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Trumpmentum Has Been Losing Steam Ever Since the Debate

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:04 AM EDT

I hopped over to RealClear Politics this morning to take a look at their latest poll averages, and it shows something interesting: Donald Trump may have hit his ceiling. On August 5, he hit a peak at 24.3 percent. He then plateaued for a few days and has been falling ever since. He now stands at 22.0 percent.

Not all poll averages show the same thing. I also took a look at Pollster, and they show Trump's climb starting to slow down, but not quite peaking yet. Even there, though, it looks like Trump is going to hit a ceiling soon.

At the risk of making a hard prediction that will soon look foolish, it looks to me like Trump has peaked at about 25 percent. Even among the Republican base, his blustery showmanship only gets him so far.

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Iran Agreement Looks Like a Done Deal in Congress

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 9:35 AM EDT

From the Guardian:

Barack Obama has enough votes to get the Iran deal through the House of Representatives, despite Republican efforts to block the historic nuclear accord, the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, has said.

With a Senate vote looking increasingly secure for the president, Pelosi’s comments suggest it is now extremely unlikely that Congress will halt the deal.

Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said on Thursday in an interview with the Associated Press that she was confident House Democrats would have the votes if necessary to see the Iran deal through.

Nancy Pelosi is a pretty shrewd vote counter. If she says there are enough House Democrats to see the deal through, I believe her. It probably doesn't matter, though: there are now 25 declared supporters of the deal in the Senate, and Obama only needs nine more to ensure passage of the deal. That shouldn't be too hard.

Investigations Prove the Planned Parenthood "Sting" Videos Were a Bust

South Carolina launches a probe, even though other states have found a whole lotta nuthin'.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

Since undercover videos that captured Planned Parenthood staff discussing fetal tissue donations were released last month, GOP officials in more than 10 states have clamored to launch investigations into the organization. On Tuesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined that group, ordering her state's health department to review the policies and practices of all abortion clinics in the state, including the three operated by Planned Parenthood.

"These practices are not consistent with the laws or character of our state," Haley wrote in her letter to the state agency tasked with regulating abortion clinics, adding that it "cannot allow an organization with broken internal oversight and a flawed corporate culture to behave the way Planned Parenthood has in other states."

In the videos, recorded surreptitiously and released by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, Planned Parenthood officials talk frankly about the organization's tissue donation program and the costs associated with donating fetal tissue from an abortion. Though fetal tissue donation is a long-standing and legal practice in the United States, and has contributed to medical advancements like the polio vaccine, conservatives have used the videos to attack the health care organization, saying they provide evidence that Planned Parenthood illegally profits from the sale of aborted fetuses. And they've pushed for investigations to unmask this purported criminal wrongdoing.

But so far, those investigations are falling flat. Completed probes in GeorgiaIndianaMassachusetts, and South Dakota have spent thousands in taxpayer money but turned up no evidence that Planned Parenthood is trafficking in the sale of fetal tissue. And in most of the other states that have launched investigations—including OhioArizonaTexas, and Kansas—Planned Parenthood affiliates don't even have fetal tissue donation programs, making it hard to believe the states will find any illegal activity related to the practice. In Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered an investigation in mid-July, Planned Parenthood does not even operate a single abortion clinic.

"In every state where these investigations have concluded, officials have cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation, told the Huffington Post. "We've said all along that Planned Parenthood follows all laws and has very high medical standards, and that's what every one of these investigations has found."

Not every governor has taken the bait. Democratic governors in Minnesota and Virginia have rejected state legislators' pleas to look into the group, saying they won't waste time investigating programs that don't exist in their states.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's no basis for an investigation at taxpayer expense into a private nonprofit organization that has stated they don't engage in those practices," Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton told local reporters after he received a letter from GOP lawmakers asking him to take action.

Other states have taken another approach since the release of the videos: Governors in Alabama and Arkansas, along with Louisiana's Jindal, have moved to block Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood, which they may not be able to do under federal law. Meanwhile, public opinion of the organization remains high. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that despite weeks of bad news, Planned Parenthood is still more popular than every major 2016 presidential contender, the NRA, and the Supreme Court.

This article has been revised.

There Might Be Fracking Wastewater on Your Organic Fruits and Veggies

Federal organic standards ban synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but cancer-causing fracking chemicals are totally fine.

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in the USDA's organic food safety program.

The US Department of Agriculture's organics standards, written 15 years ago, strictly ban petroleum-derived fertilizers commonly used in conventional agriculture. But the same rules do not prohibit farmers from irrigating their crops with petroleum-laced wastewater obtained from oil and gas wells—a practice that is increasingly common in drought-stricken Southern California.

"No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater."

As I reported last month, oil companies last year supplied half the water that went to the 45,000 acres of farmland in Kern County's Cawelo Water District, farmland that is owned, in part, by Sunview, a company that sells certified organic raisins and grapes. Food watchdog groups are concerned that the state hasn't required oil companies to disclose all the chemicals they use in oil drilling and fracking operations, much less set safety limits for all those chemicals in irrigation water.

A spokesman for the USDA's National Organics Program confirmed that it has little to say on the matter. "The USDA organic regulations do not directly address the use of irrigation water on organic farms," said the spokesman, who asked to be quoted on background, "but organic operations must generally maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality."

Of course, that's easier said than done. USDA organic regulations do not require farms to perform water quality tests, and irrigation water is not evaluated as an input by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets products used on organic farms. Calls placed to California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies organic farms in California, were not returned.

Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in a food safety program that otherwise strictly controls what farmers can apply to their land. Notably, the organics program does prohibit the use of sewage sludge-based fertilizer, a product widely used on nonorganic farms that sometimes contains chemicals such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals.

On Monday, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Glendale, introduced a bill that would require crops irrigated with wastewater from oil and gas operations to be labeled as such. "No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater," he explained in a press release.

That's especially true if their lettuce is labeled "organic," adds Adam Scow, the California director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch: "I think most people's logic would tell them that's not a practice consistent with organic standards."

A Conversation About Scott Walker's Health Care Plan

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 9:04 PM EDT

Ramesh Ponnuru thinks I got Scott Walker's health care plan wrong. Maybe! Let's go through his objections.

  1. I complained that Walker's plan would cost a lot but he doesn't tell us how he's going to pay for it without raising taxes. Ponnuru: "Walker says he is going to reform the tax break for employer-provided plans and get savings out of Medicaid....There’s no reason to doubt that some such mix could be made to work."

    I tentatively doubt it.1 My back-of-the-envelope guess was that after accounting for both Medicaid cuts and the end of Obamacare outlays, Walker still had a $100 billion hole. I was wrong about that. It's probably more like $150 billion or so, since Walker would also repeal all of Obamacare's taxes. The only proposal he offers to raise money for this is to "reform the way the tax code treats gold-plated, employer-sponsored health care plans." This is the Obamacare Cadillac tax, and even in the far future it won't generate anything close to $150 billion annually. Walker still has a very big hole to fill.
     
  2. I complained that if you don't have continuous coverage and you get sick or have a pre-existing condition, you're screwed. Ponnuru: "At that point you’d have to go to a high-risk pool."

    There's a reason I didn't mention this. Walker says that his plan will "provide funds" and "flexibility" for states to address pre-existing conditions if they feel like it. "One way states could do this is by managing high-risk pools, something states have done for decades. My plan would make it easier for states to expand these pools, or pursue alternative approaches."

    In other words, high-risk pools aren't a part of Walker's plan. He just mentions them as a possibility that states might pursue if they want to. And anyway, high-risk pools are infamous for working poorly because they're always underfunded. Would Walker really be willing to fund them at levels high enough to actually work?
     
  3. I complained that Walker doesn't tell us how he'll prevent insurance companies from raising rates on people with expensive pre-existing conditions. Ponnuru: "A protection for people in the group market who have maintained continuous coverage has been law since 1996. Walker’s plan would just expand and strengthen that approach in the individual market."

    That's possible, but Walker's plan doesn't say this. I can only respond to things Walker actually says. What's more, the individual market is fundamentally different from the group market, which is why HIPAA regulates the group market but doesn't even try to regulate the individual market. This is tricky stuff, and requires more than "just" expanding and strengthening HIPAA. And since it likely requires a fair amount of detailed regulation—which Republicans are famously averse to— I'd like to hear how Walker plans to do it.
     
  4. I complained that Walker's plan wouldn't cover everyone. Ponnuru acknowledges this. I also complained that Walker had no concrete proposals to reduce the cost of health care. Ponnuru: "Capping the tax exclusion for employer-provided coverage is as much a 'concrete proposal to reduce the cost of health care' as anything in Obamacare. And so on."

    That's true, and I should have acknowledged it. The Cadillac tax, which is part of both Obamacare and Walkercare, is likely to rein in costs. As for "And so on," I'm not sure what to say. I need something more specific.

Nickel summary: Ponnuru is right about the Cadillac tax pushing costs down. But I don't think his other criticisms really hold water.

On a related note, Ponnuru is right that, in practice, Obamacare doesn't cover everyone. There will always be people who go uninsured regardless of mandates, either because they don't feel like paying for insurance or because they can't afford to, even with subsidies. But aside from illegal immigrants, Obamacare really does try to give everyone a chance to buy decent coverage. And it would cover many more people if Republican governors accepted Medicaid expansion and Republican members of Congress were willing to increase the funding for subsidies.

Walker's plan, by contrast, doesn't even try to cover everyone. There are lots of people who will fall through the cracks, and this is by design. Maybe you prefer this. I don't. I'd like to see genuinely universal coverage. But either way, it's a big difference.

1Tentatively because I don't know for sure how much Walker's plan will cost. Someone is bound to do a detailed dive into this eventually, and maybe it will turn out to be cheaper than I think. If so, I'll let you know.

The "Bad Lip Reading" of the First GOP Presidential Debate Is Hilarious

Hahaha.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 8:48 PM EDT

This is amazing. Watch it. Or don't. This isn't Fascist Italy. You can do whatever you want. George Washington came to this country on the Mayflower, which he made from wood he got from a cherry tree, because he wanted his ancestors to be able to make their own decisions. And George Washington NEVER told a lie. Think about that.

T h i n k

a b o u t

i t.

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Sorry, California Is Not Winning the Drought

A new study says water shortages could sink the Golden State’s economy.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 6:54 PM EDT

As the epic California drought drags through its fifth year, researchers are now saying the agricultural sector's increased reliance on groundwater could lead to an economic decline that affects all sectors statewide. 

A new economic analysis conducted by a team from the University of California-Davis shows that as the drought continues, the overtapped groundwater reserves will become increasingly expensive and inaccessible: Water shortages in the famous Central Valley could cost the state $2.74 billion in 2015, as well as nearly 21,000 jobs, which would amount to $1.3 billion in losses from California's gross domestic product and a decline of $720 million in statewide labor income.

The study claims these numbers are expected to get worse as the drought continues and more acres are fallowed, more crops lose earnings, and revenue from livestock and dairy farms declines due to dry pastures and increasing feed costs. The net water shortage is now expected to increase by 2.9 million acre-feet each year (that's more than 945 billion gallons); the researchers estimate that economic costs will grow by 6 percent by 2017.

The researchers called for better data collection on water use and drought impacts, and policies that will provide support for areas where drought-caused unemployment is severe, but they emphasized the importance of new state groundwater laws to slow the depletion of reserves—which are now relied on to make up 70 percent of water shortages.

"The transition will cause some increased fallowing of cropland or longer crop rotations," Jay Lund, director of the UC-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, said in a statement, "but will help preserve California's ability to support more profitable permanent and vegetable crops during drought."

No, Hillary Clinton Has Never Supported White Supremacist Violence Against Black Communities

The 1994 crime bill wasn't a racist project. It was a crime bill.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 4:02 PM EDT

Activists from Black Lives Matter met with Hillary Clinton last week, and they came away unimpressed. Dara Lind says the disagreement was mostly about Clinton's support for the 1994 crime bill, a centerpiece of her husband Bill Clinton's political agenda:

The crux of the conflict is this: The activists see the 1994 crime bill, and the "tough-on-crime" agenda more generally, as "extensions of white supremacist violence against communities of color." Clinton agrees with them that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed, but refuses to accept that characterization of the bill.

Both Bill and Hillary accept that, in retrospect, the crime bill was probably misguided. But Lind points out that at the time, there was plenty of support for it in the black community:

This is an important point: Many black Americans, including black leaders, welcomed "tough-on-crime" policies as a way to protect their communities. A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the 1986 law that created the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. And in 1994, it was the CBC that saved President Clinton's crime bill after an unexpected loss on a procedural vote.

This is a history that's been largely forgotten, partly because many of these leaders regret their positions now or—like former Rep. Kweisi Mfume—deny that they supported the bill at all. And in fairness, there was plenty of black opposition to tough-on-crime policies. There are probably good questions to ask about who is trusted to speak for black communities, and whether black leaders felt politically pressured to denounce the crime in their midst as a condition of being taken seriously…

By 1994, the crime wave had already peaked; the crime rate was starting a quarter-century of decline. Increased incarceration is responsible for a small fraction of that—but by 1994, the people being put in prison, on the margin, had long since stopped being the people who posed a serious threat. The suffering caused by the bill wasn't a caveat, it was the primary consequence of its passage.

There's an important point here, one that I became more deeply aware of when I wrote about childhood lead poisoning and violent crime a couple of years ago. Here it is: There really was a huge crime wave in the '70s and '80s. And it wasn't uncommon for liberals to downplay this at the time, something that turned out to be a political disaster for liberalism. That's because the crime wave wasn't a myth, and it wasn't made up. Rape, assault, and murder skyrocketed far above their previous highs, and inner-city neighborhoods were especially hard hit. This is the reason that so many black leaders supported tough-on-crime bills of various sorts.

And while Lind is right that violent crime had peaked and was starting a long descent by 1994, no one knew it at the time. The peak had only happened a couple of years before, and there was no reason to think a small drop in a single year or two was significant. So it's not right to say that the people being put in prison in 1994 had "long since" stopped posing a threat. They posed a plenty big threat, and literally everyone who studied crime at the time thought they'd continue to do so for years. At the time, there was simply no reason to think violent crime was about to plummet.

Now, everyone knows my take on this: Both the rise and subsequent fall of violent crime was largely due to childhood lead poisoning caused by lead paint and leaded gasoline. Tough-on-crime measures, it turns out, probably didn't contribute much to the fall in crime during the '90s and aughts. But again, at the time no one knew this. In 1994 no one had even an inkling that lead might be the culprit for high crime rates.

This in no way takes race out of the crime picture. It just explains it. Black crime really did soar during the crime wave, and the reason was simple: Black families lived disproportionately in inner cities, where both lead paint and exhaust fumes from cars were rife. Racism is behind this everywhere. Black people lived in these neighborhoods in the first place largely because of redlining and racial animus. The neighborhoods then became worse because politicians built highways through them (the richer, whiter communities fought them tooth and nail). And they were never cleaned up because no one wanted to spend money on them. Paint and automobile lead poisoned black kids at a higher rate than white kids, and the result was higher black crime rates.

But while I hate to be a broken record, no one knew this at the time. And in a way, it didn't matter. Even if we had known lead was responsible, it wouldn't have changed anything. Once the damage was done, it was done. And no matter what caused it, nobody wanted to let rapists and murderers roam the streets.

This was a long and rambling way of getting to my final point. Lind suggests intent doesn't matter. Something is racist if it has racist consequences. But I think you have to be pretty careful about that. Lind is right that, whether racially inspired or not, it's important to face structural racism clearly and work relentlessly to overcome it. Nonetheless, intent does matter. Calling someone racist does nothing except make matters worse unless they really do have racist intent.

So was the 1994 crime bill racist in intent? No. Many black leaders, including black mayors who faced rising crime rates daily, supported it. Violent crime really was a huge problem—and it really was especially severe in black communities. Nobody at the time knew lead might be the culprit for this, so they had to address it as best they could given what they believed. So they did. The 1994 crime bill was not a white supremacist project. It was a crime bill.

At the end of her piece, Lind argues that Hillary Clinton "doesn't need to show she's changed her heart. But she does need to show that she has learned, and changed her mind." This puzzles me. Clinton has defended her support of the 1994 crime bill given what she knew at the time, but she has also proposed criminal justice reforms that make it clear she has learned and has changed her mind. If those reforms are insufficient, fine. Fight for more. But both Clintons have made it clear that their views on crime have changed. There's simply no excuse for pretending that either one of them was involved in a conspiracy of "white supremacist violence" against black communities.

Undocumented Immigrant Bravely Calls Out His Racist Employer, Donald Trump

"I know I could lose my job for just talking about Trump but it doesn’t make me proud every day to go to work under his name."

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 3:52 PM EDT

In a new series for New Left Media, a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant who works as a busser at Donald Trump's Soho hotel recently opened up about what it's like to work for a man whose immigration platform rests on characterizing Mexican immigrants like himself as criminals and rapists.

"I know I could lose my job for just talking about Trump, but it doesn't make me proud everyday to go to work under his name," Ricardo Aca said in a video profile.

Aca reveals that he crossed the border at the age of 14 with his family and has been living in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn for almost ten years. He went to high school in New York City and earned an associate's degree in commercial photography. Having been here for most of his adolescent to adult life, Aca has grown accustom to the negative stereotypes many have against immigrants.

"I feel like Republicans think Mexicans are lazy, but I personally work three jobs, my stepfather works two jobs," Aca said. "Everything that my family has we have earned it by working."

While other Republican presidential hopefuls have attempted to distance themselves from Trump's anti-Mexican rhetoric, Aca said their own immigration platforms aren't much different from those of the real-estate mogul.

"I may have an accent, but I'm not stupid," he said.

Aca's bold statements provide a personal spotlight on the growing anxiety some immigrants are experiencing as they witness Trump maintaining his position as the Republican front runner.

"We don't know if we should laugh or if we should cry,” Mexican columnist Guadalupe Loaeza told the Washington Post earlier this week. "We think he's really a nightmare."

But Aca offers a more hopeful outlook, saying he doesn't believe most Americans share the same views as Trump. After the video's publication, the payroll department at Trump's hotel restaurant ordered Aca to bring the renewal of his working permits. When he walked entered through the kitchen, he told the Times his fellow co-workers, sushi chefs, and line cooks applauded him.

Emailgate Continues to Be a Nothingburger

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 2:05 PM EDT

Bob Somerby on emailgate:

Yesterday, Candidate Clinton said it again, during a press avail:

“No matter what anybody tries to say, the facts are stubborn. What I did was legally permitted, number one, first and foremost, OK?”

It certainly wasn’t OK on today’s Morning Joe! In that program’s opening segment, everyone said that statement was false—without naming the law or regulation Clinton had violated.

Meanwhile, there’s that passage from the New York Times’ front page, two Sundays ago:

“When she took office in 2009, with ever more people doing government business through email, the State Department allowed the use of home computers as long as they were secure...There appears to have been no prohibition on the exclusive use of a private server.”

We never assume the Times is right concerning such matters. But as is always the case in these matters, the heated discussion of “emailgate” begs for clarification—a service the national press corps is rarely equipped to provide.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that Clinton's use of a private server was unwise. It probably was, something that I think even she's acknowledged. And Clinton has certainly provided some dodgy answers about what she did, which naturally raises suspicions that she might have something to hide. This kind of chary parsing on her part may be due to nothing more than her longstanding distrust of the press, but that only makes it understandable, not sensible.

That said, even when I do my best to take off my tribal hat and look at this affair dispassionately, I just don't see anything:

  • Using a private server was allowed by the State Department when Clinton started doing it.
  • Removing personal emails before turning over official emails appears to be pretty standard practice.
  • None of the emails examined so far has contained anything that was classified at the time it was sent.
  • There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that Clinton used a private server for any nefarious purpose. Maybe she did. But if you want to make this case, you have make it based on more than just timeworn malice toward all things Clinton.

What am I missing? I don't begrudge the press covering emailgate. Republicans are all over it, which makes it a newsworthy issue whether we like it or not. And there has been an inspector general's investigation, as well as an ongoing FBI investigation. That makes it newsworthy too.

But I still want to know: what exactly is being investigated at this point? If you just want to argue that Clinton showed bad judgment, then go to town. That's a legitimate knock on a presidential candidate. But actual malfeasance? Where is it?