Kevin Drum - May 2010

Rand Paul, More Than Just Another Nutcase

| Wed May 19, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

This is gonna be a long day. The interwebs basically have nothing except endless dissections of Tuesday's primary races, about which I have nothing new to add, so instead let's take the low road and just gossip a bit. Here's Josh Marshall on tea party crank Rand Paul, son of ur-crank Ron Paul, who won his race against Trey Grayson in Kentucky yesterday:

I couldn't help notice something about his brief acceptance speech and I'm curious to hear whether any of you had a similar take. I don't think I'd ever seen Paul speak at any length. Or if I did I don't have a clear recollection of it. And he came off to me as arrogant, bellicose and even a little messianic in his demeanor. To put it baldly, he sounded like a jerk.

And a bit later:

News came out overnight that Paul allegedly refused to take Trey Grayson's concession phone call last night. I think this last charge requires a little caution. The one making the charge is Grayson's campaign manager, who obviously is far from a neutral observer. And Paul's campaign manager says it wasn't a sleight. He was just "in transit and could not take the call." So who knows?

But I am getting the impression that Paul — aside from just being very unlikeable in personal terms — may be a much more divisive figure than one might from any Tea Party candidate who snatches away a nomination from an establishment party figure....A poll out yesterday showed that Grayson supporters in Kentucky simply hate Rand Paul in a way that goes way beyond the normal aftermath of a contested primary....I get the sense there's a whole issue of personality (and messianism) that's going to be in play in that race beyond quite apart from ideology narrowly construed.

That's what I like to hear: I think it would be great if the tea party cranks lost big in November just because they're a bunch of stubborn, unlikeable, messianic crackpots. It probably won't happen, but I can hope. More like this, please.

UPDATE: And before you say, "Hey, at least Rand Paul is good on civil liberties" — well, it turns out he's not, really.

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Greenspan the Partisan Crank

| Wed May 19, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

I have strong memories of Alan Greenspan's bizarro justification in 2001 for insisting that we stop running federal budget surpluses. It was convoluted, it didn't make sense, and it was pretty obvious partisan hackery. But I confess that either I've forgotten, or I never quite realized, just how eccentric it really was. "I've seen theories this convoluted and loopy before," says Jon Chait, after reminding us of Greenspan's concluding flourish, "But they've usually been scrawled in long-hand by random cranks who mail letters to magazines." No kidding.

UPDATE: Just out curiosity, is there anyone around today who actually defends Greenspan's position back then? Maybe Larry Kudlow or Donald Luskin? Anyone?

Glenn Beck's Gold Fetish

| Wed May 19, 2010 1:50 AM EDT

When Glenn Beck tells you that Barack Obama is going to crater the economy and you should buy gold to protect yourself, he recommends that you buy your gold from Goldline. And what kind of gold should you buy? Well, the government might just up and decide to confiscate gold bullion someday, so he says your best bet is collectors' coins. And as Stephanie Mencimer reports, that suits Goldline just fine:

What Goldline doesn't say upfront is that for its own bottom line, collector coins are a lot more lucrative than mere bullion. Profits in the coin business are based on "spread," the difference between the price at which a coin is sold and the price at which the dealer will buy it back. Most coin dealers, including Goldline, will sell a one-ounce bullion coin for about 5 percent more than they'll buy it back for, a figure that closely tracks the price of an ounce of gold on the commodities markets. That 5 percent spread doesn't leave a lot of room for profits, much less running dozens of ads a week on national radio and cable programs, with endorsements by everyone from Beck to Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and Dennis Miller. So, Goldline rewards its salespeople for persuading would-be bullion buyers to purchase something with a bigger markup.

Twenty-franc Swiss coins are a little smaller than a nickel and contain a little less than two-tenths of an ounce of gold. The coins are about 60 to 110 years old and not especially hard to find (though Goldline describes them as "rare"). They are not fully considered collectors' items nor commodities, making their value more subjective than bullion's. Goldline sets a 30 to 35 percent "spread" on the coins, meaning that it will pay $375 to buy back coins it's currently selling for $500. At that rate, gold prices would have to jump by a third just for customers to recoup their investment, never mind making a profit. Investing in Goldline's 20 francs would be like buying a blue chip stock that lost a third of its value the minute it's purchased. It's difficult to think of any other investment that loses so much value almost instantly. So what persuades people to buy anyway?

The short answer is: a hard sell from the Goldline sales force. For the long answer, click the link and read Stephanie's investigation into the tangled and abusive web between Beck, Goldline, conservative talk radio, and their all-too-credulous customers. It's not a pretty story.

What Can You Ask a Public Figure?

| Tue May 18, 2010 9:29 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan explains why he thinks it's OK to ask public figures if they're gay:

If someone's entire private life is on the table except that, it's a function of homophobia. Period. A gay person is free to adopt such a homophobic veil; but a reporter need not enable it. So when does Benjy Sarlin write a piece on his own magazine's "ethics"?

Look. I get why Andrew feels this way. And if that really were the only thing off the table, he'd have a point. But here's a short sample of other questions that are generally off limits when you're interviewing public figures:

  • So, have you ever had an affair?
  • Do you masturbate when your wife isn't around?
  • Have you ever had a three-way?
  • Do you download a lot of porn from the internet? Or do you prefer buying it old school on the newsstand?
  • I think Asian guys are really hot. How about you?

Notice a trend? They're all related to your sex life. And they're all generally off limits unless (a) you've put it on the table yourself, (b) there's a specific reason to ask about it, or (c) you're part of the gossip circuit where nothing is off limits in the first place. I mean, this is common sense. If you're interviewing Ricky Martin or Silvio Berlusconi, that's one thing. If you're interviewing someone who's obviously eager to talk about their sex life, go to town. But if you're interviewing a Supreme Court justice or the CEO of Goldman Sachs, you just don't bring this stuff up. Come on.

UPDATE: This was poorly worded. I didn't mean to equate sexual identity and sexual activity this baldly or to make it the main point of this post. More here.

George Bush and History

| Tue May 18, 2010 6:52 PM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein takes a crack today at figuring out where George Bush went wrong. He starts out by noting that presidents aren't, themselves, experts in much of anything, and then quotes Richard Neustadt on the big exception: "When it comes to power, nobody is expert but the President." Unfortunately, he says, Bush wasn't:

What Neustadt means here is that presidents can aggressively use the information available to them [...] to sense and avoid policy disasters. They'll do so, he believes, because policy disasters for the nation are political disasters for its president, and what presidents are really experts in is avoiding political disaster....They're suppose to have excellent political antennae. Presumably, they wouldn't have made it to the White House without them.

....Unless, that is, the president isn't an expert. And so back to George W. Bush.

We're still early in the building of the history of the Bush years, but here's my guess. We'll find that what we saw was pretty much what was happening. He didn't act aggressively when faced with potential policy disaster — whether we're talking about the summer of 2001 and terrorism, or 2003-2005 in Iraq, or 2004-2008 and Afghanistan, or 2007-2008 and the economy, or Katrina, or anything else. We're going to find that he strutted around a good deal, but was otherwise passive and indifferent, and easily manipulated by those around him. And my guess is we're going to find the big things that went wrong (terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, the economy) joined by dozens of smaller things that slipped through the cracks for eight years. One last time: I'm not talking about ideology or policy, just the basic skills of the presidency.

I think I'd put this a little differently. The problem isn't that Bush wasn't an expert at sensing the political winds and understanding partisan coalitions. He was. In fact, great political antennae were pretty much all he had, and that was the problem: he seemed to believe that politics and ideology were everything. It's not that he didn't care about policy disasters, it's that he never seemed to believe that policy actually mattered. And if policy doesn't matter, how can it ever lead to disaster?

You can see this in the things that interested him and the things that didn't. When the subject was something simple and ideologically pure, he was genuinely engaged. This list includes things like tax cuts, making war on Saddam Hussein, privatizing Social Security, and Terri Schiavo. But when the subject was something that was inherently more policy heavy, he just went through the motions. This list includes things like NCLB, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, prescription drugs, and Katrina.

Bush's problem wasn't a lack of appreciation for power and how to wield it. His problem was that he fundamentally didn't believe that policy had any real impact on how things turned out. My sense of the man is that he viewed government as a machine that always ran with the same level of competence, so it was foolish to waste your time worrying about that. Just give the right orders and let the chips fall where they may. They're going to fall about the same way regardless, a mix of good and bad, and the best a president can do is make sure they at least fall in the right direction.

There's an odd myth in Republican circles that presidents should act like CEOs, and the way CEOs act is to hire good people and then get out of their way. But nobody who's been a CEO actually believes that. Different managers have different appetites for hands-on management, but no good CEO thinks that she can just hand out some marching orders and then head off to the links for a quick nine holes. Execution matters. But George bought into the myth as thoroughly as any president in history, and he (and we) paid the price for that.

Birthers vs. Truthers

| Tue May 18, 2010 5:23 PM EDT

Jonah Goldberg thinks the truther movement is every bit as insidious as the birther movement. Responding to a post by Jon Chait suggesting that there really is a difference, here's his case:

Forgetting that a Truther — Van Jones — had a significant foothold within the White House itself, this really isn't that great an argument. I'm willing to concede, at least for the sake of argument, that the Birthers have more prominence in the GOP than Truthers had in the Democratic Party. But let's not pretend that truther-style nuttery wasn't indulged by the Democrats (nor forget that Trutherism is a vastly more evil and pernicious worldview than birtherism). Michael Moore, who sat in Jimmy Carter's skybox at the Democratic Convention, was embraced by the leadership of the Democratic Party. Moore believed 9/11 was an "inside job." Cynthia McKinney first broached the "inside job" thesis while she was still a Democratic congresswoman.

This kind of argument comes up all the time, but it misses the point. There are whackjobs and bomb throwers willing to embrace conspiracy theories on both sides. But there's a profound difference here between right and left: on the left it's mostly just whackjobs and bomb throwers who buy into the truther story. Goldberg can only name one actual Democratic politician who's a truther, and guess what? She lost her seat in Congress almost immediately after her statements about 9/11 — and when she returned in 2005 the Democratic leadership didn't exactly welcome her with open arms. As for Van Jones, he signed a truther petition years ago, disavowed it completely, and was nonetheless bounced from his midlevel job coordinating green initiatives.

Compare that to the birthers. It's bad enough that prominent conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Liz Cheney, and Sean Hannity have flirted with the birthers. But what's worse is that birtherism seems to be a perfectly acceptable belief among actual Republican leaders. Sarah Palin thinks it's a question well worth asking. Roy Blunt isn't sure Obama is a citizen. Dick Shelby thinks it's curious that we haven't seen Obama's birth certificate. Michele Bachmann recently showed up at a tea party event and palled around with birther queen Orly Taitz. My congressman, John Campbell, said that Obama was a citizen "as far as I know" and then, with a wink and a nod, cosponsored a bill requiring presidential candidates to submit a birth certificate. The bill currently has 13 Republican cosponsors.

This is just a huge difference. With the ambiguous exception of McKinney, who's not exactly a big wheel in Democratic politics, there's just no one of any stature on the liberal/Democratic side of the aisle who buys into trutherism. If Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne and Rachel Maddow took it up, that would be one thing. If Dick Durbin and John Conyers and George Miller and Jerry Nadler were truthers, that would be another. But they aren't. They don't flirt with it, they don't make jokes about it, and they don't pander to their lefty base by delivering clever applause lines about it. But where the birthers are concerned, Republican politicians and significant conservative thought leaders do. That's the difference.

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Quote of the Day: Our Demand for Idiocy

| Tue May 18, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

From Maureen Tkacik, the Dr. Jekyll side of former Jezebel writer Moe Tkacik:

What I sensed was that while the laws of supply and demand governed everything on earth, the easy money was in demand—manufacturing it, manipulating it, sending it forth to multiply, etc. As a rule of thumb (and with some notable exceptions), the profit margins you could achieve selling a good or service were directly correlated to the total idiocy and/or moral bankruptcy of the demand you drummed up for it. This was easier to grasp if you were in the business of peddling heroin, Internet stocks, or celebrity gossip; journalists, on the other hand, were at a conspicuous disadvantage when it came to understanding their role in this equation.

Tkacik developed this sense not while she was working for Jezebel, but while she was working for the Wall Street Journal in the early aughts. The rest of the piece is quite interesting too, though I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. But worth a read.

Public and Private

| Tue May 18, 2010 2:06 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan explains why he blogged last week about Elena Kagan's sexual orientation:

I was caught between two very powerful impulses: the ethical desire not to say anything untrue or unverifiable and the ethical compulsion I felt to be totally honest with my readers about what I made of the passing scene from day to day....And I could not wait or duck. A columnist can do that; a blogger cannot. To have stopped myself asking of Kagan's orientation would have been, to my mind, something of a rupture of trust between me and Dish readers. It would have erected a barrier between my own thoughts and what I allowed to appear on the blog.

I don't get this. A compulsion not to simply parrot the conventional wisdom or pull your punches I understand. But isn't silence ever an option? There's no rule that says every passing thought has to be memorialized in a blog post, is there?

Mitch McConnell's Problem

| Tue May 18, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

They're voting today in Kentucky — lucky devils, getting it over with now instead of making their residents endure yet another month of ravenous attack ads — and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's handpicked candidate is in a tough race. Josh Green reports:

In my talks with voters on the campaign trail today and yesterday, the idea that the Republican Party is as complicit as the Democratic Party in what ails the country is something I heard again and again. I made a point of seeking out registered Republican voters, and the frustration with Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator and the Senate Minority Leader, seemed indistinguishable from — or perhaps better to say, "was a large part of" — the general frustration with Washington. "Republicans in Washington, D.C. are just playing 'follow the leader,' Janice Cox told me at a rally in Paducah earlier today, to which she'd brought her daughter, grandchildren, and a jumbo-sized American flag. "We need a true constitutional conservative."

Jon Chait notes that McConnell "must want to tear his hair out." After all, he's relentlessly opposed Obama and the Democrats, and the fact that he hasn't been successful is largely due to the simple fact that Democrats have a huge majority in the Senate.

Mainly, of course, McConnell's woes are a demonstration of what happens when people get pissed off: they don't really care much about objective reality, they just want to register a protest. And voting for Mitch McConnell's guy doesn't feel like a protest.

But there's a second-string angle to this story that's sort of delicious too. Basically, the lesson is that if you live by the Senate rules, you can also die by the Senate rules. McConnell, after all, didn't fight Obama by mounting a loud and uncompromising PR campaign against him. That would have been counterproductive. Instead, he did what a Senate leader can do: he worked behind the scenes to keep his caucus united and manipulated parliamentary procedure and the Senate's absurd rulebook to engineer an endless series of filibuster, holds, and delaying tactics. He did a pretty good job of it, too.

The problem is that this has now come back to haunt him. Democrats spent the past year complaining about how McConnell could do all this stuff and stay below the radar with it, not getting beaten up by the press for his tactics because they were so arcane. Back then, that worked well for McConnell. But now, staying below the radar is hurting him. Filibusters are pretty limp affairs these days, which makes them not just boring to reporters, but invisible to your supporters too. In the end, if Harry Reid had forced McConnell and his team to show up on the Senate floor and make a real production out of their filibusters, he might be in better shape with his constituents right now and his endorsement of Trey Grayson might be worth a bit more.

Plus, of course, there's the fact that McConnell lost and Obama won. There's just no excuse for that. But losing in a blaze of glory probably would have done him more good than losing in the Senate cloakroom.

Arguing About Civil Liberties

| Tue May 18, 2010 12:22 PM EDT

The blogosphere sure can be a weird place sometimes. A couple of days ago Matt Yglesias wrote a short post suggesting that, unfortunately, public opinion is broadly in favor of constraining civil liberties if that's what it takes to fight terrorism. Since public opinion underlies a lot of what presidents do, this means that civil libertarians need to work harder to shift public opinion on this subject.

Glenn Greenwald fired back today, calling this the "Public Opinion Excuse" and arguing (among other things) that presidents don't follow public opinon slavishly, they have the ability to mold public opinion themselves if they want to, and civil libertarians ought to be directly pressuring both Obama and the Democratic Party on this issue. Matt responded, "I just wanted to note for the record, officially, that I don’t believe any of the things he’s decided to attributed to me."

WTF? There's not even an argument here. It's like asking whether ice cream is sweet or cold. It's both. Of course public opinion plays an enormous role in shaping public policy in a democracy. It constrains presidents in what they can do, and it especially constrains them when the subject is one that opponents can fearmonger to produce big swings in public attitudes. That describes civil liberties and national security almost perfectly.

But yes, presidents can and do push back against public opinion — up to a point. Obama, for example, pushed back against failing public opinion to get healthcare reform passed earlier this year. Defending civil liberties in an era of terrorism is hard, but Obama could unquestionably have a better record on this regardless. Guantanamo may be a tough nut given public and congressional opposition to closing it, but Glenn is certainly right that, for example, public opinon didn't force Obama to adopt a policy of allowing American citizens overseas to be targeted for assassination.

I dunno. Sometimes it seems like we're all determined to invent arguments where none exist. The real question is: how do you feel about the actual merits of Obama administration's civil liberties record? Do you want it changed? If you do, then you should work both on changing public opinion and on applying direct political pressure. They're symbiotic. Neither one will work without the other. It's crazy to think otherwise.