Kevin Drum - July 2010

Time for a Timeout

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 5:57 PM EDT

Jon Chait:

One of the very few impressive things about conservatives over the last few years is that their opposition to President Obama, though frequently unhinged, misinformed, hypocritical, or outright dishonest, has generally lacked much in the way of racial animus. Obviously you can find some exceptions — Rush Limbaugh is a notable one, casting health care as "reparations" and trying to make his listeners fear that "in Obama's America," black kids can beat up white kids with impunity. Limbaugh has largely been an exception against the general trend of de-racialized nuttiness on the right.

What you're starting to see from Fox News now, though, is the most widespread and mainstream right-wing effort to exploit racial fears against Obama.

Hmmm. Is this really all that new? Yes, there's Rush Limbaugh. And the whole Jeremiah Wright flap during the campaign. And Glenn Beck saying on national TV that Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people. And the obviously racially tinged birther nonsense. And the famous Drudge headline about Obama "playing the race card." And the endless obsession over Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment. And now Megyn Kelly's fixation on the trivial and laughable New Black Panther Party — except, as Dave Weigel points out, Fox has actually been beating the NBPP drum for quite a while:

The difference between the Panthers and other freakish groups that look good on the air, of course, is that that they threaten white people.

....How often does Fox bring on the Panthers, or talk about them? A Lexis-Nexis search finds 68 mentions of "Malik Zulu Shabazz," a leader of the NBPP. The majority are appearances on Fox News, where Shabazz is repeatedly brought on to act as a foolish, anti-Semitic punching bag. Among the segment titles: "Professor's Comments on Whites Stir Controversy" and "Black Panthers Take a Stand on Duke Rape Case."....This isn't journalism. No one cares what the NBPP thinks about anything. This is minstrelsy, with a fringe moron set up like a bowling pin for Hannity to knock down. And that's the role the NBPP plays on Fox, frequently.

Granted, most conservative pundits are bright enough not to go down this road themselves. And racism certainly isn't Obama's biggest problem. Still, there's unquestionably been a thread of it visible from the start, and also unquestionably, most conservative pundits have kept pretty quiet about it.

But they might be playing a dangerous game here. As Chait says, the Fox/Megyn Kelly crusade against the NBPP is taking this to a whole new level, one that's far more overt and far more incendiary than in the past. And there's no telling how that's going to turn out. As a friend puts it, "I think the reason why conservatives have so assiduously censored themselves from playing fast and loose with Atwater-esque racial overtones is that it can be a very difficult genie to put back in the bottle once released on a national stage." The press will start paying attention, tea partiers might feel freer to spout off, and the whole thing could turn ugly very quickly.

Or not. Who knows? But for reasons of both principle and self-interest, some of the conservative movement's big guns might want to think about weighing in on this before it gets out of hand. It can't hurt.

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The Truth About Obama's Record

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 1:43 PM EDT

I've got some good news and some bad news for you today:

A broad overhaul of the nation’s financial regulatory system, intended to address the causes of the 2008 economic crisis and rewrite the rules for a more complex — and mistrustful — era on Wall Street, cleared one last procedural hurdle in the Senate on Thursday as it headed for final Congressional approval later in the day.

....With the Senate poised to send the bill to President Obama for his signature, the White House was already planning a ceremony — sometime next week — to mark completion of another landmark piece of legislation, following the enactment of the historic health care bill in March and last year’s major economic stimulus program.

Here's the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here's the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.

In any case, I think this probably marks the end of Obama's major legislative agenda. I don't give Congress much chance of passing a climate bill, and after the midterms the Democratic majority will either be gone or significantly reduced, making large-scale legislation just about impossible.

Still, if you're a liberal, this is the best you've had it for a very long time. Whether this is cause for cheer or cause for discouragement is, I suspect, less a reflection on Obama than it is on America writ large.

Correction: Most Dems Don't Care About 99ers Either

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 12:29 PM EDT

I screwed up yesterday. In a blog post about Dwight Michael Frazee, an unemployed construction worker who's been out of work for two years, I said:

Does Frazee realize that 98% of Democrats are in favor of extending his unemployment benefits and 93% of Republicans are opposed? That it's not "Congress" standing in the way of his benefits, it's the Republican Party?

This is a generally true statement about extending unemployment benefits. However, it's not a true statement about extending benefits past 99 weeks, which is Frazee's problem. In fact, very few Democrats have demonstrated any serious concern about the 99ers.

I thank Holly Yeager of CJR for bringing this to my attention.

Yet More Obama Navel Gazing

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

Ah, more link bait today from John Harris and Jim VandeHei of Politico. But first, allow me to complain about this:

What is Obamaism? Conservatives think he stands for backdoor socialism. Liberals think he is a sell-out. Independents think he is a president with no clear compass who is breaking the bank with excessive spending.

Blecch. For better or worse, Barack Obama is a pragmatic, even-tempered, mainstream American liberal. He always has been. I can't really argue with the accuracy of this paragraph, but I sure wish more people could get a grip on the obvious.

And now for the passage everyone is upset about:

Polls show most self-described liberals still strongly support Obama. But an elite group of commentators on the left — many of whom are unhappy with him and are rewarded with more attention by being critical of a fellow Democrat — has a disproportionate influence on perceptions.

The liberal blogosphere grew in response to Bush. But it is still a movement marked by immaturity and impetuousness — unaccustomed to its own side holding power and the responsibilities and choices that come with that.

So many liberals seem shocked and dismayed that Obama is governing as a self-protective politician first and a liberal second, even though that is also how he campaigned. The liberal blogs cheer the fact that Stan McCrystal’s scalp has been replaced with David Petreaus’s, even though both men are equally hawkish on Afghanistan, but barely clapped for the passage of health care. They treat the firing of a blogger from the Washington Post as an event of historic significance, while largely averting their gaze from the fact that major losses for Democrats in the fall elections would virtually kill hopes for progressive legislation over the next couple years.

This would make a lot more sense if H&V named a few names. Still, I assume that they're talking about folks like Keith Olbermann, Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, Paul Krugman, and James Carville, all of whom, in their own way, have been pretty critical of Obama. They're not talking about milquetoast sellouts like Kevin Drum, Ezra Klein, Jon Chait, or E.J. Dionne. The question is, is the former group "rewarded with more attention by being critical of a fellow Democrat," and do they therefore have a disproportionate influence on perceptions?

Eh. I guess. Maybe. Thanks largely to conflict junkies like Politico. But haven't liberals always specialized in purity police and circular firing squads? We wouldn't be liberals if we all got along with each other, and the growth of the blogosphere hardly has anything to do with that. This is just the way the left operates.

But screw it. I'm just going to turn over the mike to one of my regular correspondents:

There is some valid criticism in this article, but much of it is fruit of the poisonous tree of the sour economy (which I know is an old saw at this point). And while they explain — mostly at the end of the piece — that the economy is really the overriding factor, they still try to divorce things like communication and political skills from economic performance. This allows them to say that Obama's inability to clear the field in certain states shows poor politics and that his message isn't breaking through, the speeches aren't as powerful, etc. But, fundamentally, people are pissed off because of the economy. I'm pissed off because of the economy — I'm making a lot less than I did 2 years ago and my family is really feeling it now. You therefore can't tell me in this day and age of massive communication that, despite my lying eyes, things are getting better.

So when they posit as fact that people will be tolerant of a down economy if the President can convince them things are on an upward climb, they really have no basis to back that up in an economy like this one. Yes, we're in an upward climb but it is not impacting employment — or investments — two of the most tangible economic measurements to voters. So, not surprisingly, it's not breaking through. And no amount of speechwriting or communciation or political finesse can change this dynamic. The evidence for this is that mainstream press outlets are publishing stories saying that the Obama administration is flirting with a failed presidency even though it's piling up legislative accomplishments.

What he said. Birds fly, snakes creep, fish swim, and analysts analyze. If you want to, you can come up with a thousand reasons why Obama is failing. But if the economy were doing well and Obama were riding high in opinion polls, V&H would come up with a thousand reasons why Obama is succeeding. Unfortunately, admitting that the economy is the overriding explanation for everything makes for a very short, very boring column, and no one wants to write it. It's still true, though.

Bloomberg's Bad Oil Drilling Poll

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 10:54 AM EDT

If Bloomberg polls are to be believed, it appears that Americans have decisively rejected President Obama's moratorium on oil drilling in the gulf:

Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama’s ban on deepwater oil drilling in response to BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico spill, even as they hold the company primarily responsible for the incident. Almost three-fourths, or 73 percent, say a ban is unnecessary, calling the worst oil spill in U.S. history a “freak accident,” according to a Bloomberg National Poll.

This is stunningly bad journalism. Pending a safety review, Obama has put in place a five-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the outer continental shelf. But the Bloomberg question doesn't ask about this: it asks if offshore drilling should be flatly "banned in U.S. waters." These aren't even remotely the same things, and in no way can you conclude from this question that "most Americans oppose" the moratorium. They might, but an ABC poll that actually asks the question properly1 tells us that only 39% oppose Obama's moratorium.

The Bloomberg results make for an exciting headline, but that's about it. Correlation with reality is pretty close to zero.

1Well, more properly, anyway. Even the ABC poll doesn't mention that only deepwater drilling is affected by the moratorium. Still, better than Bloomberg.

Conservatives and Taxes

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias argues that conservatives don't really care about the federal deficit:

One piece of pushback I got from some right-of-center folks to yesterday’s post on how conservatives don’t care about the deficit was to say that well maybe some Republican Party elected officials are bad on this, but the conservative movement is different. I think that’s entirely false. President George H.W. Bush struck a bargain with congressional Democrats that reduced spending and decreased the deficit. Some Republican Party elected officials backed him. But conservatives were apoplectic. After all, the bill raised taxes. And conservatives care more about making taxes as low as possible than they do about reducing spending or reducing the deficit.

There's a mountain of evidence to support this view, but it would be tedious to go through it. Instead, here are the results of a New York Times poll of self-identified tea partiers from April. Remember: these are the most militant deficit obsessives out there. Their entire movement revolves around small government and deficit reduction. 91% say they've followed news about the deficit closely.  In the middle of a massive recession with a sky-high unemployment rate, 76% say they'd rather cut the deficit than spend money to create jobs. They are the farthest right of the right wing.

But guess what? The deficit still takes a clear back seat to tax cutting: by a margin of 49% to 42% they say they prefer cutting taxes to reducing the deficit. These are the people the Republican leadership answers to these days, and they've made their choice.

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A Plea for Better Reporting

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 7:25 PM EDT

In the Washington Post yesterday, Michael Fletcher wrote a piece about the Senate fight over unemployment benefits and illustrated it with the story of Dwight Michael Frazee, an unemployed construction worker who is one of the "99ers" — those who have been out of work for more than 99 weeks and whose unemployment benefits have therefore run out. Bob Somerby notes that Frazee is a little unclear on something:

Who does Frazee “blame” for his loss of benefits? Fletcher never makes this fully clear. But the quoted statements would seem to suggest that Frazee blames Obama.

....Does Frazee understand that “Obama and almost all the Democrats favor an extension of unemployment benefits?” Fletcher doesn’t seem to have asked. By the way: If Frazee reads Fletcher’s piece, as he presumably will, will he then understand the politics of this situation? How clearly does Fletcher explain this situation? There’s no “right” answer to that question — but Fletcher’s second paragraph seems to say that no one is trying to extend benefits for people like Frazee. We see other points of confusion as we peruse the piece.

Could you explain this ongoing situation? We’re not completely sure we could — and we’re not sure how much Fletcher helps.

This has been a major failing of the mainstream media for a long time. It's always "Congress" that's to blame for bills passing or not passing, not "Republicans" or "Democrats." But the vast majority of the time, that's not really the case: it's one party or the other that's largely at fault. Oddly, though, given that the press is usually pretty obsessed with horse race politics, they rarely play this up. If you read far enough into most Capitol Hill reporting, you'll see genteel phrases like "mostly along party lines" or some such, but that's about it. Unless you're a fairly careful reader you won't really realize that in the current Congress Republicans have routinely filibustered and obstructed practically every piece of legislation introduced.

Does Frazee realize that 98% of Democrats are in favor of extending his unemployment benefits and 93% of Republicans are opposed? That it's not "Congress" standing in the way of his benefits, it's the Republican Party? Apparently not. Reporters, editors, producers, and anchors ought to be asking themselves why that is. They might find it boring to keep writing headlines that explain what's really happening, but that's not much of an excuse for not doing their job.

UPDATE: I screwed up. This is a generally true statement about extending unemployment benefits, which breaks down strongly along party lines. However, it's not a true statement about extending benefits past 99 weeks, which is Frazee's problem. In fact, very few Democrats have demonstrated any serious concern about the 99ers.

The Goal of Obstructionism

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 6:53 PM EDT

Norm Ornstein on the modern Senate:

The partisan nature of the confirmation process has even worse side effects when it comes to executive nominees — in this case going beyond defeating some to simply preventing them from getting into their offices for as long as possible. Way too many nominations are hung up by pernicious anonymous holds (the perniciousness is not just in the anonymity but in the holds themselves). Others get subjected to the threat of filibuster, raising the bar for many executive posts from 50 to 60.

Italics mine. I assume Ornstein's explanation of Republican obstructionism is pretty obvious, but it sometimes gets lost. In fact, it got lost by Ornstein himself a few sentences earlier when he tried to figure out GOP motivations for delaying Elena Kagan's nomination:

In some ways, I find it baffling. What if Republicans succeeded in this case in derailing Kagan? Would they end up with a second nominee who would be better from their perspective? No way. All they would gain is a symbolic defeat for the president.

Republicans have plenty of reasons for holding and filibustering everything. In some cases it prevents legislation from passing. Sometimes a little extra time really does allow them to dig something up on a nominee. Sometimes the political winds change. Etc.

But the main reason for such routine obstruction is simple: it eats up floor time. The Senate is a small body and has a limited amount of time to consider legislation and confirm nominees. Delaying Kagan for a week isn't likely to stop her eventual confirmation, but it does gum up the works of the Judiciary Committee a bit. Ditto for things like filibusters, which eat up calendar time more than they actually stall legislation; or demands that committee meetings end after two hours of hearings; or withholding of unanimous consent for routine matters; or all the other little obstructions that have become commonplace. Republicans want to give Democrats as little time as possible to pass bills, and obstruction accomplishes this even if it doesn't stop its putative target.

Will this change next January? It will if Harry Reid and Barack Obama try to round up 50 votes to change the Senate rules. I kinda doubt they'll try, though.

Memo to Mitch McConnell: Unemployed Not Just Chilling

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 2:39 PM EDT

Scott Winship pisses me off today:

Quick — what was the risk in 2008 that an American worker would experience at least one bout of unemployment? Chances are you thought that that risk was higher than one in eight. But figures from government surveys indeed suggest that thirteen out of fifteen workers (or would-be workers) had not a single day unemployed during the first year of the "Great Recession"....The 2009 data won't be out until later in the year, but if last year ends up comparable to the depths of the early 1980s recession, then the average worker will "only" have had a seven in nine chance of avoiding unemployment.

Quick — which is bigger? One in eight? Or thirteen out of fifteen? Or maybe seven in nine?

Stop it! Just stop. This is not a more user friendly way of presenting data. This is:

Quick — what was the risk in 2008 that an American worker would experience at least one bout of unemployment? Chances are you thought that that risk was higher than 13%. But figures from government surveys indeed suggest that 87% of workers (or would-be workers) had not a single day unemployed during the first year of the "Great Recession"....The 2009 data won't be out until later in the year, but if last year ends up comparable to the depths of the early 1980s recession, then the average worker will "only" have had a 78% chance of avoiding unemployment.

Yeah, everyone hates percentages. But at least this allows the reader to quickly compare the magnitudes in question. The "blank in blank" formulation merely adds an extra level of confusion.

OK. I'm glad I got that off my chest. And now, for the actual substance of Winship's post, it's this: unemployment is really bad right now. Really, really bad. His chart is on the left: it shows that there are about five people unemployed for every job opening. A different chart is on the right. It shows there are about five people unemployed for every job opening. In words that even Mitch McConnell can understand, the unemployed aren't slacking off because they enjoy the vacation. They're out of work because there aren't any jobs. And no, it's not because American CEOs are consumed with worry about the effects of healthcare reform in 2014. It's because there isn't enough demand for their products, so they aren't expanding and they aren't hiring people. Some actual action on this front would be great.

The Scary Black Man Thing

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

On the list of idiocies that I don't care about, the conservative frenzy over the New Black Panther "voter intimidation" case currently ranks #1 with a bullet. But it's a slow news day and we all deserve some entertainment. So you get two things today.

On the right, Fox's Megyn Kelly, who's absolutely obsessed with this case, melts down completely when Kirsten Powers suggests it's just a manufactured tempest in a teapot. And here's conservative Abigail Thernstrom, after explaining in detail why the whole thing is ridiculous:

Get a grip, folks. The New Black Panther Party is a lunatic fringe group that is clearly into racial theater of minor importance. It may dream of a large-scale effort to suppress voting — like the Socialist Workers Party dreams of a national campaign to demonstrate its position as the vanguard of the proletariat. But the Panthers have not realized their dream even on a small scale. This case is a one-off.

More here.