Kevin Drum - July 2011

David Brooks vs. David Brooks

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 12:58 AM EDT

David Brooks three weeks ago on the Republican obstructionists who derailed the debt ceiling talks:

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise....The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities....The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency....The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name.

....If the debt ceiling talks fail, independents voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

Brooks sees the light! Hooray! Unless, um, he changes his mind. Cue Brooks tonight:

Alas, the dream of a Grand Bargain died Friday evening for three reasons. First, it was always going to be difficult to round up the necessary Congressional votes....Second, the White House negotiating process was inadequate....Third, the president lost his cool.

....There has been an outbreak of sanity since Congress took control....This should be a humbling moment for the White House, and maybe a learning experience. There are other people who have been around Washington a long time. They know how to play this game.

Just yesterday I was telling a friend who likes Brooks that I'm not a Brooks hater. I'm still not. But honest to God, I've never seen a columnist who's so schizophrenic. One day we've failed because Republicans are just shy of insane, the next we've failed because Obama screwed up the negotiating process. It's like some part of him rebels whenever he finally admits to himself what the modern conservative movement has become. I wonder what it will take for him to finally figure it out for good?

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Obama vs. Boehner: A Pair of Nothingburgers

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 10:13 PM EDT

What a discouraging pair of speeches. I expected Obama to stick with his Mr. Reasonable routine, so that wasn't a surprise. But I was surprised that he didn't do a better job of making a case for his own side. It just seemed....limp. I mean, this is not exactly a rousing call to action:

I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.

When he switched to describing the Republican plan, he didn't do much better. I really don't think he managed to paint the "cuts only" alternative as all that dire sounding, and I don't think he managed to explain the tea party intransigence in the House very well either. I could figure out what he meant because I follow this stuff, but I'm not sure someone who was coming into this cold could have.

And Boehner! What kind of gall does it take to describe last week's House bill as "bipartisan"? How many Dems voted for it? Three? Four? And he repeated this nonsense multiple times. This was accompanied by claims that it was Obama who created this whole crisis in the first place, that healthcare reform added to the deficit, and that Obama's "balanced approach" meant solely more spending and more taxes. Ugh. This is about as close to outright lying as you can get without being called on it. But Boehner knows well that it doesn't matter. If anyone does call him on it, it will only be in a few print-only fact checking pieces that no one reads.

I'm not sure what Obama hoped to accomplish tonight. He didn't really explain the debt ceiling itself very well, and for my money he didn't explain the problem with the tea party caucus in the House very well either. The latter, unfortunately, isn't really something you can explain unless you're pretty blunt about it, and that's just not his style. Nor was any news made.

I dunno. Maybe I'm misjudging how this will go over with Joe Sixpack. Maybe the congressional switchboard really will light up with demands for compromise. But it sure didn't seem to me that Obama moved the needle much tonight.

Quote of the Day: Libya is a Stalemate

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 8:41 PM EDT

From Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on how we're doing in Libya:

I have been impressed with what NATO has done here, how fast it got together with the pressure that it’s brought on Qadhafi. It’s dramatically attritted his forces, his major forces. That said, there’s still plenty of challenges associated with the regime forces who have adjusted [] to the opposition tactics, and we are generally in a stalemate.

I guess this means we officially have yet another forever war on our hands now.

(Via Doug Mataconis.)

Chart of the Day: Running On Empty

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 3:34 PM EDT

This is from Chris Wilson of Slate, and it shows the cash position of the U.S. Treasury over the past year. Long story short, Treasury periodically sells some bonds to raise cash and its cash position goes up. Then it spends that money, sells some more bonds, etc. But starting on May 16, when we reached the debt ceiling and Congress did nothing about it, no more bonds could be sold. For the past couple of months Treasury has been playing games to stay in business, mostly by raiding other accounts or suspending payment of securities that could be held off temporarily. But that's done, and now we're headed inexorably to zero. On August 3rd we go into the red and we stop paying a whole lot of bills.

Which bills? Well, the tea partiers never say. But if you're expecting a check from the U.S. government after next Tuesday, you might want to make a contingency plan.

Home Alone

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 1:09 PM EDT

Derek Thompson explains why he chooses to work in an office even though he could telecommute from home if he wanted to:

For me, it comes down to people. The best social technology increases social connections. Facebook keeps us in touch with far-flung friends. Twitter broadcasts our internal monologues to the world. Email, texts, and phones keep us connected even when we're remote. But none of these things forces us to not be with real live people.

Telecommuting is a choice to be alone. It reduces connections between workers. It removes us from the world of work and makes it indistinguishable from the period before and after, which we could simple call life.

This is, by far, the biggest drawback to my job. On the upside, I'm pretty sure that I'm more productive working at home than I would be in an office, and there are plenty of other benefits too: My commute is 30 seconds, I don't have to put up with interruptions, and I can work odd hours on occasion if I need to.

But it's lonely, no question, even for a basically asocial person like me, and Twitter and email and blog conversations don't come close to making up for it. After nearly a decade, I'm still not sure it's worth it.

(Via Sullivan.)

Getting to No

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 12:43 PM EDT

For the past few months President Obama has been open to nearly any proposal to curb spending and raise the debt ceiling. There's only one thing he's said he categorically won't accept: a short-term increase that kicks the can down the road and forces us to replay this entire battle next year. So guess what John Boehner plans to propose?

Mr. Boehner planned to unveil a new debt-ceiling plan later Monday, a spokesman said. Mr. Boehner's plan would cut the budget deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years and raise the debt ceiling in two phases—one that would enable the government to cover its bills through the end of the year and a second in January 2012 depending on recommendations from a congressional commission.

Is there any doubt left about what Republican goals are at this point? Boehner has rejected every possible compromise offered to him, and now plans to unilaterally hold a vote on the one thing — the only thing — that he knows Obama won't accept. This is all he cares about. He doesn't want to solve a problem, he just desperately wants to figure out some way to get Obama to say no so that he can make some political hay out of it.

Seriously, how much more obvious can he be? Is there anyone left in Washington who doesn't get this?

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A Fresh Idea on the Debt Ceiling

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 12:18 PM EDT

Hey, I have an idea. How about if Congress just passes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and sends it to the president? That would work, wouldn't it? I wonder why no one's thought of this before?

What's Behind the Deficit Kabuki

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 11:54 AM EDT

This chart is from the New York Times, and shows in lovely, vibrant colors that George Bush was responsible for far more of our current deficit than Barack Obama has been. It's pretty dramatic, and in any case, probably understates the difference since the vast majority of Obama's contributions were specifically designed to be temporary reactions to the recession. Take out temporary recession spending from both sides and the tally is something like $4,000 billion for Bush and $300 billion for Obama. So now you know the facts.

But, really, who cares? Republicans have never really cared about the deficit except as a partisan tool to use against Democratic presidents, and all the charts in the world aren't going to change that. They'll just keep pointing out that the 2011 deficit is bigger than anything Bush ran up — which is true, thanks to the recession he bequeathed to Obama — and then move on. It's enough for a TV soundbite, and that's all that matters. The Pete Petersons and Standard & Poor's of the world will play along for their own reasons, and the nation's editorial pages will mostly cheer them on. (And then, quite possibly in an editorial on the same page, wail about all the jobless and wonder why they've been forgotten.)

But while it's pretty plain that Republican angst over the deficit is just a facade, I think Atrios isn't quite right when he says that Republicans also don't care about cutting spending. They do. In fact, that's the political beauty of pretending to care about the deficit: it sounds fiscally responsible, and it provides cover to cut spending on social programs that Democrats care about. Not defense or, as Atrios says, Social Security or Medicare unless they can get bipartisan cover for it, but pretty much anything else that benefits the poor or the young or the sick. All in the name of getting our fiscal house in order and not becoming the next Greece. Hooray.

Quote of the Day: How Not to Play an Important Role

| Mon Jul. 25, 2011 11:04 AM EDT

From Paul Waldman, reacting to Cornel West's peculiar ideas about making a difference:

If I said, "Last weekend I was at Clooney's, and we ate sushi off Jessica Alba's naked body, then later I gave him some notes on a script he's working on. That's an important role I'm playing," you'd think I was just about the biggest jackass you'd ever met. And you'd be right.

OK, but what if he and Clooney had eaten sushi off Jessica Alba's naked body and then co-written a blog post for the Huffington Post? How about then?

Translating Standard & Poor's

| Sun Jul. 24, 2011 5:43 PM EDT

A few days ago, Standard & Poor's announced that even if Congress passes a debt ceiling increase, they might still downgrade U.S. debt if there's not also an agreement to cut the long-term deficit by at least $4 trillion. Now, there are all sorts of reasons why no one should care much what S&P thinks. For example, there's the fact that they don't know anything more about U.S. solvency than anyone else. There's the fact that they displayed monumentally bad judgment during the housing bubble. And as Mike Konczal pointed out earlier today, there's the fact that they routinely do a lousy job of rating sovereign debt.

But there's another interesting aspect of the whole thing. Here is S&P's explanation for why they're so concerned:

U.S. political debate is currently more focused on the need for medium-term fiscal consolidation than it has been for a decade. Based on this, we believe that an inability to reach an agreement now could indicate that an agreement will not be reached for several more years. We view an inability to timely agree and credibly implement medium-term fiscal consolidation policy as inconsistent with a 'AAA' sovereign rating, given the expected government debt trajectory noted above.

Did you see the card they palmed via use of the passive voice? Here's the translation: If Congress had just gone through its usual kabuki and then raised the debt ceiling, S&P wouldn't have cared. Life would go on as usual. But because "U.S. political debate" is currently so focused on the deficit, that makes addressing the deficit suddenly important regardless of what action is taken on the debt ceiling.

But this focus on the deficit didn't spring fully formed out of Zeus's forehead. It's the product of a deliberate political offensive by one of America's two major parties. (The other major party is more focused on addressing sky-high unemployment and poor economic growth.) So what S&P is saying here is this: If Republicans unilaterally decide to focus on something for partisan reasons, then the nation had better address it. And if the nation doesn't address Republican concerns, then its credit rating will go down.

Nice.