Kevin Drum - June 2011

Replacing Tim Geithner

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 5:37 PM EDT

Bloomberg is reporting that Tim Geithner might resign as Treasury Secretary after the debt ceiling fight wraps up. Ezra Klein thinks he's going to be almost impossible to replace:

I’m not saying that because he’s done such a bang-up job, or because he’s got such a winning personality. I’ll leave those questions for a future article. It’s because the confirmation process is broken. As Slate’s Dave Weigel reported, “the time between nomination and confirmation votes has nearly doubled since the Reagan era, when the sclerosis really started. It took Reagan 114 days for nominees to get confirmed; it takes Obama closer to 200 days. By the White House’s own count, more than 200 nominees are in limbo.”

Many of those nominees are non-controversial. The Treasury Secretary won’t be. The economy is the central political issue right now, 2012 is an election year, and Republicans have sufficient votes in the Senate to mount a filibuster. Under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to imagine them permitting the confirmation of any Treasury Secretary.

I think there are two reasons that this is probably not right:

  • Treasury Secretary isn't a controversial appointment. Think about this from the perspective of Republican senators: it's not a lifetime appointment; Obama is almost certain to nominate a sober, moderately liberal, establishment-approved kind of personality; and in any case, the truth is that the Treasury Secretary has only modest power that's independent of Congress's authority. Geithner's successor would be very unlikely to seriously affect deficit negotiations, spending priorities, budget battles, or Obama's reelection chances.
  • Our nomination process is indeed broken, but it's broken only for the less visible class of appointments. This is important: Republicans have routinely held up circuit court judges, ambassadors to medium sized countries, agency heads, deputy and assistant cabinet positions, and so on. But they haven't held up Supreme Court appointments, cabinet secretaries, or other highly visible appointments such as Fed chairman, head of the CIA, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. These kinds of nominations get too much attention, and that's exactly what Republicans don't want. They want their obstructionism to fly below the radar. Holding up a Treasury Secretary for anything other than a slam dunk reason would make their obstructionism far too public and would risk engaging the normally jaded DC press corps, which treats the obstruction of lesser appointments as just garden variety partisan politics.

I know this seems counterintuitive, but just take a look at the record: all of Obama's major appointments — the kind that get front page treatment — have been approved without all that much fuss. Republicans just don't want to practice their usual brand of obstructionism when the spotlight is shining. It's only the lesser lights that get filibustered for months on end.

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Rick Perry Stakes His Claim

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 1:16 PM EDT

It is, obviously, perfectly OK for Christians to hold prayer rallies. Just as obviously, Christian prayer rallies will feature Christian speakers, not Muslims or Jews or Buddhists. That's the nature of the beast, and it's hardly unusual for an American politician to attend such events.

But Tim Murphy reports that "The Response," a Houston prayer rally funded by the American Family Association and supported by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is a wee bit more muscular than that:

With this prayerfest, Perry is associating himself with rather radical folks. The American Family Association's issues director, for instance, has said that gays are "Nazis" and that Muslims should be converted to Christianity. Another organizer, Doug Stringer, has said that 9/11 was God's punishment for the nation's creeping secularism. And then there's Jay Swallow, whose endorsement is trumpeted on The Response's website, and who runs "A Christian Military Training Camp for the purpose of dealing with the occult and territorial enemy strong holds in America" (his description). Consequently, it's not much of a mystery why only one of the nation's other 49 governors has so far accepted Perry's invitation to attend the event (Perry invited all of them)—arch-conservative Sam Brownback of Kansas.

So does this mean that Perry is running for president? Maybe! Tim explains more at the link.

Winners and Losers From the Great Recession

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 12:56 PM EDT

So who's benefited and who hasn't from the current recovery following the Great Recession? I think you know the answer already, but just to make it official, here's a report from researchers at Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies:

Between the second quarter of 2009 and the fourth quarter of 2010, real national income in the U.S. increased by $528 billion. Pre-tax corporate profits by themselves had increased by $464 billion while aggregate real wages and salaries rose by only $7 billion or only .1%. Over this six quarter period, corporate profits captured 88% of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than 1% of the growth in real national income. The extraordinarily high share of national income (88%) received by corporate profits was by far the highest in the past five recoveries from national recessions.

Here it is in table format, in case you want to see comparisons to previous recessions and recoveries:

Plainly, what's needed to address this crisis is tax cuts for corporations and reduced federal spending on workers. But who will speak up for our downtrodden corporate sector? It is a vexing problem.

Via Economix.

Is the Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

The Constitution states that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law....shall not be questioned." Bruce Bartlett suggests that this trumps the debt ceiling, which means the president can simply ignore Congress if he wishes and keep spending money even after the debt ceiling has been reached. To back this up, he quotes George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz:

A requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but it strikes me that this doesn't come close to implying that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. What it really suggests is merely that the public debt is the only untouchable part of the federal budget. The government is required to dedicate its tax revenue first to paying off any debt that's due, but once that's done the Constitution is silent. If the debt ceiling has been reached, and there's not enough money left to issue Social Security checks or buy more aircraft carriers after current debts have been paid, then Social Security checks get reduced and aircraft carriers get put on hold. The constitutional argument for ignoring the debt ceiling would only come into play if for some reason things got to the point where it literally interfered with paying off current bondholders. We're not even within light years of that happening.  

I don't really like this conclusion, and I'd like to see the statutory debt ceiling go away entirely. It's an archaic budgetary vestige that makes no sense at all anymore. Still, it exists whether I like it or not, and I don't really see how it offends the Constitution as long as creditors keep getting paid.

Our Sadly Lowered Standards for Dickitude

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 10:05 AM EDT

Mark Halperin is one of my least-favorite political analysts, a reliably unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. Today, on Morning Joe, he gave his considered opinion of Barack Obama's press conference performance on Wednesday: "I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday."

Halperin didn't quite realize he was on the air when he said this, and when he did he immediately apologized and was later suspended by MSNBC. However, this is of zero interest to me. If Halperin thinks Obama is a dick, it's fine with me if he says it publicly. In fact, I'd rather he say it publicly. A mild reproach from MSNBC management for offending the delicate sensibilities of Morning Joe viewers would have been sufficient apology.

Needless to say, what's actually interesting here is that Halperin, in fact, thinks Obama is a dick for getting slightly combative yesterday. And this is interesting precisely because Halperin is an unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. It presumably means that a fair-sized chunk of the DC press corps also thinks Obama was a bit of a dick yesterday.

If this is the case, all I can say is that the standards for dickitude have become alarmingly low in Washington, DC, these days. I mean, Republicans have spent several consecutive months holding the country hostage to their tea-party base, pretending to negotiate a budget deal when they obviously had no intention of ever agreeing to any kind of compromise, all but chortling publicly at their own cleverness, and dressing down Obama in front of the TV cameras at every opportunity. But after putting up with this for months, it's Obama who's a dick for finally pushing back a bit against these guys? Seriously?

As I was writing this, I knew I'd shortly hear from one of my regular readers who's a close student of Halperin. His comment just popped into my inbox:

In many ways, Obama really is in a box with the Republicans and the media right now. Part of it, I'm sure, is his press operation's lack of messaging. But by far the most significant part of it is the right's mastery of the media. It's not just John Boehner vs. Obama, by which the playing field would be more fair, but it's virtually every conservative senator, congressman, pundit or voter who cares to spout something outrageous or inciteful vs. Obama. Not vs. the Democrats. Obama.

....If Obama cannot get past this, if provocation of the right is forbidden, then Obama has no option other than to deal — and according to Halperin, that means cave and move on. If this really is the view, then Obama's re-election is doomed as are those of liberal Democrats.

Yes indeedy. And Republicans are keenly aware of this. Whatever else you can say about Obama's performance or lack thereof over the past few months, it would be nice if his Democratic colleagues in Congress figured this out and started to fight back too.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Reject Republican Plan

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 9:30 AM EDT

The chart below represents Republican nirvana as of March 2011. According to their own JEC report, the best research suggests that successful "fiscal consolidation" efforts (i.e., deficit reductions) have historically been heavily weighted toward spending cuts. The sweet spot is 85% spending cuts, 15% tax increases:

The research touted here by Republicans is almost certainly wrong because it uses cherry-picked data from countries that weren't trying to fight off high unemployment and a stagnant economy. But as Mike Konczal points out, that doesn't matter. Right or wrong, this is what Republicans were touting as recently as three months ago.

So what happens when the president proposes a plan that's almost exactly 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases? They summarily reject it, and continue to insist that if they don't get their way they'll happily burn down the country by refusing to increase the debt ceiling. This should surprise no one, of course. This is how it usually goes when you negotiate with terrorists.

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Is Barack Obama a Lefty?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 9:18 AM EDT

While I was in New York I met up with one of my longtime readers (and a fellow cat lover — see Coco at the very bottom of 2009's Holiday Catblogging Extravaganza) and we were joined by Stuart Zechman, who you may recognize as a regular guest on Jay Ackroyd's Virtually Speaking. We got to talking about Barack Obama and ended up in some very airy, meta, navel-gazing territory that I thought I might toss out for comment. This isn't usually my thing, and it might not be yours either. If it isn't, don't stress out about it. Just skip it and scroll down to the next post.

Anyway. Obama. At some point in our conversation one thing led to another and I offered up the conventional view that Obama is a center leftist. Stuart disagreed: Obama, he thinks, is a pure centrist, full stop. Now, I'm convinced that by every normal measure of these things, I'm right. Obama is, plainly, to the left of —

Well, what? This is where things broke down a bit. How do you measure this?

There's Obama's Senate voting record, of course, which by multiple measures put him in the leftmost quarter of the Senate. But that's the Senate. It doesn't say anything about his performance as president.

Or there's Obama compared to some mythical median voter. But that's almost undefinable. Obama pushed to repeal DADT, but by the time he did, repeal was supported by more than half the country. So you could say that repeal was actually a centrist position. By that definition, however, pretty much everything supported by a majority of the country is "centrist." Tax cuts are centrist. The Iraq War was centrist. FDR was centrist. This gets you nowhere.

Or there's conventional wisdom. Keynesian stimulus is leftist, national healthcare is leftist, and financial reform is leftist. So if you do moderate versions of those three things than you're a moderate leftist. President McCain wouldn't have done any of them, after all.

I'll stop now. Like I said, this is the kind of airy metapolitical discussion that I usually don't have a lot of patience for, and I think that by almost any measure Obama is obviously left of center. Still, it brings up a good question: it's relatively easy to look at a legislator and get a fairly rigorous, quantitative read on how far left or right they are. But how about presidents? Aside from gut instinct and conventional wisdom, what's the best measure of their political leanings? Anyone want to take a stab at this?

Back From the Big Apple

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:34 PM EDT

So the Dodgers declared bankruptcy while I was gone, and I hear that President Obama grew a pair at his press conference this morning. Anything else happen that I should know about? Has the country followed the Dodgers into bankruptcy yet?

Big, big thanks to Nick Baumann and Andy Kroll for filling in for me while I was gone. I hope you liked their stuff. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, in keeping with the Southern California sunset theme from last week, here's a picture of sunset over the Hudson, taken from the High Line Park last Saturday. Enjoy.

Scott Walker: Collective Bargaining Is An 'Expensive Entitlement.' Um, No.

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 1:09 PM EDT

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the man who lit the fuse of 2011's nationwide union protests, made the not-so-shocking admission that his administration "had not built enough of the case" to slash collective bargaining rights for public workers. Talk about an understatement.

Walker's anti-union bill, which goes into effect today, was met with massive opposition, including more than 100,000 pro-union protesters who flooded the streets of Madison, the state capital. But the statement that really jumped out from Walker's interview is his own perception of the bargaining fight:

"They defined it as a rights issue. It's not a rights issue. It's an expensive entitlement."

Hmm. I'm pretty sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN after World War II (and drafted and adopted by the US), says that collective bargaining is in fact a human right. Oh, yes, there it is, in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration:

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Then there's the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) here in the US, which "explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions," according to the scholars at Cornell University Law School. Or as the National Labor Relations Board's website puts it, the NLRA "protects employees' rights to act together, with or without a union, to improve working terms and conditions, including wages and benefits."

Memo to Scott Walker: Before launching an assault on a right like collective bargaining for workers, you'd be wise to fully understanding what exactly it is you are trying to eliminate. Wisconsin citizens deserve at least that much.

Fighting Outside Money With Outside Money

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 9:26 AM EDT

So begins the 2012 presidential campaign's outside spending money war.

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, has launched a new ad pushing back against a multi-million-dollar attack campaign targeting President Obama's economic record by Karl Rove's American Crossroads. Priorities' $750,000 ad buy was significantly less than Crossroads', but the spots will air in states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia—that are all crucial to Obama's re-election.

Titled "Portraits," the add calls Crossroads' most recent offering—blaming President Obama for the lagging economic recovery—"politics at its worst." Set against a montage of purportedly ordinary Americans, the ad's narrator hews closely to Democratic talking points, criticizing Republicans for opposing "economic reform," wanting to "end Medicare," and cutting education funding, all the while supporting subsidies for big oil companies and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Here's the ad:

Like American Crossroads, Priorities USA Action is a 527 organization, or super PAC, which means it has to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission. The public will eventually know who funded this ad and others from the Democrat-led group.

The takeaway here is this: Democrats got shellacked in the 2010 midterms, in part because they didn't have the outside spending firepower to counter the barrage of ads from Crossroads and other like-minded groups. Not anymore. November 2012 is still almost a year and a half out, but already we're getting an early glimpse at the outside money wars sure to dominate the airwaves the closer we get to election day.