Kevin Drum - June 2010

Our Job-Killing Senate

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 2:40 PM EDT

Senate Republicans—with the help of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)—are poised to kill an economic benefits package today, delivering what could be a serious blow to the country’s recovery, as Matt Yglesias points out. Known as the "tax-extenders" bill, the legislation would continue unemployment benefits, support certain tax breaks, provide a boost to Medicare payments for doctors, and extend Medicaid funding to collapsing state budgets. Conservatives have raised a predictable hue and cry about increasing the deficit. Democrats, desperate to have the legislation pass, have scaled back the bill over the past weeks "from $190 billion, to $80 billion, to $55 billion, to just over $30 billion," Arthur Delaney reports. But it hasn’t been enough to swing key moderate votes, and the legislation looks like it will fail, 42-58, this afternoon.

What’s the price of this political obstructionism? In addition to the millions of Americans who stand to lose unemployment benefits, a huge number of private and public sector employees will lose their jobs due to state budget cuts. Without federal help, states will have to pour in more money to prop up Medicaid, forcing them to make cutbacks in other parts of the budget. As a result, Moody's chief economist estimates that 200,000 jobs could be axed without federal Medicaid support, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts the number as high as 900,000—jobs belonging to teachers, firemen, police, and social workers, among others.

While federal and state governments both contribute to Medicaid funding, the economic crisis has left the states in a terrible budget crunch. The federal government has tried to step in, devoting over 60 percent of the federal stimulus money to propping up Medicaid so states wouldn’t have to make other cuts. But that money is now set to expire, and the states have yet to recover from the effects of the recession to make up the difference.

On top of unemployment benefit cuts and job losses, the cuts to social services could be brutal. The WonkRoom explains:

Thompson pointed to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report stating that “without the extended Medicaid funding, Pennsylvania plans to cut funding for domestic violence prevention in half, eliminate all state funds for addressing substance abuse and homelessness, cut funding for child welfare by one-quarter, and cut payments to private hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors across the state — among other steps.”…

Arizona would have to cut funding for its state court system, Colorado’s likely cuts “include eliminating state aid for full-day kindergarten for 35,000 children, eliminating preschool aid for 21,000 children, and increasing overcrowding in juvenile detention facilities,” while New Mexico “could eliminate a wide range of Medicaid services, including emergency hospital services, inpatient psychiatric care, personal care assistance for the disabled, prescribed medications, and hospice care.”

Buried in the mess is a larger argument for federalizing Medicaid, which would free up state budgets and prevent these kinds of excruciating budget cuts every time state governments hit a rough economic patch. (Kevin brought up this point just last week.) But this is the system that we’re stuck with for now. The federal government needs to support it, and it’s unfortunate that our deadlocked Senate is about to deliver a painful setback to our economic recovery.

Update: As predicted, the tax extenders bill has failed in the Senate. Sigh.

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Just How Unpopular Is BP?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

According to a new NBC News/Journal poll, BP is one of the biggest villains that the organization has ever surveyed:

[O]nly 6 percent have a favorable rating of BP. In the history of the NBC News/Journal poll, Saddam Hussein (3 percent), Fidel Castro (3 percent) and Yasser Arafat (4 percent) have had lower favorable scores, and O.J. Simpson (11 percent) and tobacco-maker Philip Morris (15 percent) have had higher ratings.

BP execs do have a bit of breathing room: Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street greed, still ranks even lower than the oil company in the Least Popular Corporate Brands contest, as my colleague Andy points out

That being said, the spill has pulled down Obama's popularity as well, with his approval rating dropping five points to 45 percent--the first time it's gone below 50 percent since the NBC News/Journal began polling. But the public still believes the president doing a better job than BP or Congress in terms of handling the spill, and Obama's personal popularity remains high. While such trends are unlikely to help endangered Democratic members of Congress in 2010, they don't yet spell doom for the future of Obama's presidency.

Leveling the Campaign Finance Playing Field

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

A campaign finance reform bill meant to curb the excesses of the Citizens United decision is scheduled for a vote in the House today. The Supreme Court ruling lifted spending restrictions for unions and corporations, allowing them to spend freely on campaign ads that explicitly advocated for or against candidates. The DISCLOSE Act is intended to help level the playing field by requiring all groups to reveal the donors behind such ads, preventing corporations from hiding behind third parties—as they’ve often done in the past—to avoid having to reveal their identities.

The argument is that such measures could have a cooling effect on unfettered corporate spending on elections, as companies might be reluctant to risk tainting their brands by supporting or opposing a candidate. I suspect that this might be true: in the months since the Citizens United decision, there have been very few reports of corporations taking advantage of the ruling by directly funding campaign ads themselves.

But the bill set off a firestorm last week after the National Rifle Association scored a big carveout for itself that would exempt it from the legislation's disclosure rules—most importantly, it wouldn’t have to reveal its closely held list of donors. This bout of political horsetrading caused both conservative and liberal advocates to cry foul, and the measure's chances of passage—in either the House or the Senate—are now uncertain. 

David Broder suggests an alternative reform proposal today (found via Ezra’s Wonkbook) that would forgo disclosure requirements in favor of empowering small donors, citing an idea promoted by Michael Malbin, head of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute:

Malbin's model is the New York City system, with a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of any contribution, making it worth $1,225 to the candidate.

With that kind of payoff, he says, candidates would have every reason to go after small contributors—and pay less attention to the fat cats. And with a flood of such "clean" money, the dollars that corporations and unions decide to spend in the game would become relatively less important.

It’s an interesting idea—and could certainly be an incentive for candidates to seek out small donors, even if they don’t have that same Obama magic. But while it does make small donors more competitive, it wouldn’t eliminate the need for the disclosure requirements in the current bill. And New York City itself is a good example of why.

NYC’s campaign finance rules certainly haven’t deterred Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the eighth richest person in the US, from forgoing public financing so he could dip into his billions without restriction to back his campaigns. But at least the public is quite aware that his own corporate fortune has backed his bid—and Bloomberg's rightfully had to weather the criticism that comes along with it. Similarly, if corporations want to underwrite federal campaign expenditures, they should at least be required to do so in public view. As it stands, we have no way of knowing whether Citizens United has yet unleashed a wave of corporate election spending, as deep-pocketed groups are still allowed to hide behind third parties who can do their bidding.

The Petraeus Effect

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 4:44 PM EDT

I asked earlier today whether the McChrystal controversy might ignite a serious debate or even reappraisal of the merits of Obama's Afghanistan strategy. With McChrystal now gone and Petraeus stepping into the breach, some have suggested that the public will be even less likely to question and scrutinize the war than before, given the near-mythical aura surrounding Petraeus and his purported accomplishments. After all, McChrystal may eat only one meal a day and sleep four hours a night, but Petraeus--well, he's the "King David" who did 50 push-ups only days after getting shot in the chest.

Here's Adam Serwer's take:

The appointment of General Petraeus is likely to squelch any such discussion before it gets started. The near superhero status Petraeus enjoys isn't simply due to his intelligence or capability as a leader -- its also the result of media mythmaking about the Iraq War. Despite the ease with which the country has come to adopt the narrative that the 2007 troop escalation and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy singlehandedly turned the Iraq War around, it remains untrue. As Michael Cohen helpfully continues to remind us, there were a number of factors involved, including ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, the Sunni tribes turning on al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq and the Sadr ceasefire.

My colleague David Corn has a similar write-up, offering multiple takedowns of the "surge hype."

One additional note: The Petraeus pick re-affirms and arguably intensifies Obama's commitment to pursuing the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But there's at least one new message that Obama seems to be sending, regarding the deadline he's set for US troop withdrawal. Spencer explains:

Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat. It means what Gen. Petraeus, his new commander, told the Senate he supports: not a “race for the exits,” but a “conditions-based,” open-ended transition. If that still sounds unclear, it’s because the policy itself is unclear. But by placing Petraeus at the helm, it means that 2012 will probably look more like right now, in terms of troop levels and U.S. troops fighting, than anything Biden prefers. 

Why Demography Is Destiny

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 3:27 PM EDT

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Tom Schaller flags a new study by Ruy Teixeira explaining how the Republican Party will be doomed in the long run unless it can accommodate emerging constituencies that are less white and more educated. While the GOP might gain some benefit in 2010 from embracing ideological purism and reactionary views, impending demographic shifts make this approach unsustainable long-term. Via Schaller, here are some of Teixeira's, err, recommendations for the GOP:

*Move to the center on social issues. The culture wars may have worked for a while, but shifting demographics make them a loser for the party today and going forward. A more moderate approach would help with Millennials, where the party must close a yawning gap, and with white college graduates, who still lean Republican but just barely. The party also needs to make a breakthrough with Hispanics, and that won’t happen unless it shifts its image toward social tolerance, especially on immigration.

*Pay attention to whites with some college education and to young white working-class voters in general. The GOP’s hold on the white working class is not secure, and if that slips, the party doesn’t have much to build on to form a successful new coalition. That probably also means offering these voters something more than culture war nostrums and antitax jeremiads.

*Another demographic target should be white college graduates, especially those with a four-year degree only. The party has to stop the bleeding in America’s large metropolitan areas, especially in dynamic, growing suburbs. Keeping and extending GOP support among this demographic is key to taking back the suburbs. White college graduates increasingly see the party as too extreme and out of touch.

Essentially, Teixeira writes, the GOP must "move toward the center to compete for these constituencies," which proved critical to Obama's victory in 2008. And even in the current election cycle, there are signs that Republicans could pay the price for extremism—particularly in parts of the country where these big demographic changes are taking hold.

In Texas, for example, recent poll numbers suggest that Gov. Rick Perry could end up suffering from the GOP's rightward shift on immigration. A poll released yesterday by Public Policy Polling shows Perry tied with his Democratic challenger, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who had been trailing in earlier polls. PPP explains that Perry's flagging numbers are entirely because of Hispanic voters who've defected to White:

When we polled the race in February Rick Perry led Bill White by 6 points. The race is tied now, and the movement since the previous poll has come completely with Hispanic voters. With white voters Perry led 54-35 then and leads 55-35 now. With black voters White led 81-12 then and leads 70-7 now. But with Hispanics Perry has gone from leading 53-41 in February to now trailing 55-21. And it’s not that the sample of Hispanic voters we interviewed for this poll was somehow fundamentally different from the previous one—Barack Obama’s approval with them on this poll was 49% compared to 47% on the previous Texas poll.

PPP suggests that the shift could be directly tied to fallout from the Arizona immigration law, noting that Hispanic voters had also defected to Democrats in states like Arizona and Colorado. As the Washington Independent notes, the Texas Republican Party has made it clear where they stand: they recently passed a party platform that barred illegal immigrants from "intentionally or knowingly” living in Texas, as a well as an Arizona-like proposal that required local police to verify citizenship when making arrests. Perry, to his credit, opposed these measures—and has been openly critical of the Arizona law. But Perry will have tough time distancing himself from the state and national party given the GOP's increasingly hardline views.

That's not to say that Democrats can simply sit back and reap the rewards of these demographic shifts, even in places like Texas. These newly emerging groups of voters—young people, Hispanics, etc.—also tend to have lower turnout at the polls. But compared to where the GOP is right now, the Democrats definitely have a head start. Will Republicans take this reality to heart and make more than just cosmetic changes to the face of the party?

The Great Health Reform Divide

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 12:32 PM EDT

This week marked the three-month anniversary of the passage of health care reform. On Monday, Obama used the occasion to issue a harsh warning to health insurance executives against exorbitant rate increases. "[W]e’ve got to make sure that this new law is not being used as an excuse to simply drive up costs,” Obama thundered. He also unveiled what the White House calls a new "Patients' Bill of Rights," which highlights some of the new consumer protections and explains how insurers will be force to comply with the law.

Despite Obama's tough rhetoric, the "Patients' Bill of Rights" also makes it clear that the reach of the federal government will only go so far, even when it comes to the kinds of rate hikes the White House has condemned. The New York Times explains:

But for all of Mr. Obama’s browbeating, the new health care law stopped short of giving the administration the power to reject or limit rate increases. Instead, it established the annual reviews, starting next year, and makes available $250 million in grants to states to implement the review process.

States that accept the grants must recommend whether insurers with patterns of excessive pricing should be allowed to market policies through newly created exchanges, which will help individuals and businesses shop for coverage starting in 2014.

As it turns out, the White House had actually proposed giving the federal government the authority to reject unreasonable rate hikes, but the measure never made it into the final bill because of rules governing the reconciliation process. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has tried to reintroduce the proposal as a stand-alone bill, but the current political climate makes it difficult to imagine passing it any time soon. So the onus is now on the states to act, and it's quickly becoming clear which states will take the initiative (and federal money) to do so. The White House points out that states like California, New York, and Maine are already taking the opportunity to strengthen their oversight and require more transparency from companies that want to raise rates. And it's no surprise that the states with the most initiative are largely Democratic strongholds that already have a strong history of enforcing consumer protection measures. It's the start of the great divide between red and blue states that will become increasingly apparent as more parts of the law are put into place.

There's still some leeway for the federal government to assert greater authority and oversight over premium hikes, even in red states that are unwilling or reluctant to embrace the health law. The annual review process will require the federal government to work with state regulators to flag and scrutinize "unreasonable" premium increases. Though this will demand a measure of cooperation from state officials, the process could still create a more uniform standard for scrutiny and ramp up oversight in the twenty-odd states that currently don't have a "rate review" authority to examine premium hikes. That said, the administration has yet to finalize the rules defining exactly what an "unreasonable" rate hike is. And the insurance lobby that the White House has so thoroughly villified is doubtlessly doing all it can right now to shape the rules that will govern them.

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Afghanistan's 15 Minutes of Fame?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Whether or not Obama decides to sack General McChrystal today, the president is unlikely to use the opportunity to change the overall course of his Afghanistan strategy. None of the sniping and lockerroom insults captured in the Rolling Stone piece questioned the tactics or resources that Obama has dedicated to the war. And the counterinsurgency approach that Obama has embraced in the country has basically been what McChrystal has wanted all along. And the administration is unlikely to reconsider its basic plan—an increase of 30,000 new troops until July 2011, when Afghan security forces are supposed to start taking over.

But maybe now really is the time to be asking the tough questions about how Obama’s war is going—and what both civilian and military commanders could be doing better. It certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing over the last few months, as Spencer Ackerman explains:

The past two months in Afghanistan have been brutal. Since returning from a Washington summit with Obama, President Hamid Karzai acrimoniously parted ways with two of his top security officials, men trusted by the U.S. who believe Karzai’s attempts at outreach to the Taliban to bring the war to a close represent capitulation. A United Nations report released this weekend documented a rise in violence in southern Afghanistan ahead of a crucial attempt at pushing the Taliban out of Kandahar, the south’s most populous city.

McChrystal had to slow down his push to provide what he calls a “rising tide” of security for Kandahar in order to secure buy-in from residents, as Karzai pledged his support for the operation at a mostly supportive local shura only last Sunday.What remains unclear from any Kandahar planning is the effect even a successful operation will have on the overall strength of al-Qaeda’s allies in Afghanistan — and al-Qaeda itself, across the border in Pakistan.

Thomas Friedman also has a blistering column today, accusing Obama of failing to answer basic questions about the surge:

If our strategy is to use U.S. forces to clear the Taliban and help the Afghans put in place a decent government so they can hold what is cleared, how can that be done when President Hamid Karzai, our principal ally, openly stole the election and we looked the other way? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the administration told us not to worry: Karzai would have won anyway; he’s the best we’ve got; she knew how to deal with him and he would come around. Well, I hope that happens. But my gut tells me that when you don’t call things by their real name, you get in trouble. Karzai stole the election, and we said: No problem, we’re going to build good governance on the back of the Kabul mafia.

The McChrystal flap has already ignited more news coverage and punditry about the US strategy in Afghanistan than we’ve seen in many, many months. (“This morning everyone in Washington everyone is a war correspondent,” tweeted Slate’s John Dickerson as the Rolling Stone article was first making the rounds.) I suspect that the attention will be fleeting, given the increasing brevity of the news cycle (remember Elena Kagan?) and lawmakers' own interest in keeping the focus on the economy and domestic issues in a tough election year. But the war effort could certainly benefit from the heightened scrutiny and demand for accountability that we've seen in the last 24 hours. Wishful thinking, perhaps?

Update: All the major news networks are reporting that McChrystal has been relieved of his command and will be replaced by General David Petraeus, who is currently heading up US Central Command.

Hello, Everyone.

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 10:00 AM EDT

I'll be filling in for Kevin while he's away for a couple of days. Normally, you can find me over on Mother Jones's main news blog, writing about politics, immigration, and the occasional juicy conspiracy theory. Before coming to MoJo, I was at The New Republic, where I spent much time covering health care reform (which may creep onto the blog this week as well). Sadly, I have no cats. But I'm looking forward to the back-and-forth with everyone here.

Housekeeping Announcement

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 1:49 AM EDT

I'll be out of town for the next few days, returning on Monday. Suzy Khimm will be guest blogging in my absence, and who knows — one or two others might pop in too. You never know. Catblogging, of course, will continue on schedule. And by the way: it would be great if you guys could get this whole McChrystal thing cleared up before I get back. And that oil spill thing too. OK? 

KIPP: A Limited Educational Success Story

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 9:28 PM EDT

Ryan McNeely reports some good news on the education front:

Mathematica Policy Research just released a preliminary report of their large, multi-year study of the effectiveness of KIPP charter schools on increasing educational attainment. Their finding: “For the vast majority of KIPP schools studied, impacts on students’ state assessment scores in mathematics and reading are positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial.” Further, “estimated impacts are frequently large enough to substantially reduce race- and income-based achievement gaps within three years of entering KIPP.”

Ryan says that the research design looks solid and the results, though still preliminary, are encouraging. I'd add that it's also encouraging to see these kinds of results in middle schools. Quite often, charter schools show good results in elementary schools but those results end up washing out in later grades. High school is still the acid test, but it's nonetheless good news to see that KIPP is showing steady good results beyond just the primary grades.

But there's always a "but," isn't there? And there are a couple of them here. First, although this study design is solid — it compares kids who got into KIPP schools via lottery with kids who applied but didn't get in — it's still the case that these are kids who applied to KIPP schools. All by itself that means they and their parents are part of the upper fraction who care about education and are willing to put in the work that KIPP demands of families. That's a limited set. Second, there aren't very many KIPP schools, and their structure is a built-in reason for this: KIPP schools demand a lot of their teachers, who work very long hours and are required to be on call at all times. They pay a bit more for this, but only a bit, and this isn't a model that scales well. You can always find a small cadre of dedicated young teachers willing to put up with this, but you're never going to find the hundreds of thousands you'd need to make this work on a large scale.

That's not to say that KIPP is a failure. It's not. It's a success. But it's a limited one, and probably always will be.