Kevin Drum - April 2011

Spy Games

| Wed Apr. 13, 2011 11:01 AM EDT

What's behind the recent Pakistani demand that the CIA essentially shut down its entire operation in the country? The proximate cause is the shooting of two Pakistani citizens by a CIA employee last January. But as Joe Klein summarizes things, there's a bit more to it:

It seems there may be a covert war going on between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. The key event appeared, at first, to be a road rage incident (of which there are zillions in Pakistan, believe me). A US "embassy employee" shot and killed two Pakistanis who were allegedly trying to rob him. Except the "employee" — Raymond Davis — turns out to have been a likely CIA employee and the "victims" may well have been ISI operatives. The rumor is that Davis was trying to penetrate Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that pulled off the Mumbai massacre and is not-so-loosely affiliated with the ISI.

If these rumors are true — and they seem entirely plausible — the root cause of Pakistan's move against the CIA may be anger that we're getting close to the root of Pakistan's operating hypocrisy: attempting to play our ally — and receiving $6 billion in aid — while funding the Afghan Taliban and supporting terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba.

I'm not sure how seriously to take something reported as "rumor," but this does indeed have an aura of plausibility. For now, though, I'm just passing it along.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Playing Chicken With the Debt Ceiling

| Wed Apr. 13, 2011 9:58 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias notes that John Boehner has been asking his Wall Street pals about whether they think it's OK for him to play a high-stakes game of chicken with the debt ceiling, and the loud-and-clear answer has been "no no no no no":

Then the question becomes “do a majority of members of congress favor raising the debt ceiling?” And the fact of the matter is that the answer is yes. Boehner isn’t even asking Wall Street whether or not raising the ceiling is a good idea. He takes it for granted that it’s a good idea. He’s just asking them how much screwing around he can get away with. And they’re telling him that they don’t like screwing around. Of course these are rich people, so they’ll tolerate some screwing around if it’s done in pursuit of lower taxes on rich people. But at the end of the day if the White House simply refuses to get sucked into a negotiation, the debt ceiling will be raised.

I think the political dynamics are a little more complicated than this because (a) the Wall Street guys are almost certainly overstating the market's reaction to a small amount of screwing around (they usually do, after all), and (b) Boehner has lots of public support for playing chicken. Still, it's basically right because the debt ceiling is a different animal than a government shutdown. Government shutdowns, after all, are fundamentally fights over the federal budget: if you can't agree on a budget, the government shuts down. So blame is hard to assess because both sides have budget proposals and neither proposal is obviously the one causing the shutdown. It's just a straight-up political fight, with neither side really sure who's going to win the PR battle. 

The debt ceiling fight is different: it's not obviously tied to anything in particular, which means the side that starts festooning it with extraneous pet issues is pretty obviously the side that's preventing a debt ceiling increase. So if Boehner and the tea partiers look genuinely willing to let the United States default on its debt unless they get a bunch of goodies in return, there's not much question who gets the blame. Republicans do.

So yes: the president can safely demand a clean bill and be pretty sure that he'll win the PR battle. All the VSPs will be on his side, the public will almost certainly come around as the consequences of playing chicken are laid out in graphic detail, and Boehner will end up feeling a level of heat that he just can't stand up to. This time, Obama holds the winning hand as long as he's willing to play it.

Getting Real About the Deficit

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 11:38 PM EDT

The more I think about the budget deal Obama agreed to last week, the less apocalyptic it seems to me. It's true that, macroeconomically speaking, this is the wrong time to be cutting spending, but let's face it: $38 billion in spending just isn't that big a deal at a macro level. It may have a negative effect, but it's a pretty small negative effect.

So let's put the macro-level considerations aside for a moment and just look at the cuts from a pure budgetary perspective. There are a couple of things we can say. First, domestic discretionary spending has gone up about 4-5% a year in real terms over the past decade (and a bit faster than that in the past few years), and it's difficult even for a hardcore liberal to pretend that this level of growth leaves no room for even modest cuts. Second, given the amount of smoke and mirrors in last week's budget agreement, the level of actual spending reductions it contains is probably no more than about $20 billion. Maybe not even that much. This is just not Armageddon, and pretending otherwise doesn't do much except wreck our credibility with the public on fiscal issues.

But that's all short-term stuff, and it's small potatoes from either side of the aisle. What about the longer-term deficit? What should Obama propose in his speech tomorrow? Politically, it's appealing to say that he should propose nothing. He should just say no to the Republican proposal to gut Medicare and leave it at that.

And politically maybe that really would be the wisest course. But we liberals have been saying for years that discretionary spending isn't really a long-term problem. Healthcare is. And that's right: if you want to address the long-term federal deficit, you have to address Medicare. Republicans got their discretionary pound of flesh in this round of budgeting, and they'll probably get a bit more in the years to come. But Medicare is still the real problem.

So if I had my druthers, I guess it would be for Obama to make some genuinely courageous proposals, not the kind of faux courageous proposals that we've gotten from Paul Ryan. That means making it clear that PPACA already does a lot to rein in Medicare costs, but more needs to be done. It means letting all the Bush tax cuts expire, not just the cuts for the rich. It means adding further cost controls. It means adopting some conservative ideas about cost sharing. It means scheduling a steady increase in Medicare payroll taxes over the next couple of decades, maybe a tenth of a percentage point a year from 2020 to 2040. It means acknowledging both that Medicare costs can't keep rising at their current rate forever and that as America ages Medicare is going to require a bigger chunk of tax money.

Personally, I'd like to see the long-term deficit get addressed. I'm not quite sure how that's going to happen as long as Republicans stick to their blood oath never to raise taxes, but I'd like to see Obama make the choice clear. My guess is that if the price of keeping Medicare intact is a return to Clinton-era tax rates, a modest future increase in the payroll tax, and some moderate but real cost controls, the American public will buy it. That's just not a big price to pay. But they won't pay it unless someone lays out the stakes clearly.

As for Social Security — well, I've all but given up on that. I continue to think that a deal on Social Security is eminently possible and would be good both for Social Security itself and the liberal project writ large. My argument is here. But nobody on the left seems to be buying this at the moment. It's a shame.

This is all pie in the sky until a few more Republicans have the guts to stand up to Grover Norquist and acknowledge demographic and fiscal reality. In the meantime, Democrats don't really have a serious negotiating partner. But then, the Republican proposals are pie in the sky too, and taken together this means that serious progress isn't likely until 2013 or later. While we're waiting for conservatives to grow up and return to the real world, though, we liberals shouldn't just stonewall long-term deficit issues, tempting though that is. Instead, we ought to be crystal clear that we really do take the long-term deficit seriously, and we ought to be crystal clear about what our competing vision is for addressing it. Then, when the time comes, we won't be caught flatfooted. That would be a nice change.

Smoke and Mirrors Watch

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 2:26 PM EDT

Here's AP reporter Andrew Taylor digging into the $38 billion in spending cuts that Republicans agreed to and finding that an awful lot of it is smoke and mirrors:

Instead, the cuts that actually will make it into law are far tamer, including [...] $2.5 billion from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can't be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation. Another $3.5 billion comes from unused spending authority from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families.

....The spending measure reaps $350 million by cutting a one-year program enacted in 2009 for dairy farmers then suffering from low milk prices. Another $650 million comes by not repeating a one-time infusion into highway programs passed that same year. And just last Friday, Congress approved Obama's $1 billion request for high-speed rail grants — crediting themselves with $1.5 billion in savings relative to last year.

About $10 billion of the cuts comes from targeting appropriations accounts previously used by lawmakers for so-called earmarks....Republicans had already engineered a ban on earmarks when taking back the House this year.

Republicans also claimed $5 billion in savings by capping payments from a fund awarding compensation to crime victims. Under an arcane bookkeeping rule — used for years by appropriators — placing a cap on spending from the Justice Department crime victims fund allows lawmakers to claim the entire contents of the fund as budget savings. The savings are awarded year after year.

And this report from CBS News notes two other phantom cuts: $1.7 billion left over from the 2010 census and $2.2 billion in subsidies for health insurance co-ops that are going to be funded anyway via the healthcare reform bill. This stuff alone adds up to $27.4 billion, all of it money that wouldn't have been spent anyway. I suppose you can argue that some of it might have gotten reallocated if it hadn't been removed legislatively, but I doubt that the tea party true believers are in a mood to buy that. If these reports are correct, the bill contains only about $11 billion in hard cuts. Basically, it looks as if the tea partiers may have gotten snookered by their own side.

Is the Economy Turning Sluggish?

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 2:02 PM EDT

From Catherine Rampell:

When 2011 began, Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting company, expected that America’s economic output would shape up to rise at a 4.1 percent annual rate in the first quarter, the highest pace in over a year....Today, after an especially weak report on February’s trade deficit, the group’s economists lowered their first quarter G.D.P. estimate to a sorry 1.5 percent annualized. If borne out, that rate would be slower than each of the last two quarters, at a time when the economy desperately needs to be rocketing forward so that companies will hasten their hiring.

Who knows? Maybe Macroeconomic Advisers will turn out to be wrong. But it's sure looking more and more like this is an awfully bad time to start cutting federal spending.

The Public and the Debt Ceiling

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 11:38 AM EDT

Responding to an unconfirmed Wall Street Journal article suggesting that President Obama might be willing to negotiate with Republicans over increasing the debt ceiling limit, Jon Chait says:

There's a massive weakness in [the GOP] position that Democrats have not tried to exploit. Republicans are winning leverage by communicating their willingness to do something really unpopular, but they are communicating this inside Washington without having to communicate it outside Washington. If Obama insists he will only sign a clean debt limit bill, and will negotiate budget changes as part of the budget, what do Republicans do? They become solely responsible for the consequences of refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Let them go explain that to their business backers. 

Really unpopular? Here's a poll in January showing that 71% of Americans oppose increasing the debt ceiling. Here's a poll in February putting the number at 62%. Here's another one from March putting it at 60%. And here's one from April that put it at 62% after it was explained that raising the debt ceiling meant the United States might default on its debt.

Now, I don't think these numbers will stay this high once the debt ceiling fight takes center stage and everyone gets a better idea of what it really means to refuse to raise it. Still, like it or not, liberals have long since lost the public opinion battle over the deficit. Poll after poll makes it clear that most people want to cut federal spending and don't want to raise the debt ceiling. Sure, it's a vague sentiment, and it falls apart when you ask them what they want to cut, but the fact remains that the public is largely on the Republican side of this battle right now. I happen to agree with Chait and others that Obama would be better off sticking to his guns and demanding a clean bill, but it's also worth acknowledging that this strategy starts from the bottom of a pretty deep hole. As usual, the liberal community has done a crappy job of selling the public on our perspective. Now we're paying the price.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Republican Plan

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 10:12 AM EDT

This is from the LA Times this morning:

Kudos to the Times copy desk for writing an unusually clear and accurate headline.

Defunding the Left

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

Battles over competing priorities are the meat and drink of politics. Conservatives want to defund Planned Parenthood, liberals want to cut defense spending. But Republican strategists have long understood that there's a deeper level to politics, one where the goal isn't merely to fight the opposition's agenda, but to actively undermine the infrastructure and funding that allow the opposing party to exist at all. In the past, the GOP has focused on three primary defunding strategies: Killing off private sector unions, packing minority voters into gerrymandered districts, and championing tort reform as a way of eating into the earnings of defense attorneys:

You can think of this triumvirate—unions, minority redistricting, and tort reform—as Defunding 1.0. And most of it hasn't stopped: Republicans are still battling private-sector unions and pressing for tort reform. But private-sector unions have mostly been beaten, and tort reform has turned out to be a tough nut to crack. So the GOP has moved on to Defunding 2.0, with a brand new trio of pet projects.

This is from my short piece on defunding the left from the upcoming issue of the magazine. To find out what Defunding 2.0 is all about, you know what to do. Just click the link.

Americans Hate Everyone

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 4:55 PM EDT

So here's the latest Gallup poll, asking people whether various groups have "too much power." The funny thing about it is that Americans apparently think that everyone has too much power:

Churches and the military manage to escape the "too much power" box largely thanks to support from huge numbers of Republicans. Labor unions and the federal government go the opposite way, but Democrats don't support them enough to keep their overall numbers from being pretty dismal. Lobbyists, banks, and corporations come in for mostly bipartisan abuse.

Roughly speaking, I'd say that this poll doesn't tell us much aside from the fact that American political beliefs are fairly incoherent. But we knew that already. Beyond that, an awful lot of Americans apparently feel that they themselves have no voice to speak of, which must mean that everybody else has too much. And they might be right.

And to put a timely political spin on this, the lousy showing of the federal government goes a long way toward explaining why Obama "lost" the battle with John Boehner and the tea party over spending cuts. Without taking sides on whether Obama himself deserves any of the blame for this, the fact is that it's pretty much impossible to win a political battle when the public is on the other side. And this poll makes it pretty clear that a big plurality of Americans are in favor of defanging the federal government.

Of course, they're largely in favor of this only when proposed spending cuts are aimed rather vaguely at "discretionary programs" or some such. Boehner won this round because the actual reductions on the table were never made concrete. (In fact, they're still trying to figure out exactly which line items are going to be cut.) However, when it comes to something big and well known, like Medicare, this dynamic shifts in the opposite direction and Boehner will almost certainly be on the losing side of public opinion if he tries to push for big cuts. Political strategy matters in all this, but public opinion matters even more. That's the main reason Boehner won this round and it's the main reason he'll lose the next one if he overreaches.

Quote of the Day: Boehner Wants More, More, More

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 12:07 PM EDT

From House Speaker John Boehner, staking out an early position on the upcoming fight to raise the nation's debt ceiling:

The president says I want you to send me a clean bill. Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you’re going to get a clean bill. There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it.

This is hardly a surprise. We've been talking for months about how there's going to be a big battle over the debt ceiling, and obviously big battles have to be fought over something. Boehner is just being a little more bellicose about this than usual.

So what's the "really, really big" thing that Boehner has in mind? Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I'm at a bit of a loss over this. I don't think Boehner can get away with demanding concessions on side issues like Planned Parenthood or EPA regs. He lost on that already, and his position won't be any better in a couple of months. As for straight budget issues, what's the point? The House is working on a budget right now and it will land on the president's desk soon enough. That's the place for a fight over FY2012 outlays.

So what else is there? Some kind of deal on slashing Medicare? Maybe, but I'd be pretty surprised if Boehner really wanted to tie the Republican Party to big Medicare cuts in an extremely public battle like this. Permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts? Something else?

I know that I'm demonstrating a lack of imagination here, but I'm hard-pressed to see what kind of big things Boehner can really attach to a debt ceiling bill. Help me out.