Father Coughlin Is Alive and Well in Today's GOP

| Sun Nov. 22, 2015 11:44 AM EST

Let's see. Over the past few days and weeks, Donald Trump has said:

More generally, Trump has said that we're going to have to do things that were "unthinkable" a year ago. Considering the list of things he apparently believes are perfectly thinkable right now, that sends chills down your spine. And yet, this man continues to lead the GOP race and appears to be gaining momentum from his Father Coughlinesque brand of xenophobia and fearmongering.

How does this happen? A big part of it is because other high-profile Republicans are too cowardly to fight back. Nearly every Republican governor has jumped on the vile, big-talking bandwagon of refusing to allow any Syrian refugees to settle in their states. Every Republican presidential candidate favors a ban on accepting further Muslim Syrian refugees. Jeb Bush thinks we should only accept Christian refugees from Syria. Ted Cruz isn't a fan of "government registries" but otherwise thinks Trump is great. Straight-talking Chris Christie dodges when he's asked if existing Syrian refugees should be kicked out of New Jersey. Marco Rubio dodges when he's asked if we might have to close down mosques.

Overall, with the semi-honorable exception of Jeb Bush, no Republican candidate has been willing to seriously push back on either Trump's old Mexican demagoguery or his shiny new Muslim demagoguery. All this despite the fact that Mexican immigration is down and the United States hasn't suffered a significant attack from overseas terrorists in over a decade. All it took to wake this latent hysteria was some terrorist activity in other countries. God help us.

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How Good a Dealmaker Is Donald Trump, Anyway?

| Sun Nov. 22, 2015 1:12 AM EST

Here is Donald Trump on who he listens to regarding economic issues:

Honestly, I feel that I have such a vast feeling for it that I really—you know, Milton Friedman was good—but I don’t really listen to anybody. I just put it in and I have a feeling for, it’s almost common sense, it’s a business instinct.

Translation: Milton Friedman is the only conservative economist he can think of. And he probably wouldn't listen to the guy if he were still alive anyway. Why mess with his killer instincts?

Which raises two questions. First: How good a developer is Donald Trump? Seriously. My sense is that he's about a 5 on a scale of 1-10. He's had some successes, he's had some failures, and he seems to have found a decent—but hardly dazzling—niche in golf resorts. Overall, he started with a lot of money and has since grown his business at roughly the rate of the economy. Not bad, but nothing to crow about.

And second: why is it that we seem to have heard nothing about Trump from other developers? They'd have the best read on how good he really is, after all. If he were truly brilliant, I figure he would have been soliciting testimonials all over the place. I haven't seen any. But if he's a second-rater with a big mouth, I figure we would have heard that too. But I haven't. I haven't really heard anything. Do developers not like to talk smack about each other because they never know where their next deal might come from? Do they just generally shun publicity? Do they genuinely not know much about Trump because he doesn't really do much business these days aside from golf courses, branding deals, and TV shows?

What's the deal here? Trump must have a reputation within the New York developer community. So what is it?

Louisiana Just Voted to Give a Quarter of a Million People Health Care

| Sat Nov. 21, 2015 10:23 PM EST

Republican Sen. David Vitter lost his bid to be the next governor of Louisiana on Saturday, and it wasn't even close. The two-term senator lost the runoff election to Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards by double digits, setting the stage for the state to potentially become the first in the Deep South to accept a pivotal part of Obamacare.

Vitter was dogged by a decade-old prostitution scandal, and a bizarre spying incident at a coffee shop. Desperate to make up ground, he warned voters in one ad that President Barack Obama would release "thugs" from prison onto Louisiana streets. Vitter also sought to turn the tide by warning voters of a terrorist threat posed by the state's 14 Syrian refugees. He went as far as to allege (falsely, it turned out) that one of the refugees had gone missing. It didn't work.

Edwards, an anti-abortion, pro-gun West Point grad, became the first Democratic candidate to win a statewide election in Louisiana since 2008, and benefited from support from Republicans who were dissatisfied with Vitter's personal troubles and disappointed by the state's financial woes under outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal. (By the time Jindal dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday, the one-time rising star's approval ratings had dropped to 20 percent.)

Jindal also rejected federal funding to expand Medicaid. Edwards has pledged to sign an executive order authorizing the expansion of the program on his first day in office. That's a really big deal. Such a move would provide coverage to about 225,000 residents in one of the poorest states in the nation.

Yes, Donald Trump Agreed That We Should Have a National Registry of Muslims

| Sat Nov. 21, 2015 1:33 PM EST

I was arguing on Twitter with Mickey Kaus last night about the Trump Muslim registry story, and today he's touting a Byron York piece about how the "Trump database story was built on a foundation of nothing." But that's not fair. The whole thing started when Yahoo's Hunter Walker asked Trump about Syrian refugees. York asked Walker for audio of the interview, which he provided. Here's the relevant excerpt:

WALKER: France declared this state of emergency where they closed the borders and they established some degree of warrantless searches. I know how you feel about the borders, but do you think there is some kind of state of emergency here, and do we need warrantless searches of Muslims?

TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to do things that we never did before. [Blah blah blah] But we have to err on the side of security for our people and our nation.

WALKER: And in terms of doing this, to pull off the kind of tracking we need, do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?

TRUMP: Well, we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely....

When I first read Walker's story, I concluded that he had been on a fishing expedition. I still think that, but this transcript actually softens my objections. The first question is reasonably motivated by the French response to the Paris attacks, and Trump makes it clear that he's willing to go pretty far to deal with the ISIS threat. So Walker takes the bait and goes further. Trump then tap dances and never really addresses the question about registries.

So far, though, the most you can do is criticize Trump for not immediately denouncing the registry proposal. But he's now on notice. Headlines began appearing about this, and it was a big topic of discussion on Thursday. After the Yahoo story hit, Trump could no longer pretend to be taken by surprise if someone asked again about registering Muslims. And sure enough, MSNBC's Vaughn Hillyard did. Here's the transcript:

Hillyard: Should there be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country?

Trump: There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems. And today you can do it.

[Some talk about Trump's wall on the Mexican border ensues.]

Trump: We have to stop people from coming in to our country illegally.

Hillyard: But specifically, how do you actually get them registered into a database?

Trump: It would be just good management....

Hillyard: Do you go to mosques and sign these people up?

Trump: Different places. You sign ‘em up at different, but it’s all about management. Our country has no management.

Hillyard: Would they have to legally be in this database, would they be–

Trump: They have to be — they have to be — let me just tell you: People can come to the country, but they have to come legally. Thank you very much.

This is pretty plain. Sure, Trump is at a ropeline and he's distracted. But he knows the registry issue is a live question, and Hillyard is very clear about what he's asking. There's some confusion in the middle about whether Trump is talking about a Muslim registry or a wall on the Mexican border, but there's no confusion at all when Hillyard asks "Do you go to mosques and sign people up?" And York himself agrees:

Trump's offhand decision to tell MSNBC he would implement a database was an enormously stupid thing to do. And by Friday afternoon, Trump tweeted, "I didn't suggest a database -- a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America."

But the damage had been done. In the end, the responsibility is always the candidate's to be on guard for attempts, by journalists or rival campaign operatives, to entice him into saying damaging things.

So was the Muslim registry story built on a foundation of nothing? Sure, in a way. But reporters ask hypothetical questions all the time. This is hardly a startling new technique. What's more, Trump has built his entire campaign on saying things outrageous enough to get lots of media attention. But now he's complaining that a reporter gave him a chance to say something outrageous and it generated a lot of media attention? Give me a break.

As York says, Trump has since backtracked on Twitter: "I didn't suggest a database-a reporter did." True enough. But Trump pretty obviously agreed. This wasn't a gotcha or a cleverly loaded question. It was obvious what both reporters were talking about. The first time he tap danced. The second time he agreed. Trump is a grown man who's accustomed to dealing with the press. There was nothing unfair about this. He may have backtracked now, but he thought it sounded like a fine idea until the blowback became a little too intense.

How Big a Deal is the SAFE Act?

| Sat Nov. 21, 2015 12:24 PM EST

Dante Atkins on the SAFE Act:

The bill requires the specific signatures of three high-ranking officials to personally approve refugees into the United States, a burden that both Republicans and the White House believe would all but cease the flow of refugees into the United States because it is believed that said officials would be too fearful of the career implications should one of the detainees turn out to become even a mere criminal, much less a terrorist.

I have to say, this bill has me confused. After looking into it, I wrote a post a couple of days ago suggesting that it was mostly symbolic. The vetting process didn't change, it just needed to be documented and "certified" by the White House. Beyond that, some top officials would get half a dozen refugee approvals every day for their autopen to sign. Big deal. The only real effect would be a short pause while the certification was drafted and signed off.

Since then, though, every single story I've read about this bill describes it on a spectrum from "tightening" requirements to virtually shutting down the flow of refugees from Syria entirely. None of them ever provide any details, though. They talk about background checks, but the FBI already does background checks on refugees from Syria and Iraq. They talk about tougher procedures, but there are no new procedures in the bill. The actual vetting process itself is left up to the executive branch.

And yet, the White House is dead set against this bill, which it probably wouldn't be if it was mostly just symbolic. So I remain puzzled. What's the real deal with this bill? Is it really likely that, say, the Director of National Intelligence would simply refuse to ever sign off on a refugee approval? Hell, the DNI already signs off on hundreds of things with more potential for blowback than that.

I dunno. It's all very strange.

Alabama May Back Off Its Policy of Treating New Moms Like Meth Cooks

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 6:10 PM EST

A subcommittee of the Alabama Governor's Health Care Improvement Task Force is examining proposals that aim to reform the nation's harshest "chemical endangerment of a child" statute. The law states that "knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally" exposing a child to controlled substances or drug-making chemicals is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison if a child is unharmed, and 99 years if a child dies.

The enforcement of the law, originally intended to prosecute methamphetamine users who exposed children to the drug, has been unusually broad—including, as ProPublica's Nina Martin previously reported in Mother Jones, the prosecution of pregnant women for exposing their fetuses to even small amounts of anti-anxiety medication. Nearly 500 women have been arrested on related charges since the law passed in 2006.

The law has been criticized by civil rights groups and public health experts for being harmful to those who need the most help—women who are faced with poverty and addiction—and for unfairly prosecuting women who were not drug users at all, but who might have simply taken a small dose of medication that eventually appeared in the blood test of their new babies.

At the task force meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Darlene Traffanstedt, who heads the subcommittee, announced that three proposals were under consideration. One would require prosecutors to offer drug treatment to pregnant women instead of prosecuting them, while another would protect women using drugs that have been legally prescribed to them (which has not been the case since 2006). The third option would hold the law to its "original intent"  by preventing its use against women who are using pregnancy-related medication.

The subcommittee's next meeting is in December, and a draft bill is expected by the beginning of February's legislative session. Read more about the law and its consequences here.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 20 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:50 PM EST

This has sure been a crappy week, and Hilbert and Hopper agree. As you can see, they decided to flee upstairs to the bedroom and adopt disapproving looks. Those are for Donald Trump. They are hoping that us human types can do more than just glower, so let's get to it.

Charter Schools: Great in Cities, Ho-Hum in Suburbs?

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:15 PM EST

Evaluating charter schools is tricky. Maybe highly motivated parents send their kids to charters and others don't. The solution is to identify schools that are oversubscribed and track students who won and lost the lottery to get in. That way you get a random set of parents on both sides. But maybe charters kick out bad students after they've attended for a year or two. The solution is to tag lottery winners as charter kids forever. They count against the charter's performance regardless of where they end up later. Fine, but maybe oversubscribed charters are different in some way. What about less popular charters where you can't do any of this lottery-based research?

Susan Dynarski, an education professor at the University of Michigan, acknowledges all of this, but says we can draw some conclusions anyway:

A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than other public schools.

This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.

Interesting. But if this is really the case, why?

Jeb Bush Opposed to Manipulating People's Fears Over Syrian Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Jeb Bush comments on Donald Trump's plan to create a Muslim registry in the United States:

Trump's solutions are "just wrong," Jeb Bush said Friday...."It’s not a question of toughness. It’s manipulating people's angst and their fears. That’s not strength. That’s weakness," Bush said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Good for Bush, though it's a low bar to oppose a national registry for everyone of a specific religion. I don't think Bush will be the only one to choke on that notion. Still, he was clear about his opposition, and clear about why it's wrong.

It's too bad he's taken this long. He could have been a voice for sanity from the start and set himself apart from the crowd. At this point, though, it would just make him look tentative and indecisive. He lost a chance to do the right thing and possibly get a big payoff from it.

Obamacare's Growing Pains Are About What You'd Expect in a Newly Competitive Market

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 11:33 AM EST

Yesterday United Healthcare announced that they would be exiting the Obamacare exchanges after 2016. They were losing too much money and figured it was time to call it quits.

What does this mean? Here are a few bullet points:

  • UH is a relatively small part of Obamacare, accounting for about 5 percent of exchange members.
  • However, its presence is bigger in some states than others.
  • Overall, then, this is only moderately bad news for Obamacare as a program. In some places, however, it's very bad news. And obviously, for the people affected who have to switch plans in 2017, it's a huge pain in the ass.

Beyond this, the news depends on why UH is doing so badly:

  • It could be that UH simply isn't competitive. If that's the case, it's nothing more than the expected result of marketplace competition. If other companies are more efficient or offer better products, you're in trouble.
  • However, it's also possible that UH's exit exposes some fundamental problems with Obamacare. UH claims—without offering any real evidence—that people are signing up when they get sick and then dropping out. This is unsustainable in any insurance market, and if people really have found loopholes that allow this on a large scale, it's bad news for Obamacare. It would be especially bad news since Republicans are rooting for Obamacare to fail and will refuse to allow any changes that might make it work better.

Generally speaking, I think that what we've been seeing recently is a fairly predictable consequence of setting up a competitive market: there's going to be a lot of churn at the beginning, as companies figure out what works best. Some, like UH and the ill-fated co-ops, will drop out. Others will discover they were too optimistic and will raise rates. Others will gain market share at their expense because they're better run or made better actuarial projections. In a few years, this will all settle down and we'll finally have a pretty good idea of just how well Obamacare works and how much it costs.

We could have avoided this kind of thing by creating a simpler, more universal program, but that just wasn't politically possible. Creating a competitive marketplace was the only way to get Obamacare passed. Unfortunately, competition has both pluses and minuses. In theory, it should provide lower prices and better value in the long run. But it might take a while to get there.

More detail is available from John Cohn and Megan McArdle.