Kevin Drum - August 2008

Hillary Clinton

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 9:52 PM EDT

HILLARY CLINTON....Ezra Klein on Hillary Clinton's upcoming convention speech:

For what it's worth, my hunch is Clinton will own the convention. What she needs to do in this speech is so easy and so obvious and will be greeted with such gratitude by the Democratic Party and such rapturous coverage by the media that it's almost inconceivable that she'll pass up the opportunity to be the hero.

I agree, and I'll be shocked if she does anything else. She is going to praise Barack Obama to the skies and rip John McCain several new bodily orifices. There's just no way she's dumb enough to do anything else.

UPDATE: Yep, she came through with flying colors.

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Mark Warner

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 9:46 PM EDT

MARK WARNER....I am distinctly underwhelmed so far. How about you?

The Bush Boom

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 9:40 PM EDT

THE BUSH BOOM....The Bush expansion is over, and Brad DeLong describes it as "the first business cycle during which median household income in America falls from peak to peak." And indeed it is.

The closest we've come to such a dismal recovery in the postwar era was the dreaded stagflation-driven economic expansion of Jimmy Carter's presidency. You remember Carter, don't you? The president vilified by Republicans for decades as almost single-handedly responsible for destroying the American economy.

Poor Jimmy, of course, has gotten a bad rap: he may have had his problems, but he inherited stagflation from his Republican predecessor and, to his credit, eventually had the biggest hand in killing it by appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Fed. George Bush, by contrast, had only a mild recession to tackle when he took office. He inherited a fundamentally strong economy from his Democratic predecessor, immediately set out to manage it with supply-side nostrums that would make Gordon Gecko blush, and after eight years ended up with an economy that wasn't even as good as poor old vilified Jimmy Carter managed in four.

And yet, somehow we're still supposed to believe that Republicans know how to manage economic growth? Can someone please explain this to me?

Maliki and the Sunnis

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 5:22 PM EDT

MALIKI AND THE SUNNIS....I've written before about this, but today Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl tell us yet again that Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government in Baghdad is refusing to incorporate former Sunni militiamen into Iraq's security forces — and that this may soon lead to a renewed outbreak of insurgency. There are lots of things to say about this, but I think this paragraph gets to the heart of things:

The "surge" strategy in Iraq, as described by President Bush in January 2007, rested on the belief that tamping down violence would provide a window of opportunity that Iraq's leaders would use to pursue political reconciliation. But this has not occurred, despite the dramatic security improvements. Indeed, if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki's weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America's blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris.

This problem repeats itself constantly in debates over Iraq policy: no matter what happens, there's a reason to continue doing what we're doing. If Maliki is too weak, he can't compromise with the Sunnis. But now he's too strong, so he doesn't have to compromise with the Sunnis. In either case American troops need to stick around. Likewise, when violence is high, we have to stay to crush it out. But when violence is low, we can't leave because the peace is so fragile. Elections, ditto. Infrastructure, ditto. Regional squabbles, ditto. It's never quite the right time for us to leave.

Brimley and Kahl, like a lot of others, are convinced that there's still some kind of magical middle ground where Maliki is a strong enough leader to enforce his will on a fractured country but a weak enough leader that the U.S. can exert meaningful leverage over him. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly a delusion. That middle ground is a target about an inch wide and nearly impossible to hit, let alone keep our balance on for long. So what happens when Maliki decides it's time to consolidate Shiite power? Joe Klein:

The question now is: what can — or should we do about this? Whose side are we on if Maliki launches the crackdown? Brimley and Kahl think we can influence Maliki's behavior by threatening to withold U.S. military support — but that may be exactly what the overconfident Maliki wants. Then again, what choice do we have? I doubt that even John McCain will argue that the role of the U.S. military will be to defend the Sons of Iraq in the coming battle. My guess is that the end result in Iraq is an authoritarian Maliki- or military-led Shi'ite government, less toxic than Saddam Hussein's, which will stand closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia in the regional Sunni-Shi'ite contest. The war in Iraq will not have been "lost," but can this be reasonably described as "victory?" I think not. It can be best described as a terrible, shameful waste of lives and resources.

One way or another, Iraqis are going to solve Iraq's problems. Our presence only puts off that day, it doesn't eliminate it. More here from Marc Lynch.

Housing Update

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 1:33 PM EDT

HOUSING UPDATE....The latest housing market news:

Home prices fell a record annual 15.9 percent in June, but the monthly rate of decline slowed from May which suggested the decimated housing sector may be stabilizing, according to Standard & Poor's on Tuesday.

This stuff is notoriously hard to get a handle on, but it's possible that the housing market really is stabilizing. I originally posted the chart on the right a couple of months ago, and when the numbers are updated through June they look even more encouraging than they did then. Month-to-month declines in the Case-Shiller 20-city index have been getting steadily smaller, and in June there was barely any decline at all.

On the other hand, this stuff is seasonal and we might start seeing larger declines again in a couple of months. Past performance is no guarantee of future results etc. etc., and plenty of teaser rates have yet to reset. Still, it's a tiny ray of sunshine.

YouTube

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 12:52 PM EDT

YOUTUBE....Jason Zengerle on John McCain's recent spate of attack ads:

Eve asks whether the McCain campaign will release a new Hillary ad every day this week. Of course it will — so long as we in the media keep linking to the ads and doing news segments about them on TV. I'd love to know from our readers in these "key battleground states" where the ads are supposed to air whether they've actually seen any of them on TV, other than the times they've seen reports about them on CNN and Fox and MSNBC.

I'll go a little further. The majority of these "YouTube ads" are designed solely to get media attention, not to be seriously used as part of the campaign. If they were podcasts, or blog posts, or flyers, or email blasts, the media would ignore them if their purpose were so transparent. I mean, who cares about a flyer produced in small quantities and handed out only to the media?

But if it's video, it's news! I couldn't really say why, aside from the fact that the media is convinced that YouTube is a transformative election medium even though there's precious little evidence to back this up. So I'd say this: cable news stations need to stop being played for suckers. Unless a campaign says it's committed to a serious ad buy for the video in question, it's time to quit playing the game. Wise up and treat 'em the same way you treat attack email blasts.

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Reinventing John McCain

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 12:01 PM EDT

REINVENTING JOHN McCAIN....Eric Alterman listens to Tom Brokaw and can't believe his ears:

Discussing McCain's success in the Republican primaries, Brokaw attributed it to the candidate's "indomitable will," and opined that McCain won by simply being "the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself."

This is not only wrong, but diametrically, screamingly wrong. It's not a difficult point — McCain won the primaries specifically by reversing himself on taxes, immigration, the religious right, and virtually every other issue important to the hard right. These policies were not only blazingly visible — Mitt Romney and others called him on it loudly during the Republican debates — but obviously destructive, as the last eight years have proven.

And yet, here is Brokaw saying of the candidate who by far has done the most to change his positions that McCain was "the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself."

It is indeed a vast mystery. It's not just that McCain has changed a lot of his positions, it's the fact that he's so plainly changed them purely for the sake of political expediency. "Learning his lesson" on immigration in front of CPAC. Knuckling under to the Club for Growth on tax cut inanity. Demonstrating his right-wing bona fides to the Wall Street Journal editorial page by quietly watering down his energy plan into near uselessness. Embracing Jerry Falwell on the stage at Liberty University. ("Are you going into crazy base world?" asked Jon Stewart at the time. "I'm afraid so," McCain answered, in a rare display of naked honesty.)

McCain has been desperately pandering to the GOP base for the past two years, and he's been doing it perfectly publicly and with only the thinnest veneer of explanation. But I guess it's indelicate to mention it for some reason. After all, haven't I heard somewhere that he spent a few years as a POW during the Vietnam War?

Healthcare News

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 11:25 AM EDT

HEALTHCARE NEWS....The percentage of Americans without health insurance went down last year. Hooray! Except for this:

Before anybody gets the idea that we no longer need health care reform, take a closer look at the numbers. Enrollment in private insurance continued to decline in percentage terms, mostly because the percentage of people with employer-sponsored coverage fell from 59.7 to 59.3. The reason the overall numbers look good is rising enrollment in public insurance programs, particularly Medicaid.

This is, in the end, a good reason for even conservatives to support (or at least not get too bent out of shape about) healthcare reform along the lines Barack Obama has proposed. The alternative, like it or not, is probably a steady increase in Medicaid and emergency room use, and even on conservative grounds a decently designed universal system would be a better alternative than that.

Michelle Obama

| Mon Aug. 25, 2008 11:59 PM EDT

MICHELLE OBAMA....I'll confess that I find it almost impossible to judge political speeches. My attention usually wanders a bit because I've heard all (or most) of it before, I'm hyper-aware that it's all heavily staged and that every word is designed for a particular purpose, etc. etc. Because of this, to me personally, political speeches seem like specimens, not things that I myself have any genuine connection to.

So instead, I just try to guess how they're going to go over with other people. Unfortunately, I have no idea. And frankly, I don't think any of the talking heads on TV have any idea either. So they just follow each others' leads.

That said, my initial reaction to Michelle Obama's speech was that it was fine, but a little artificial sounding. But everyone else seems to think it was a home run. Do they really know? Are they just saying that out of partisan loyalty? Are they saying it because everyone else is saying it? Or was it genuinely a home run?

I dunno. I'm afraid I'm autistic on this particular wavelength. What did you all think?

Maliki to Bush: Time to Leave the Island

| Mon Aug. 25, 2008 10:39 PM EDT

MALIKI TO BUSH: TIME TO LEAVE THE ISLAND....This sure doesn't sound like an "aspirational" timeline to me:

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said Monday there would be no security agreement between the United States and Iraq without an unconditional timetable for withdrawal — a direct challenge to the Bush administration, which insists that the timing for troop departure would be based on conditions on the ground.

"No pact or an agreement should be set without being based on full sovereignty, national common interests, and no foreign soldier should remain on Iraqi land, and there should be a specific deadline and it should not be open," Maliki told a meeting of tribal Sheikhs in Baghdad.

Maliki said that the United States and Iraq had agreed that all foreign troops would be off Iraqi soil by the end of 2011. "There is an agreement actually reached, reached between the two parties on a fixed date, which is the end of 2011, to end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil," Maliki said.

Obvious caveat: Maliki is a politician, and politicians spin things differently to different audiences. If he were speaking at a joint press conference with President Bush, I'll bet his tone would be a little softer.

That said, Maliki's been pretty consistent on this point for weeks, ever since he first endorsed Barack Obama's 16-month timeline in an interview with Der Spiegel. The final wording of the SOFA will probably contain just enough equivocal language to allow George Bush to save some face, but don't kid yourself: Maliki wants a firm commitment from us that we're going to leave. There's only a limited amount of spin that Bush and McCain can put on that.