary Clinton, we've been watching a lot of HGTV lately. This has inspired Marian to create a long list of renovation projects she'd like to do. It's inspired me to wonder if literally everyone in the world wants an open-concept floor plan these days.

And one other thing: It's also made it clear that most interior designers on TV are dog people. How do I know? Because they seem to be very fond of rectangular sinks in bathrooms. However, as we more refined types know, this is entirely unacceptable. Ovals fit the requirements of a properly outfitted household much better.

BONUS FEATURE IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: The prefecture of Hiroshima, in the cat-crazy country of Japan, has created the first cat's-eye version of Google Street View. Check it out.

The Iran Deal Highlights the Crackup of the Israel Lobby

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 2:54 PM EDT

Jonathan Chait writes that AIPAC's failure to stop the Iran deal shows that "there is no more 'Israel lobby'; there is a red Israel lobby and a blue one." And that matters a lot:

As a simple matter of political mechanics, acquiring a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress meant hawks needed liberal Democrats to take their side. But they did not have arguments that could appeal to liberals — even liberals with a deep emotional connection to Israel.

....This underscores the most important tectonic forces moving beneath the Israel lobby’s feet. Over the last 15 years, the foreign-policy debate in Israel has moved steadily rightward....[This] has pushed the American Jewish establishment to the right of American Jewry as a whole.

....But there is more at work than simple pigheadedness or habitual aggression. Many conservative supporters of Israel do not necessarily regard the crack-up of American Jewish opinion as a problem. In their view, diplomacy with Iran is the prelude to Israel’s annihilation, and support for Netanyahu’s permanent occupation is the sine qua non of genuine support for Israel. It follows that the Iran debate essentially succeeded, by smoking out the fake Israel supporters. An almost giddy Jennifer Rubin concludes that the deal’s victory destroys “the myth of bipartisan support for Israel.” The crack-up of the Israel lobby is, for its most conservative members, not a failure at all but the fulfillment of a longtime dream.

Benjamin Netanyahu no longer even tries to appeal to both liberal and conservative American Jews. As Gershom Gorenberg points out, he has all but turned his government into an overseas arm of the Republican Party, apparently in the hope that this would eventually work out for the best:

Netanyahu's imagined America is one in which Mitt Romney was sure to win in 2012, as can be seen from the prime minister's behavior back then. Like the Republicans to whom he is close, he treats Obama's presidency as a historical glitch. Like many Jewish Republicans, he expects American Jews to place Israel at the top of their voting priorities, to agree with his policies, and to wake up at last to the need to vote Republican. After all, that's how the American Jews he knows best see things. To these misreadings, add his irrepressible impulse to jump into American politics.

The consequence is that Netanyahu has done more than anyone else to identify Israel—that is, the Israel shaped by his policies—with the Republican Party. Nancy Pelosi's bitter, brilliant reproach after his speech to Congress last March was the clearest possible warning that his alliance with the GOP against Obama would free, or push, Democrats to break with him. He ignored the warning.

Like nearly everything else in American politics, Israel has become a dreary partisan issue. Conservatives might be thrilled with this because they think it will hurt liberals, but the evidence suggests just the opposite: it will hurt Israel instead.

Tip O' the Day: Don't Be Trapped by the Tyranny of the List

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 1:40 PM EDT

A couple of days ago I stumbled across a story about the weekly email that NBER sends out touting its latest working papers. They recently decided to randomize the order of the papers separately for each of the 23,000 emails they send out. "This will mean that roughly the same number of message recipients will see a given paper in the first position, in the second position, and so on."

One thing led to another, and I never wrote about this. But Neil Irwin picks up the ball today:

No editorial judgment goes into the sequence in which the working papers appear. It is random, based on the order in which the paper was submitted and in which the N.B.E.R. approval process was completed. In other words, there is no inherent reason to think that the first paper listed is more groundbreaking, important or interesting than the third or 17th.

But a lot more people read the first one listed. Showing up first in the email generated a 33 percent increase in the number of people who clicked on the working paper and a 29 percent increase in the number who downloaded it.

Perhaps even more amazing, it wasn’t just that more people pulled up the paper that appeared first. Those papers also received 27 percent more citations in later research, though that result was based on a relatively small time period. Having the luck to appear first in the email meant that a given working paper had greater influence in subsequent economic research.

In other words, high-IQ economists are as lazy about clicking only the first entry on a list as your average teenage Google user. And it's not just economists. The same thing is true of physicists. The inventor of arXiv, a website that publishes early copies of physics papers, discovered the same thing several years ago. You can see the result in the graph at the right. Physicists might be as lazy as the rest of us, but they're not dumb, and they all figured out a long time ago that being first on the list is a big deal. Since each day's announcements are made in the order they were submitted, starting at 4 pm the previous day, it means that a huge herd of physicists are all pounding their Enter keys at 4 pm in a desperate effort to be first on the next day's list.

The moral of this story is that....economists and physicists are as lazy and irrational as everyone else? I guess. But the real moral of the story is for you not to be trapped by the tyranny of the list. The next time you google something, try clicking on the 8th link. In fact, do what I do and change the default number of hits to 50 per page and then try clicking the 18th link. You might be pleasantly surprised.

In Shocker, Media Learns That Donald Trump Doesn't Know Anything

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

Color me surprised. I read Hugh Hewitt's interview with Donald Trump yesterday and commented on it, but it didn't even occur to me to say anything about the substance of Trump's replies. I mentioned as an aside that Trump, as usual, was "comically ignorant" of pretty much everything, and thought no more about it. That's just standard Trump.

But today's headlines are all about Trump's "struggles," "stumbles," and "gaffes." That's all totally fair, but why did it take this interview to suddenly wake everyone up? Trump has been responding to questions this way for the entire campaign. Ask him about China, and he says he'll send Carl Icahn over. Ask him how he'll get Mexico to pay for a wall, and he says "management." Ask him about taxes and he says he'll be great for the middle class. Ask him for his favorite Bible verse and he claims that's too personal to share.

This has been his MO all along. His ignorance—and his shameless lack of interest in fixing it—has always been obvious. He doesn't even try to hide it. He'll hire good people. He'll delegate. He'll learn it when he needs to. He's entirely up front about not knowing squat, and it's barely even caused a ripple. Until now. Suddenly everyone is shocked to learn that Trump doesn't know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah.

I guess it was bound to happen sometime. Perhaps the Trump show was just too entertaining to ruin with this kind of pedantry back in August. What would we all have written about without him?

Kentucky Gay Marriage Melodrama Is Finally Over (Sort Of)

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 10:27 AM EDT

From Joe Davis, explaining why his wife, the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay couples:

Just because five Supreme Court judges make a ruling, it’s not a law.

Actually, yes, it is. But Joe could be excused for thinking otherwise given how many allegedly serious Republican presidential candidates seem to agree with him.

In any case, this affair has now ended in what always seemed the most obvious way: with LGBT couples getting marriage licenses from deputies in the county clerk's office. Kim Davis still objects to this, of course, because her name is on the license (by state law). But her deputies apparently aren't as keen on twiddling their thumbs in the county jail as she is. They had to decide whether to obey Davis or obey a federal judge, and they wisely chose to obey the judge.

In theory, this is now over. But Davis remains in jail, all the better to assure her future role as a martyr for the cause and poster child for fundraising appeals by the right-wing email outrage crowd. I imagine she'll stay there just long enough to cement her reputation, and then announce that she's resigning her office. Her moment in the sun is nearly over, but her moment on the rubber chicken circuit is just beginning.

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Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in August

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 10:10 AM EDT

The American economy added 173,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 83,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate fell from 5.3 percent to 5.1 percent. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up at an annualized rate of 2.9 percent.

Roughly speaking, there was nothing interesting in the guts of the report. The unemployment rate was down both because there were more employed workers and because the size of the labor force shrank a bit. The labor force participation rate stayed steady. There were no big surprises in any particular industry.

This has left everyone free to speculate on what this report means for the prospect of the Fed increasing interest rates later this month. On the one hand, the jobs report fell a bit below expectations. On the other hand, the unemployment rate was down nicely and wages showed a bit of life. On the third hand—well, everyone's just guessing here. Basically, this month's jobs report is ordinary enough that it probably won't have much impact at all. The Fed will consider overseas weakness, labor market slack, and all the other things that have been on their plate for a while. If they were planning to raise rates before this report came out, they probably still are.

Protester Attacks Trump Guard's Fist With His Head; Trump to Press Charges

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 1:31 AM EDT

At Donald Trump's ceremonial loyalty-oath signing on Thursday, a group of protesters showed up holding a big blue banner that read "Trump: Make America Racist Again." A Trump security guard took offense at this sign of insolence and ripped the banner away from them. One of the protesters then chased the guard and grabbed him, at which point the guard turned around and clocked the guy. The New York Times picks up the story from there: "The Trump campaign said that the security team member on Thursday was 'jumped from behind' and that the campaign would 'likely be pressing charges.'"

The banner disappeared into Trump Tower, never to be seen again. Quite rightly, I might add. This sort of impudence from losers and lightweights will not be tolerated when Donald Trump is president. Truly he is already making America great again.

Sentence of the Day: Court Must Rule on Whether Court Can Rule

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 11:10 PM EDT

From my colleague Pema Levy:

Sometime in the next few months, the state Supreme Court is likely to rule on whether the legislature has the right to strip the Supreme Court of its administrative authority.

Well, I guess someone has to do it. You will perhaps be unsurprised to learn that this sentence refers to Kansas.

Why Has Conservative Talk Radio Gone Gaga Over Donald Trump?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 8:30 PM EDT

Roughly speaking, I think the reason Donald Trump will eventually flame out is because people will get tired of his act. This is the downside of getting lots of media attention: when you recycle the same sentence fragments over and over, people eventually figure out that you have nothing more to say. His supporters get bored. The press gets bored. The whole country gets bored. And while the endless insults might be amusing for a while, eventually even his fans will conclude that he sounds an awful lot like a fourth grader, not a president. In the end, Trump will end not with a bang, but a whimper.

In the meantime, though, I'm a little curious about why conservative talk radio has been so consistently gaga over Trump. For example, here's a little snippet from Hugh Hewitt's show today:

HH: You know everything about building buildings. You could build the wall. I have no doubt about that....But on the front of Islamist terrorism, I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?

DT: No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone. I knew you were going to ask me things like this, and there’s no reason, because number one, I’ll find, I will hopefully find General Douglas MacArthur in the pack. I will find whoever it is that I’ll find, and we’ll, but they’re all changing, Hugh.

....HH: Now I don’t believe in gotcha questions. And I’m not trying to quiz you on who the worst guy in the world is.

DT: Well, that is a gotcha question, though. I mean, you know, when you’re asking me about who’s running this, this this, that’s not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.

....HH: Last question, I want to go back to the beginning, because I really do disagree with you on the gotcha question thing, Donald Trump. At the debate, I may bring up Nasrallah being with Hezbollah, and al-Julani being with al-Nusra, and al-Masri being with Hamas. Do you think if I ask people to talk about those three things, and the differences, that that’s a gotcha question?

DT: Yes, I do. I totally do. I think it’s ridiculous....I’ll have, I’m a delegator. I find great people. I find absolutely great people, and I’ll find them in our armed services, and I find absolutely great people.

Here's the thing: I don't know if obsequious is the right word to describe Hewitt's attitude, but it's close. Throughout the interview he takes considerable pains to compliment Trump on every little piece of knowledge he manages to dredge up, like a teacher complimenting a dim third-grader for remembering five times three. This is despite the fact that Trump makes it crystal clear that he's comically ignorant about practically everything that Hewitt thinks is important.

But Hewitt is no idiot. He's a partisan warrior and a trained killer on the radio, but he's not a stupid one. He's a very smart guy.

So why does he put up with someone like Trump? Is it just for the ratings? Does he think Trump actually might become president? Is he embarrassed by this? Or what? Inquiring minds want to know.