Kevin Drum - November 2010

The Unhappiest Meal

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 12:59 PM EDT

This is from a couple of days ago:

San Francisco's board of supervisors has voted, by a veto-proof margin, to ban most of McDonald's Happy Meals as they are now served in the restaurants. The measure will make San Francisco the first major city in the country to forbid restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat.

....Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Assn., bemoaned the ordinance's passage and contrasted it with San Franciscans' exuberant feelings after the Giants won the world series on Monday night. "One day you're world champions, and the next day, no toys for you," Conway said.

That's mighty sad. But here's what I'm curious about: does McDonald's or the California Restaurant Assn. have any kind of constitutional case to make against this statute based on the commerce clause? The obvious answer is no: the commerce clause merely gives the federal government the right to regulate commercial activity if it wants to. If it doesn't, there's nothing stopping states or local governments from passing any regulation they want. And they do. Every state has different insurance regulations, different environmental regulations, different health and safety regulations, etc.

And yet....something here bothers me. Leave aside the substantive question of whether San Francisco's decision was a righteous blow for our children's future or the first step down the slippery slope of fascism. McDonald's, like every big company, sells standardized merchandise nationwide. This is impractical if every city in America decides to have its own rules. No toys in San Francisco. No trans fats in New York City. No styrofoam containers in Houston. No factory farmed beef in Seattle. No California potatoes in Boise. No artificial sweeteners in Boston. Etc.

I dunno. Does this make sense? What's the proper dividing line between states and cities being allowed to set their own rules as they see fit, and nationwide companies being allowed to effectively sell their products nationwide? I haven't really thought this through, but I imagine plenty of others have. What's the state-of-the-art thinking on this?

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Biting the Hand That Fed Them

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Joe Klein:

Normally, I don't have much patience for the whining on the left about the Blue Dog democrats — who were sliced in half on Tuesday, losing at least 28 of their 54 seats. When they lose, the Democrats lose control of the Congress. This year, however, I do feel that there is an argument that, to an extent, the Dogs brought this on themselves by being penny-wise, dogpound-foolish. The argument goes like this: a larger stimulus package might have helped the economy recover at a faster clip, but the Dogs opposed it on fiscal responsibility grounds. A second argument: the public really has had it with Wall Street, but the Dogs helped water down the financial regulatory bill, gutting the too-big-to-fail provisions. There is real merit to both points. If the stimulus had been bigger and the financial reform package clearer and stronger, the public would have had a different — and, I believe, more positive — sense of the President's agenda.

And don't forget cramdown legislation! Blue Dogs helped weaken it in the House (though it eventually passed) and centrist Dems then killed it in the Senate. If it had passed, it would have moderated the foreclosure debacle, and it would have done so via judges, thus insulating Obama from charges that he was personally helping unworthy homeowners avoid paying the price of their granite countertops.

Would these things have made the difference for Democrats? I'd say there's a pretty good case to be made. A stronger economy combined with a bit more populist bashing of Wall Street could have been the difference between underperforming by ten seats and overperforming by ten seats. Too late now, though. Reducing economic misery just isn't on the legislative agenda anymore.

Why Meg Lost

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 10:46 AM EDT

Speaking of California, are you wondering why Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina lost? Is it because they had corporate baggage? Because people didn't like the millions of dollars they lavished on their own campaign? Nah. It's because they were Republicans.

Here are the winning margins for Democrats in seven out of eight statewide races this Tuesday: 13, 9, 10, 18, 14, 19, 13. California is still two states (coastal and inland, not north and south), but the blue part of the state is just a lot bigger than the red part and it's really hard for Republicans to win statewide offices. Whitman and Fiorina lost by big margins, but no bigger than any of the other Republican candidates.

(The exception here is the attorney general's race, where Democrat Kamala Harris had a hard time fighting off her San Francisco anti-death penalty rep against LA Republican Steve Cooley. At the moment, the race is still neck and neck.)

One Cheer for Majority Rule

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 10:33 AM EDT

On Tuesday California voters approved Proposition 25, which streamlined our annual budget process. The LA Times explains:

[Jerry] Brown and Democrats will be able to jam through their own spending plan without GOP votes if they choose to; passage of Proposition 25 allows lawmakers to pass budgets with the simple majority that Democrats command. It will no longer be necessary that two-thirds of the Legislature approve.

In that way, Tuesday's vote "is a tectonic shift," said GOP strategist Adam Mendelsohn. "Republicans are going to have to think seriously about how to reestablish their relevance."

A reader emailed last night to ask why I hadn't written about this. The answer is simple: Prop 25 is a step in the right direction, but GOP strategists like Adam Mendelsohn are talking their book. It's not going to do Democrats any favors in the short term.

Why? Because (a) California has a $19 billion budget hole and (b) we still require a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. So Democrats now have the unfettered ability to pass a budget, but only if they close the budget hole solely through spending cuts. And when they do, the blame will be entirely theirs. Republicans don't really have to do any thinking about this at all. They just have to lick their chops and wait for the inevitable bloodbath to commence. If you're wondering why the California GOP never really put up a fight against Prop 25, this is it.

Banks and Populism

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 9:57 AM EDT

Spencer Bachus, who's likely to be the new chairman of the House financial services committee, wants to go through the financial reform bill "page by page" and gut its toughest provisions, including the Volcker rule, which bans proprietary trading. The Financial Times explains:

Underlining the change in Congress, Mr Bachus, who as ranking Republican on the committee could replace Barney Frank as chairman of the panel, expressed concern that shareholders of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase will be hurt because the banks will be less profitable.

Kudos for honesty, I guess. No shilly shallying here about how this is bad for consumers or bad for America or anything like that. It might hurt Goldman Sachs shareholders, so the Volcker Rule has to go.

This is one of the great political triumphs of our day. Right-wing opposition to healthcare reform I get. Liberals and conservatives have been fighting over national healthcare for a century. But opposition to modest banking reform? In the wake of the most catastrophic financial failure since the Great Depression? It's mind boggling. Somehow, all those tea partiers who are mad as hell at Wall Street and aren't going to take it anymore have been persuaded to believe that financial reform is a gigantic socialist/statist conspiracy to....what? I'm not even sure. But they're mad about it and think Bachus is doing the Lord's work by trying to repeal it. If you ever needed any evidence that the tea party movement is largely in thrall to all the usual Republican power centers, this is it. How else can you explain why a plumber in Dubuque is convinced that a bill to rein in Wall Street excesses is really a socialist ruse to allow Barack Obama to take over the banks?

Via Tyler Cowen, who has additional comments.

Notes on the Presidency

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 12:49 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen on the presidency and its discontents:

I would be pleased if critics of the Obama presidency would indicate their managerial background and expertise, yet few do. How many of them could manage a team of ten people with any success?

Well, I managed a group of about a hundred or so at one time. Whether I did it with any success, though, is harder to say.

Intriguingly, Tyler also suggests that marijuana legalization is in tough shape if even Californians won't legalize it. "We're seeing the high water mark for pot, as aging demographics do not favor the idea," he says. I disagree, but it's an interesting thought.

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Guerrilla Politics

| Thu Nov. 4, 2010 12:40 AM EDT

Tonight's New York Times puff piece about the Republicans' visionary two-year strategy for regaining control of Congress (lots of money, lots of obstruction, lots of candidate recruitment — i.e., the usual) contains the following guerrilla warfare nugget:

They also tried to push Democrats into retirement, using what was described in the presentation as “guerilla tactics” like chasing Democratic members down with video cameras and pressing them to explain votes or positions. (One target, Representative Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, had to apologize for manhandling one of his inquisitors in a clip memorialized on YouTube. Only this week did Republican strategists acknowledge they were behind the episode.)

I guess all's fair in love and politics, but seriously? One of their official strategies, memorialized in a PowerPoint presentation, was to harrass Democrats with video cameras until they got so sick of politics that they just gave up? Did we really just hand over control of Congress to a bunch of seventh graders?

Quotes of the Day: Schmitt, Lithwick, Krugman

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 8:45 PM EDT

From Mark Schmitt, ruminating on the Republican agenda now that they've won control of the House:

Six years ago, pollster and political scientist Stan Greenberg published a book, The Two Americas, in which he broke down the American electorate of the middle Bush era into new categories. Two of those categories — the only two I remember — were the "F-You Boys" and the "F-You Old Men." The categories are so perfectly named that they require little explanation.

Indeed they don't — though the rest of Mark's piece is worth reading. Next up is from Dahlia Lithwick, about a Supreme Court case argued today:

Arizona v. Winn is about a suicide pact between two doomed lines of First Amendment jurisprudence.

I don't have anything to say about the case itself. I just love that sentence. Finally, here is Paul Krugman on the economy:

It’s an amazing thing: Obama and company have managed to convince people that big government failed, without actually delivering big government.

This is why I'm depressed about yesterday's election. Not because it means Obama's domestic agenda is finished. I never figured he'd have more than two or three years to get things done anyway. No, what's depressing is that on the single biggest domestic issue we face, the election didn't even matter. Our economy remains anemic, and even in the best case growth will stay slow and unemployment will remain dismally high for years. In the worst case, it's fragile enough that almost any kind of external shock — a housing bust in China, a wave of state or local defaults in the U.S., the collapse of Greece or Ireland, an oil shock brought on by God knows what — would be enough to bring it to its knees.

We know what to do about this: on the fiscal side, spend a whole bunch of money; on the monetary side, target higher inflation. There's nothing stopping us. But we're not going to do it. We just aren't. And even if Democrats had retained control of Congress yesterday, we still wouldn't have done it. Instead, we've resigned ourselves to simply gutting through a long, grinding period of working class stagnation and praying that nothing happens to make it even worse. Basically, we've given up.

I really hope I'm wrong about this. I spend a lot of time these days hoping that I'm wrong.

The Commanding Heights

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 8:20 PM EDT

In a post from May 2009 about bloc voting creating effective one-party rule, Arnold Kling throws out this aside:

I saw this scenario playing out way back in September [2008], when I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince a Republican Congressperson to vote against what we now call TARP. I said that this would be exactly what the Democrats needed — much greater government control over the financial system and big business in general. From now on, every Fortune 500 company has to align itself with the party in power.

I am curious what Arnold thinks of this now. It seems to me that in hindsight, even a conservative/libertarian TARP skeptic should be willing to concede that Obama never had any intention of using TARP to assert greater control over the financial system and, in the event, didn't use it to assert greater control over the financial system. Ditto for the auto bailouts and the stress tests. The financial reform bill, conversely, was designed to regulate the financial system, but did it in the most minimal way possible considering the vast damage that the financial system had just finished causing us all. 

In fact, all things considered, Obama treated the financial system with kid gloves, and despite — or because of? — that treatment, the financial industry (and big business in general) rather flamboyantly declined to align itself with the party in power this year. We saw the results of that yesterday.

But I wonder if Arnold sees things that way too? Probably not.

Beware the Spin

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 5:49 PM EDT

Over at the mothership, Stephanie Mencimer says that former Christian Coalition wunderkind Ralph Reed is "still one of the shrewder observers of American politics." Maybe so, but this sure doesn't convince me:

To support his assessment that the election was a direct reflection of the voters' feelings about Obama, Reed produced some exit polling data that showed that Obama is far more hated among midterm voters than even Bill Clinton was in 1994. According to Reed's surveys, 63 percent of voters said their midterm votes were intended to send the message that they were opposed to the president and his agenda, the highest ever recorded.

Hmmm. According to the standard exit polls, 37% of the electorate said their vote was meant to express opposition to Obama. Those numbers might be off by a few points, but there's no way they're off by 26 points. This sounds a lot less like shrewdness than it does good old fashioned spin.

Beware the pundits. Beware the spin.