Kevin Drum - May 2010

Sometimes a Primary is Just a Primary

| Thu May. 20, 2010 11:21 AM PDT

Speaking of volatility, how about Matt Bai? He seems to swing between genuinely keen insights and the laziest of conventional wisdom on almost a weekly basis. Today, unfortunately, is the latter: Tuesday's election results, says Bai, demonstrate an anti-incumbent wave, a new era of divisive primaries, the loss of party power, and the end of issues-based politics. I'm pretty sure I've been hearing about all four of those things since at least the mid-70s, but this in particular was gobsmacking:

What all this probably means is that we are living in the era of the upstart. Thirty years ago, when you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office, taking it to the establishment was a quixotic venture undertaken on the national level, where a Jesse Jackson or a Pat Buchanan could at least make a powerful statement along the road to obliteration. (Recall Jimmy Carter’s indictment of Jerry Brown in 1976: “Don’t send them a message, send them a president.”)

Jonathan Bernstein comments acerbically:

It seems that Bai has heard of Jimmy Carter. That's good! Now, my assignment for Matt Bai: go back and read about Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign....Citing Jimmy Carter to make a point that thirty years ago "you needed a party infrastructure to make a serious run for higher office" is like citing Spiro Agnew to make the point that at forty years ago, only seriously accomplished politicians with a deserved reputation for personal integrity were considered for the Vice Presidency.

The rest is an epic takedown of the entire piece. Read it. Reporters really, really need to stop drawing monumental conclusions from a few tiny data points. Especially when they have to twist even the few data points they have in order to do it.

And speaking of things reporters should stop doing, Somerby is good on the Richard Blumenthal affair today. Be sure to read down to the summary of Christopher Keating's appearance on The NewsHour two nights ago. Blumenthal may be guilty of misstating his service record once — twice at a stretch — but Keating has been covering him for years and was never under the slightest misapprehension about Blumenthal's past. Based on the evidence to date, the New York Times seems to have overplayed its hand on this pretty seriously.

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The Fear Index

| Thu May. 20, 2010 10:34 AM PDT

The VIX index is a measure of stock market volatility. When it goes up, it means investors are afraid that the market is likely to swing wildly and unpredictably. Thus its nickname: the fear index.

And, as you can see on the right, the market is plenty fearful these days. Not as fearful as late 2008, when the VIX index broke 80 for a couple of months — at least, not yet — but it's heading there.

Why? Let us count the ways. Problems in the eurozone. Inflation fears in the U.S. The housing bubble in China. Persistent unemployment. The "flash crash" earlier this month that no one seems able to properly explain. Rising oil prices in the midst of flat economic conditions. Continuing global imbalances that are starting to seem nearly intractable. Mortgage delinquency rates in the U.S. that have risen to nearly 10%. Etc. And fear is the economy's worst enemy. If it doesn't abate, panic is next.

Rand Paul and Civil Rights

| Thu May. 20, 2010 9:51 AM PDT

Last night Rand Paul, fresh off his primary victory in Kentucky, explained that he didn't support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant," he said in an interview, "but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership." And if private lunch counter owners want to prevent blacks from eating there, that's their right. "This is the hard part about believing in freedom."

Bruce Bartlett, hardly an enemy of the free market, goes to town:

In 1883 the Supreme Court, then in its most libertarian phase, knocked down the 1875 [Civil Rights] act as well as many other Republican measures passed during Reconstruction designed to aid African Americans. The Court's philosophy in these cases led logically to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which essentially gave constitutional protection to legal segregation enforced by state and local governments throughout the U.S.

....The libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn't work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.

....Rand's position is that [the Civil Rights Act] was wrong in principle in 1964. There is no other way of interpreting this except as an endorsement of all the things the Civil Rights Act was designed to prohibit, as favoring the status quo throughout the South that would have led to a continuation of segregation and discrimination against African Americans at least for many more years. Undoubtedly, changing mores would have broken down some of this over time, but there is no reason to believe that it would have been quick or that vestiges wouldn't still remain today. Indeed, vestiges remain despite the Civil Rights Act.

Bartlett's recommendation: "I believe that Rand should admit that he was wrong as quickly as possible." It's good advice. I'll bet Rand Paul doesn't take it.

UPDATE: I'm playing catchup here. Sorry. Here's Rand Paul's latest statement: "Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws."

OK. But why did he say otherwise yesterday? Inquiring minds want to know.

Quote of the Day: Holograms

| Thu May. 20, 2010 9:20 AM PDT

From Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), admitting that he's never used an ATM machine:

It's true, I don't know how to use one. But I could learn how to do it just like I've . . . I swipe to get my own gas, buy groceries. I know about the holograms.

The Omaha World-Herald notes that after mentioning the holograms, "Nelson clarified that he meant the bar codes on products read by automatic scanners in the checkout lanes at stores such as Lowe's and Menard's." Glad we got that cleared up.

(Via Steve Benen.)

Is Iraq's Middle Class Giving Up?

| Thu May. 20, 2010 9:07 AM PDT

In the LA Times today, Borzou Daragahi provides one of the most pessimistic assessments I've seen yet of Iraq's future. The continuing stalemate over the election, he says, along with the violence it's provoked, is causing the Iraqi middle class to give up once and for all:

Over the last 30 months of relative security and economic progress, Iraq's middle class and intelligentsia had emerged from the shadows of war and exile, strutting around town without head scarves or cruising through gleaming new shopping districts.

But now, as they watch the camp of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose allies control the nation's security apparatus, jostle with that of Iyad Allawi, backed by some of the same Sunni Arabs who support the insurgency, they are preparing to dash back into hiding.

....Whether Iraq slides back into the despair or manages to limp forward, the gloom threatens to undermine what little faith Iraqis had in the country's future, say dozens of Iraqis across the country. "We made sacrifices," said Hassan Raheem Rahoun, 40, a hairstylist who moved back to Iraq from Libya two years ago and is considering leaving again. "We put our lives on the line when we went to the polls and voted for the most appropriate person. It didn't work.

...."Now the street is afraid of the return of sectarianism," said Ahmad Mohammad, 36, a computer and telecommunications specialist who works at a vendor of Canon photocopy machines, where sales have dropped by two-thirds since a few days before the election. "I can describe the situation as a time bomb. You don't know when it's going to explode."

This is just one data point, and like any "trend" story in any country that's based primarily on anecdotes it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But the picture it paints is a bleak one.

Reining In Leverage

| Thu May. 20, 2010 8:32 AM PDT

Mike Konczal, after noting that U.S. officials are trying to weaken European proposals for tougher capital requirements, explains how Susan Collins' Senate amendment to tighten up capital requirements would work:

No more capital loopholes! No more playing BS games where a firm creates a trust and does financial engineering alchemy to pretend that debt is equity. Serious, quality capital is required for our largest and most systemically risky banks.

This is probably the real fight. When it comes to increasing capital under the Dodd Bill you can practically hear the banks say: “Yes we’ll hold more capital as long as massive amount of risky debt turned into ‘safe’ equity through the shenanigans of our financial engineers can count as that capital.” Do we need to do that all over again?

Enough people think these points are implied in Section II of the bill, but the ability to have discretion on this point is something the regulators are fighting tooth and nail over. And here’s something fascinating: for all the talk about how Basel III and “international agreements” will fix our bank capital problems, the US is fighting this over there too. Check out the bold above; having serious quality capital for our banks is a major disagreement between the US and the Europeans, with the US wanting weaker requirements, and if their hands are tied here then they’ll be tied over there where they could possibly win this.

There's no way to get around the fact that regulators need a fair amount of discretion no matter what kind of rules you set up. That's just the nature of a highly complex, fast moving area like high finance. But we can set reasonable floors, and when both Treasury and the banks are fighting those floors tooth and nail it doesn't bode well for how seriously they take this stuff.

The CFPA is great. Resolution authority is great. Clearing derivatives trades is great. But if we pass financial reform without addressing financial system leverage in any kind of serious way, we've wasted our time. Keeping Collins' amendment intact ought to be a key goal for the progressive community — or, for that matter, for any community that cares about creating a sane banking system. Read Mike's post for more.

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Financial Reform in Limbo

| Wed May. 19, 2010 10:20 PM PDT

We've got good news and bad news today. The bad news is that Harry Reid tried to invoke cloture on financial reform and failed. The good news is that it's primarily because a couple of Democratic senators voted against cloture in order to give themselves time to introduce amendments that would make the legislation tougher.

If it works — if their amendments pass quickly and cloture gets invoked soon — it will have been worth it. But if the bill gets delayed much longer, it's in trouble. The reason, as usual, is Republican obstructionism. Ezra Klein explains:

It's worth saying why Reid wants to move to a final vote. The answer is floor time. Next week, the Senate is scheduled to take up the next war supplemental, which will have funding both for Iraq and Afghanistan and also for various disaster-relief efforts, and it will take up a bill to extend economic supports for the jobless. If the Senate doesn't finish financial regulation this week, it probably can't do those bills next week because the GOP's routine filibusters mean that each vote will require days of floor time. And the plan, as of now, is for the Senate to adjourn come Memorial Day. Of course, the Senate could just choose to work past memorial Day, which would solve the problem of floor time.

Most Republican filibusters aren't really meant to kill bills. In fact, in a lot of cases, once the bills finally come to the floor they get overwhelming Republican support. What they're meant to do is delay. The longer it takes to pass bills, the fewer bills get passed. Mitch McConnell knows that financial reform is going to pass eventually, and given the anti-Wall Street sentiment among the electorate it's likely that a lot of Republicans will feel like they have to vote for it. But if you can make it eat up a lot of floor time, it means Democrats can't do much of anything else. And as far as Republicans are concerned, the less that Democrats can do the better.

Identity and Politics

| Wed May. 19, 2010 3:17 PM PDT

Responding to my post last night about what kinds of things we have a right to know about public figures, Andrew Sullivan says:

Drum objects to asking public figures about their sex lives. So do I. I have zero interest — less than zero, actually — in Elena Kagan's sex life or lack of it. I do have an interest in someone's public identity. And how many times can I say this before my straight friends get it? Being gay is not about your sex life. It's about a core element of your identity, one that no gay person can bypass or ignore.

This is right. I made up a list of questions about sexual activity and compared them to the question of whether someone is gay. That was a screwup. But

(You knew there was a but coming, didn't you?)

But — Andrew says he's interested in people's "public identity." And this gets to the core of my disagreement with him. Maybe I'm just mired in a different era, but I believe pretty passionately that people should be allowed a wide latitude to display themselves to the public however they want. There are limits, of course, because lots of aspects of our identities are inherently public — Barack Obama is black, Hillary Clinton is a woman — but this doesn't inescapably mean that we should also be required, as a prerequisite to public service, to make even the less visible parts of our identity visible whether we want to or not. Some of these less visible aspects, it's true, might well affect the way a Supreme Court justice views the law. But that's just logic chopping. Every aspect of identity potentially affects the way a Supreme Court justice views the law. It's the nature of the job. But that doesn't automatically mean that we the public have the right to know every last trace of their personal identities. At some point, you just have to accept that other people are always enigmatic in certain ways and that enigma is part of the human condition. You can never be absolutely sure of what's on their mind or how it will ultimately affect their future conduct.

This is true of more than just sexual identity. Suppose, for example, that Jane Jones grew up in an abusive household. Suppose her father came home drunk every night, beat up her mother, and terrorized the family. And this went on for years. Do you think that would inform her identity as much as growing up gay? If you're not sure, you should probably talk to someone who's been through this before you make up your mind.

Now, does the public have a right to know this if Jane is nominated to the Supreme Court? I don't think so. If Jane chooses to talk about this, perhaps because she's become an advocate for domestic violence causes, that's her right. But if she chooses not to, perhaps because her mother is still alive and she knows that public discussion of this would cause her considerable pain, that's her right too. And this is her right even if domestic violence groups believe their cause would be advanced if more victims told their stories publicly. It's still her right.

Ditto for sexual identity. Like Andrew, I wish there were no such thing as a closeted gay person. When every single one of them lives their lives openly we'll be that much closer to being a decent society. And like Andrew, I'm happy to advocate this in public argument.

But that's a very different thing than badgering a specific person to talk about an aspect of their identity whether they want to or not. That's just not our decision to make. It's theirs. And even if we happily chatter about this stuff endlessly with our friends — because we are, after all, a gossipy species — nothing changes. It's still not right to make this into a public campaign.

Are Incumbents an Endangered Species?

| Wed May. 19, 2010 12:48 PM PDT

Via James Joyner, Republican pollster Glen Bolger thinks the "anti-incumbent" hype is overblown. The real story, he says, is that candidates got punished on both sides of the aisle for not toeing the party line:

Senator Specter’s loss was actually a double defeat. Because he voted for the stimulus package, he baited Pat Toomey into switching from the Governor’s race to the Senate race. Specter’s poll numbers in a GOP primary were far too weak to win a primary – he choose to switch parties rather than retire. However, his previous support for George W. Bush and other Republicans (and GOP policies) meant Democratic voters couldn’t trust him. Specter’s once legendary ability to both annoy and please conservatives, moderates, and liberals caught up to him in this time of hyper polarization.

Lincoln is facing the same traumas from the left — she is perceived by many unions and liberals as not supportive enough of their agenda, and thus not worthy of renomination.

An incumbent all but in name, Charlie Crist should be in that same body count of politicians who “lost” their party’s nomination for not being orthodox enough. His support for the stimulus package made him persona non grata among a GOP primary electorate looking for someone to fight against the framework of bigger government spending more money.

Alan Mollohan is the exception to this trend, says Bolger, and I think I'd add Bob Bennett to that list. Sponsoring the Wyden-Bennett healthcare bill, which was never in play and never went anywhere, doesn't really seem like it would normally count for much, and lots of Republicans ended up voting for TARP. Aside from that, Bennett toed the GOP line pretty strongly and always got high marks from conservative advocacy groups. So I'd have to classify his loss as due at least partly to anti-incumbent fervor.

Still, that's pretty thin to hang a trend on. One of Steve Benen's readers makes a similar argument here and Nick Baumann has some related thoughts here. Overall, I'd say the press should show a little caution on this. A bunch of incumbents will surely lose in November because a bunch of incumbents always lose in midterm elections when the economy is lousy, but beyond that it's not clear that anything all that unusual happened yesterday. Tea parties make good copy, but that's no excuse for swallowing their PR whole. From where I sit, it looks like the anti-incumbent tide is being pretty seriously overplayed.

Some Weak Sanctions on Iran

| Wed May. 19, 2010 9:44 AM PDT

The draft resolution imposing UN sanctions on Iran was released yesterday, and sure enough, it's pretty weak tea. The Washington Post summarizes:

Among other measures, the resolution would expand an asset freeze and travel ban against individuals and entities linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps....The resolution would establish an embargo on large weapons systems such as battle tanks, combat aircraft and missiles [...] but would not include the comprehensive arms embargo sought by the United States and France. Iran could continue to buy light weapons.

....The resolution would establish a "framework" for inspections of suspect cargo at sea or in ports....Moreover, financial institutions that establish "reasonable grounds" to believe Iranian banks or other firms are evading sanctions are called upon to block any financial transactions, including the issuance of insurance or reinsurance, related to banned proliferation activities.

....The Obama administration failed to win approval for key proposals it had sought, including restrictions on Iran's lucrative oil trade, a comprehensive ban on financial dealings with the Guard Corps and a U.S.-backed proposal to halt new investment in the Iranian energy sector.

Even at that, though, Turkey and Brazil are pissed because this takes the shine off the pledge they got from Iran on Monday to ship some of its uranium stockpile out of the country for further enrichment. It's not clear how big a deal this is in the long run, especially since UN sanctions aren't generally very effective anyway, but Tehran has certainly played its cards cleverly. The full text of the resolution is here.