Kevin Drum - October 2010

Bailouts, Deficits, and Spending, Oh My!

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 12:55 AM EDT

Ross Douthat says today that the tea partiers' main concerns really are "bailouts, deficits and spending," but liberals refuse to take them at their word and accept this. So we keep coming up with one weird theory after another that "explains the tea parties—and then explains them away." One of those weird theories is mine: Namely that this kind of extreme conservative eruption is just what happens whenever a Democrat takes office. It's similar to FDR's Liberty Leaguers, the John Birch Society in the 60s, and the Arkansas Project gang during the Clinton years. Ross responds:

These parallels are real. But there’s a crucial difference. The Birchers only had a crackpot message; they never found a mainstream one. The Tea Party marries fringe concerns (repeal the 17th Amendment!) to a timely, responsible-seeming message about spending and deficits. Which is why, for now at least, it’s winning over independents in a way that movements like the Birchers rarely did.

Now, I actually agree with this, up to a point. One of the points I made in my tea party piece was that, unlike previous eruptions, tea partiers have all but taken over the Republican Party. So it's bigger, broader, and more mainstream than the previous movements. But the reason I don't really buy Ross's defense of the tea party movement's concern with spending and deficits comes in his very next paragraph, where he takes on a fourth and final liberal theory:

THE TEA PARTIERS ARE HYPOCRITES. That is, they say they’re for small government, but they don’t want anyone to touch their Social Security and Medicare. This is by far the most persuasive liberal storyline. Poll after poll suggests that Tea Partiers are ambivalent about trimming entitlements, even though that’s the spending that will ultimately send either deficits or taxes through the roof.

On the other hand, some Tea Party-backed candidates have been refreshingly courageous on this front — whether it’s Rand Paul telling Fox News that he’d support higher deductibles for seniors, or Buck apologizing to Michael Bennet, his Senate opponent in Colorado, for Republican demagoguery on Medicare.

So the jury is still out. If Tea Party standard-bearers end up being as hypocritical on entitlements as most American politicians, then this liberal narrative, at least, will have been vindicated.

But for the sake of the country’s finances, liberals should hope that the Tea Party proves their most convincing story wrong.

Sure, the jury is still out. But on this one, I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is. After all, Rand Paul has been running away from his Medicare heresy for weeks, while Republicans and conservative interest groups have been blanketing the nation with ads attacking Democrats for passing a health care reform bill that cuts Medicare spending. Given all that, Ken Buck is a pretty lonely figure sticking to his tea party guns on the subject.

Now, it's true that a divided government is almost certain to spend less than one controlled by a single party. Beyond that, though, there's little evidence that extreme conservatives are any more concerned about spending now than they've ever been, and over the past 30 years they've never been concerned about spending. They didn't cut it under Reagan, they didn't cut it under Bush Sr., and when they finally controlled the government completely under Bush Jr., they didn't cut it then either. Hell, Social Security privatization never got anywhere even within the Republican caucus despite the fact that it was sold relentlessly and dishonestly as a free lunch. Actual cuts in spending were never on the radar.

The tea partiers are angry not over spending, but because a Democrat is in the White House. Rick Santelli's rant, which kicked off the whole movement, occurred one month after Obama took office. That was before the auto bailout, before health care reform, before financial reform, before the Iraq drawdown, before cap-and-trade, and before extension of the Bush tax cuts was even on the horizon. The only thing that had happened at that point was the stimulus bill, but even as big as that was, everyone knew it was a one-time shot, not a permanent change in spending levels.

Really, there's just no evidence at all to suggest that tea partiers are any more upset about the level of spending and deficits than they ever have been. Rather, they're upset because the spending is currently being done by a Democrat. As soon as Republicans are doing it, they won't really care anymore.

And yes, that's too bad for the country's finances. So I hope I'm just being too cynical here. But what are the odds?

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Life in a Bubble

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 12:06 AM EDT

The modern, tea party-inflected conservative movement is based on a few core principles. Global warming is a hoax. Income inequality hasn't been growing. Tax cuts don't increase the deficit. America has the best healthcare in the world. Evolution is a myth. The economy is weak because of regulatory uncertainty. Barack Obama is a socialist.

I'm trying to think of another successful political movement in history based on so many objectively fantastical beliefs. Not really coming up with any, though certainly there have been individual doozies here and there. Commenters?

From the Annals of Non-Stories, Part Infinity

| Sun Oct. 17, 2010 11:47 PM EDT

The Washington Post writes today about the recent ruckus over Campbell Soup's introduction of a line of halal soups in Canada. Here's their explanation of how it started:

Blogger Pamela Geller began calling for a boycott....

Stop. Just stop. Even if we agree on nothing else, can't we agree never again to pursue a story that begins with those words? Especially one that has produced only a Facebook page with 3,500 friends — about as many as my cat could get if I set up a fan page for him — and, according to Campbell, hasn't had the slightest actual effect on sales? Come on, people.

Sarah P. Comes to Town

| Sat Oct. 16, 2010 9:34 PM EDT

I'm not quite sure why I had to go to the New York Times to read this, but apparently Sarah Palin headlined a Republican Party rally a few miles up the street from me today, and neither one of our top Republican candidates wanted to be seen with her:

The two Republicans at the top of the California ticket — Meg Whitman, the candidate for governor, and Carly Fiorina, the candidate for Senate — skipped the event, both claiming prior commitments. That said, Ms. Palin is a decidedly unpopular figure in the state, particularly with independent voters, and Republicans said it was probably not a good idea for Ms. Whitman or Ms. Fiorina to be seen at a campaign rally with her this close to Election Day.

The Orange County Register adds a bit of detail: "Fiorina did not attend, instead stumping Saturday in San Diego with Sen. John McCain, which was widely seen as a snub because of Palin's poor standing in the Golden State." That's rough. Palin endorsed Fiorina in the primary against genuine tea party hero Chuck DeVore (my assemblyman!), but even here in deep blue Orange County Fiorina is embarrassed to be seen with her. She'd rather hang with John McCain.

As for the rally itself, Register reporter Jeff Overly tells us this:

Sarah Palin brought her bold brand of folksiness and ferocity to Orange County on Saturday, telling a throng of admirers that Republican success on Election Day is their only hope of "saving our republic as we know it."

....The crowd — overwhelmingly white and middle aged or older — was heavily clad in patriotic attire, including April Gentry, a Huntington Beach resident who sported a Liberty Bell shirt.

Good times.

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 3:07 PM EDT

Back in the day, both Inkblot and Domino used to stroll around on top of the fence between our house and our neighbors. The only way they could get up, though, was to jump onto the air conditioning unit first and then jump from there to the fence. That all ended a couple of years ago when we got a new air conditioner, which was too high and too rounded for them to get to. The days of fence walking were over.

Until now! But I'm stumped about what's going on. For about the last week or two they've been roaming along the fence again. Our first thought was that they were going into our neighbor's yard and jumping up from there, but Domino never goes over there. The air conditioning unit hasn't changed, and I'm pretty sure it's just too high for them to jump on. They always appear from the southeast corner, but there's nothing there that would help them make the jump. So what's going on?

One of these days I'll be outside and catch them in the act, and when I do I'll report back. In the meantime, here they are patrolling the fence. Don't you feel safer already?

Better Than a Radar Detector

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

In the "news you can use" category, a study by Quality Planning, a San Francisco firm that services the auto insurance industry, provides us with a list of the cars most and least likely to get you a ticket. Here are the lists:

Why is the Toyota Camry the 2nd most ticketed model? That's a stumper. The rest make a little bit of sense, though the numbers seem surprisingly high. Why would a Mercedes SL get ticketed at a wildly higher rate than, say, a Corvette or a Porsche? As for the "cautious" list, Quality Planning, after noting eight of the top ten were either an SUV or a minivan, guesses that "carrying passengers, and possibly younger passengers in car seats, makes a noticeable difference in how one drives." Maybe so. Complete list here.

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Is Gridlock Good?

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

Bruce Bartlett celebrates divided government:

Too bad we didn’t have more gridlock in 2001 through 2006, when Democrats retook the House and Senate; it might have saved the country from two unnecessary wars, a lot of dead servicemen and women, a vast amount of spending that the country couldn’t afford, and the intentional destruction of the government’s revenue-raising capacity so that a debt crisis has become almost certain in the not-too-distant future.

Hard to argue with that! But I'm not so sure about this:

Democrats had the bad luck to retake complete control right at the beginning of the second greatest economic crisis in our history. Unfortunately, they played their cards badly. They didn’t have the guts to push a fiscal stimulus plan as large as their economic advisers said was necessary, then they immediately stopped talking about the economy and unemployment, turning their attention instead to health care reform, energy and the environment, and a host of other issues.

I think President Obama and Democrats in Congress are being punished less for economic conditions beyond their control than a perception that they didn’t care enough about the Number One problem affecting the country — slow growth and high unemployment. If they had put aside the rest of their agenda and focused like a laser on restoring the economy to health, they would be in far better shape politically, even if actual economic conditions were no better today.

The premise behind this is that Obama and the Democrats could have done a lot more to improve the economy. But I'm not convinced of that. A bigger stimulus? Sure, that would have helped, but even if they had been gutsier, political pressure wouldn't have allowed them to pass a $2 trillion bill. It would have been more like $900 billion, or maybe $1 trillion at best. That would have helped, but it's nowhere near big enough to have made a dramatic difference. Unemployment would still be sky high.

The only other thing I can think of that the administration screwed up seriously is mortgage reform. Again, though, that would have been politically difficult even if they had played all their cards perfectly. Like it or not, the American public hates the idea of seeing their neighbors get bailed out from stupid mortgages. It makes them feel like saps: we scrimped and saved and bought a house we could afford and we're getting nothing. Joe and Betty down the street lived the high life, took out a NINJA loan they knew was way more than they could afford, and now they're getting a taxpayer-funded bailout and living easy. That's not a vote getter.

I think Bruce way overestimates the value of perception. Sure, a better communications strategy might have helped. Getting healthcare done faster might have helped. Beyond that, though, people are mostly reacting to actual pain, and there's surprisingly little Obama could have done about that. A gigantic stimulus and more aggressive action from the Fed might have done the trick, but Republicans and centrist Dems flatly wouldn't have allowed the former and the president has no leverage over the latter. Failing that, balance sheet recessions just take a long time to work through. There's not a lot Obama could have done to change that.

The New Normal

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 12:29 PM EDT

I didn't see last night's debate between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle, but the consensus seems to be that both speakers were terrible. However, Angle may have benefited from galactically low expectations. "Angle repeatedly found herself in verbal cul-de-sacs which she only escaped by returning to well-rehearsed talking points," said Politico's Jonathan Martin, "all the while blurring over some of her controversial statements or ignoring questions about them altogether." And the Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston more or less agreed: "Angle won because she looked relatively credible, appearing not to be the Wicked Witch of the West."

So I guess that's where we are. Freakish candidates are now held to such low standards that all they have to do is surprise us by not sounding like they belong in a locked mental ward. Welcome to 2010.

Barack Obama and the Chamber of Secrets

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

Ezra Klein doesn't think that Democratic attacks on the Chamber of Commerce are doing them any good:

A MoveOn.org poll showing that voters respond negatively when asked, "If a candidate is backed by anonymous or corporate groups, which run ads that mask their identity, does that make you more likely to vote for that candidate?" doesn't prove otherwise. You can poll any attack line or boast in isolation and voters will like it. What would prove — or at least suggest — otherwise is evidence that these attacks are swinging voters toward the Democrats. But if anything, the opposite is happening.

I agree, but I'd offer up two responses. First, it's too early. The anti-Chamber campaign has only been active for a few days. That's far too short a time to see any effect even if it's a good electoral strategy. Second, I think of this in much longer terms. It might or might not help in the November midterms, but Democrats really need to let the public know that the Chamber should be thought of the same way as the NRA: an extremely aggressive special interest group with huge amounts of cash and a hyper-partisan outlook. Getting that message out successfully doesn't mean the Chamber would be defanged. The NRA, after all, is still famously powerful. But it does mean that it might lose some of its influence among centrist leaners, who still think of the Chamber as a vaguely reliable souce of civic worthiness and don't realize what Tom Donohue has turned it into. That's useful stuff for future elections whether or not it does any good this year.

California Propositions

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

I know that only a small slice of my readers live in California, so I hope the rest of you will indulge me while I go through my periodic review of California ballot initiatives today. There are nine of them up for a vote next month, so this is going to be a bit of a long post.

As longtime readers know, I'm generally unhappy with the entire initiative process (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you continue reading. This doesn't mean I oppose everything, but it does mean that even things I basically approve of have to pass a pretty high hurdle before I'll vote for them. (With this in mind, if you'd like to see a more conventional take on this year's ballot from a liberal perspective, check out the Courage Campaign's ballot guide here.)

  1. Marijuana Legalization: MAYBE. Let's be honest: nobody needs my help with this one. If you're in favor of legalizing pot, vote Yes. If not, vote No. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I probably won't make up my mind about Prop 19 until I'm actually in the voting booth and ready to push the button.

    On the merits, the big problem with Prop 19 is that it puts California squarely in opposition to federal law. However, this strikes me as a feature, not a bug, since I think it might just be time for a few fireworks. Prop 19 also shares one of the drawbacks of all initiatives, namely that it sets its rules in stone and allows the legislature very little scope to change them if things don't work out. And there's no question that allowing every county in California to write its own marijuana laws could create a fair amount of chaos. What's more, there's also the fact that legalizing marijuana won't just create more casual marijuana users, it will almost certainly also create more heavy users. That's not a good thing.

    So there really are a few things to be careful about here. On the other hand marijuana is, overall, basically a pretty damn safe drug, and the dangers of increased use are modest enough that there's really not much excuse for the state prohibiting grown men and women from using it if they want to. What's more, a perfect legalization measure is unlikely to ever come along, and the California legislature won't work up the stones to deal with this any time soon either. As initiatives go, this one isn't bad.

  2. Redistricting Reform: YES. Two years ago we passed Proposition 11, which took redistricting of state districts out of the hands of the legislature and put it in the hands of a "citizen commission." There were two modest downsides to this: (a) the way the commission was set up is a little bit squirrelly, and (b) there's a lot of evidence that redistricting reform is unlikely to have a big effect.

    Still, I recommended a Yes vote on Prop 11 and I recommend extending it this year to congressional districts. Having legislatures draw their own boundaries is crazy, and we've passed up a bunch of opportunities in the past to fix this. This one isn't bad — the "citizen commission" may be a little squirrelly but it's not obviously biased in favor of either party — and even if it makes only a small difference, small is better than nothing.

    (Also note that this is the kind of thing the initiative process is actually designed for. It's not ballot box budgeting, it's not something trivial that doesn't belong in the constitution, and it's not something the legislature is likely to tackle on its own.)

  3. Park Surcharge: NO. This initiative increases the vehicle license fee by $18 and applies the revenue to maintaining state parks. It's a hard one to vote against since it's fully self-funding and fiscally defensible, but we just can't keep doing stuff like this. Every year we pass ever more initiatives that set up special funds or earmark revenue for special purposes or demand that the legislature allocate spending in a certain way. Then we complain that the budget is a mess. We really have to stop doing this, even in a good cause.

  4. Prohibit State Raids of Local Funds: NO. This one is a little hard to vote against too. It's yet another long-term domino effect of Proposition 13, which not only lowered property taxes but essentially made Sacramento the final arbiter of how to allocate them. As a result, sometimes the state allocates money in ways that local communities resent, like giving more money to schools or using transportation money to pay off state transportation bonds. I sympathize. But you know what? Them's the breaks. Voters wanted lower property taxes in 1978, and one of the results is that local communities lost a big chunk of their funding and gave up a lot of fiscal control to Sacramento. I think that was a bad trade, but if voters ever decide to agree with me the answer is a full-scale overhaul of Prop 13, not constant piecemeal attempts to tie the legislature's hands and continue our collective fantasy that tax cuts have no consequences.

  5. Eliminate Greenhouse Gas Limits: NO. This is a no-brainer. The legislature passed AB 32, the Global Warming Act, four years ago, and it mandates a range of measure to cut greenhouse gases and encourage the use of renewable energy sources. It's extremely popular, as it should be, except with a few big oil refiners who are trying to buy themselves an initiative that would, in practice, repeal it forever. It's a bad idea.

  6. Repeal Business Tax Cut: NO. Another tough vote. These tax cuts were unnecessary, we can't afford them, and they were passed only as part of horsetrading with Republicans in order to enact a budget a couple of years ago. But look: ugly or not, these are the kinds of deals legislatures need to be able to make.

    But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I might vote Yes once I actually get into the privacy of the voting booth. Special interest tax cuts like these are pretty indefensible in a state with a $19 billion budget hole.

  7. Pass Budgets With a Simple Majority: YES. It is almost clinically insane that California requires a two-thirds vote to pass our annual budget. The whole point of a supermajority requirement is that it be reserved for only a few specific matters of special concern. The annual budget is the exact opposite of that. For good or ill, of course it should only require a simple majority.

  8. Require Two-Thirds Vote To Increase Local Fees: NO. Proposition 13 is most famous for lowering property taxes, but it also established a two-thirds vote requirement for future tax increases of any kind. But what about fees? Those can be raised with only a majority vote, and both the state and local communities often use fees to charge businesses for safety and cleanup programs — for example, levies on beverage containers to pay for recycling programs or fees for cleaning up oil spills and fighting air pollution. Needless to say, oil, tobacco, and alcohol companies don't much care for this, and Prop 26 is their way to put a stop to it. But even if they have a point about the fuzzy boundary between taxes and fees, flatly eliminating the ability to charge corporations for the damage they incur goes too far. (I say "flatly eliminate" because in practice no fee increase can ever get a two-thirds vote and they know it.) The last thing we need is another initiative from rich special interests that effectively ropes off yet another budget area from legislative control. It's madness.

  9. Eliminate Redistricting Reform: NO. This would undo redistricting reform completely. Obviously I'm against that.