Kevin Drum - September 2011

Breaking: South Carolina Republicans Still Crazy

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 11:25 AM EDT

I know this is beating a dead horse, but fun is fun. Here are the results of the latest Winthrop poll of South Carolina Republicans. 75% think "socialist" describes Barack Obama pretty well, 30% think he's a Muslim, and 36% think it's likely he was born in another country. Note that releasing his long-form birth certificate barely moved the needle about his birthplace.

In other, more substantive news, the poll suggests that Rick Perry is only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, sort of a surprising result for such a bedrock conservative state. And this was before last week's debate. I don't think Perry is a dead duck or anything, but I do think that his frontrunner status has always been thinner than it seemed, and it's way thinner now. Public Policy Polling confirms this: "Thursday night part of our Florida poll Romney led Perry by 2. Friday-Sunday part Romney led Perry by 10. Debate did matter." He better get cracking.

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What the Budget Impasse is Really About

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

The current impasse over keeping the lights on in Washington seems like small beer: Republicans want to offset increased disaster aid with cuts to green vehicle technology that amount to about $1.5 billion — a pittance in the grand scheme of things. But this is part of a much bigger fight. As the failure of last week's House budget bill showed, the tea party faction of the GOP still holds the whip hand in Congress and they've made it crystal clear that they have no intention of accepting any of the usual norms surrounding the federal budget, whether it's spending levels or anything else. Remember what Stan Collender told us a few days ago: there's really no reason to be voting on a short-term continuing resolution in the first place. After all, we've already agreed on budget levels for the year. But:

The commonly assumed but unstated reason for a short-term CR is that the House GOP wants to have increased political leverage on budget and other issues by being able to hold yet another potential government shutdown over the heads of Congressional Democrats and the White House. This time it supposedly will be policy riders — changes in authorizations — rather than spending levels that will be the biggest points of contention.

....This will sound quaint to some and unimaginable to others, but there was a time when doing what the GOP apparently is planning by authorizing on appropriations bills was considered by most Members of Congress to be as much a major legislative sin as usurping another committee’s jurisdiction....In fact, authorizing in an appropriations bill has been considered so taboo on Capitol Hill that Republicans and Democrats on the authorization committee that would be affected by the proposal typically have worked together to prevent it from happening.

The tea partiers want lower spending levels and they want to hijack the budget process to tack on their pet policy proposals. They don't care if the former has already been agreed to or that the latter is a violation of long-established understandings from both parties. Just like they don't care that emergency aid has never required budget offsets in the past.

So while those offsets might be minor on their own merits, they're basically a bellwether: if tea partiers can force Democrats to cave in on that, they can force them to cave in on every other violation of normal procedure too. Agreements will become meaningless and the budgeting process will become almost literally a free-for-all. That's what this is all about.

The New Deal

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 12:29 AM EDT

I just finished reading The New Deal: A Modern History, by Michael Hiltzik, and I can't recommend it highly enough. I'm a friend of Michael's, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt if you want, but it's really terrific, an energetically written and eminently readable history that makes all the right tradeoffs. At a little over 400 pages, you're not going to get every last detail of the New Deal, but you're going to get all the high points, narrated with vigorous prose, a clear-sighted appreciation of just what motivated FDR and his allies, and a modern understanding of what they actually accomplished. And unlike the doorstop histories, you'll finish it quickly enough to be left wishing for more.

And you'll meet some new friends. All the usual New Deal architects are there — Raymond Moley, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, and, always, the redoubtable Harold Ickes — but Hiltzik also spends more than the usual time on a few of its lesser known figures: Benjamin Cohen, the genius legislative drafter; General Hugh Johnson, the force of nature who ran the NRA for a year and probably destroyed it long before the Supreme Court did; George Warren, the eccentric Cornell economist responsible for FDR's peculiar decision to tinker with the price of gold in 1933; Martin Dies, the red-baiting foe of the WPA whose "Dies Committee" would become famous as HUAC during the McCarthy era; and a variegated cast of other misfits and less familiar faces. Because of this a few things get short shrift — the labor movement comes most to mind here — but for the most part the omissions are modest. The big ticket items are all here.

Hiltzik also devotes a full chapter to the almost complete inability — or unwillingness — of the New Deal to help black Americans, the "most forgotten man," in T. Arnold Hill's words. With only narrow and fleeting exceptions, nearly every New Deal program was transformed, either in law or in practice, to insure that only whites would benefit from them. "The Tennessee Valley Authority might have the ability to raise an entire region out of near-medieval poverty," Hiltzik writes, "but black Americans were not permitted to reside next to the white dam workers....Almost every federal settlement, work relief camp, and construction crew that accommodated blacks did so on a racially segregated 'Jim Crow' basis" — and this was nearly as true in the Northern states as in the Southern. This aspect of the New Deal has gotten more attention in recent years than it used to, but nonetheless deserves wider recognition. Hiltzik delivers that.

This is also a timely book. One of the most striking things that shines through Hiltzik's narrative is the political similarity of the 30s to our current era. There's the intense hatred of FDR among the affluent, with their insistence that unemployment remained high only because he was destroying business confidence and strangling corporations with excessive regulation. There's the emergence of a lunatic right convinced that FDR was subverting the constitution and establishing socialism, ironically combined with a progressive left that became increasingly disillusioned with his centrism and political accommodation. There's the modest size of the early New Deal stimulus, which was too small and too brief, animated as it was by a skepticism of Keynesian ideas even among much of the left. There are the racial underpinnings of much of the opposition to the New Deal, coming from Southern Democrats hypersensitive to anything that might undermine the authority and influence of white power. There's the overriding folk belief in balanced budgets, which seemingly affected everyone from the president to the lowliest janitor. Sound familiar?

The Great Recession of 2008 was milder than it could have been because we learned so many lessons from the Great Depression of the 30s. But its continuing hold, and the possibility that we might yet fall into a second recession, is largely due to the lessons we haven't learned. The New Deal teaches them to us all over again.

Rick Perry's Sarah Palin Problem

| Sun Sep. 25, 2011 11:59 PM EDT

Dave Weigel explains why Rick Perry failed so miserably in this weekend's Florida straw poll:

Walking through the walls of the Orange County Convention Center, you hear these words and phrases over and over again.

Perry. Immigration. Illegals. Tuition. Illegals. He didn't do as well as he could have. Why?

Almost every conversation I walked into was on the question of why Rick Perry approved a law that let young non-citizens get in-state tuition rates at Texas schools, and why he had characterized the program's critics as heartless.

Obviously this is a huge deal with the Republican base. But I think Perry's real problem is that Thursday's debate badly shook up a GOP establishment that was pretty uneasy with him already. It's not so much that Perry spoke in platitudes — all candidates do that — or that he muffed a few lines — any candidate can do that too — or even that his policy positions were unacceptable. Hell, he'll figure out how to fight back on the tuition for illegal immigrants thing eventually, and he'll get his foreign policy act together too.

But there was a bigger problem: Perry looked like he didn't think he needed to even care about any of that stuff. He muffed his attack lines because he hadn't bothered to study them. He wasn't prepared for the tuition fight because he figured that he could just repeat the same old explanations and flash his thousand-watt smile at the audience. He didn't know what to say about Pakistan because he figured any sort of good ol' boy BS would do. It always has before, after all. So he's apparently spent the past month doing....nothing.

That's just way too Palinesque for the political pros. He looks like a guy who's had such an easy time in Texas that he doesn't really think he's going to have to work for the nomination — or the presidency. Gentleman's Cs have always been good enough, and he figures they'll be good enough again. So he's got nothing except a single set of sound bites for every occasion, and he's not prepared to put in the time and effort it takes to sound even minimally ready for prime time when he's taken out of his comfort zone.

That's a scary thought for Republicans. The economy is bad enough that Barack Obama is seriously vulnerable, but even with a bad economy he can beat somebody who's convinced that his winning personality is enough to see him through any troubles. When Perry first announced his candidacy, he had the aura of a political animal willing to do whatever it takes to win. Now he looks like he's willing to do anything except actually work hard. That's a sure way to lose in November, and that's why the GOP establishment is suddenly so nervous.

The Solyndra Story

| Sun Sep. 25, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

If you're interested in reading a bit of background on Solyndra now that it's become a political football, the LA Times has a pretty good piece in today's paper:

To grasp the saga of Solyndra's rapid rise and even faster fall, one has to understand the dazzling appeal of its product. The company's advancement in solar power was hailed as an invention so brilliant that it blinded everyone to the truth: Solyndra never had much of a chance in a fast-changing market.

"It was revolutionary," said Walter Bailey, a former Macquarie Capital investment banker who specialized in green technology and visited Solyndra in 2008. "You had some of the smartest money in the world getting behind it. It was a real company with a huge factory and an extremely unique product.

"The only problem," said Bailey, now a senior partner at boutique investment bank Focus Capital in New York, "was that it never penciled out."

There's nothing in this piece about the politics of Solyndra, just a straight-ahead explanation of who they were, why their technology was so dazzling, and why they failed. It's worth a read if you're not already up on all this.

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 September 2011

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 2:03 PM EDT

Happy autumnal equinox, northern hemisphericans! Domino celebrated by hopping up onto the fence for a stroll and then crashing through the brush like a jungle cat when she saw me there with the camera. The result was quite the rare action shot. Inkblot, conversely, celebrated by summoning his staff for a massage. His staff, as always, leaped to comply.

Have a good weekend, everyone. And remember: if you love catblogging, show some of that love by making a tax-deductible contribution to Mother Jones. It's quick, easy, and practically painless! The PayPal link is here. The credit card link is here.

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The Power of Flat Out Lies

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 12:42 PM EDT

The level of crazy in last night's debate was too high to really keep track of, but Paul Waldman points to this statement from Herman Cain about why he'd be dead if healthcare reform had been the law of the land back when he was diagnosed with cancer:

If we had been under Obamacare and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan that would have delayed my treatment. My surgeons and doctors have told me that because I was able get the treatment as fast as I could, based upon my timetable and not the government's timetable that's what saved my life.

Paul comments:

I have no doubt that the typical Republican voter actually believes that when the Affordable Care Act is implemented, every time one of the nation's nearly one million practicing physicians wants to perform a procedure or prescribe a medicine, they'll have to literally place a call to Washington and get permission from some stingy bureaucrat....Why do they believe that? Because people like Herman Cain keep telling them so. I don't know whether Cain is an ignoramus or a liar, but it has to be at least one, maybe both. He stood on a stage, looked into the camera, and told people that under the ACA, doctors will have to get permission from government bureaucrats for every procedure, and treatment of illnesses will proceed not according to the recommendations of medical professionals but on "the government's timetable."

You might say, "Well, nobody would be dumb enough to actually believe that," but you'd be so, so, wrong. It's not just Cain. If you're a conservative, you hear this kind of thing from politicians you like and trust, you hear it when you turn on Fox News and watch TV personalities you like and trust, and you hear it from radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh that you like and trust. You've heard it hundreds and hundreds of times. Were someone to tell you that it's not just false but spectacularly, insanely false, you wouldn't listen for a second.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a real problem for liberals. Sure, we cherry-pick evidence, we spin world events, and we impose our worldview when we talk about policy. Everyone does that. But generally speaking, our opinion leaders don't go on national TV, look straight into the camera, and just outright lie about stuff. Theirs do. And you know, if you'd been told over and over that Obamacare meant getting government permission every time you want to go to the doctor; if you'd been told over and over that the economy is in bad shape because a tidal wave of regulations are strangling American business; and if you'd been told over and over that stimulus spending didn't create one single job — well, what would you think about Barack Obama's presidency? Not much, I imagine.

It's awfully hard to fight stuff this brazen. Everyone understands that politicians fudge details and engage in partisan hypocrisy. All part of the game. But most of us don't expect them to flat out lie. So when they do, we figure there must be something to it. It's a pretty powerful formula, especially when the mainstream press no longer seriously polices this stuff, and isn't much believed even when it does. The answer remains frustratingly elusive.

Score Settling and Narrative Building

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 11:49 AM EDT

Ezra Klein writes today about a tension in Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Suskind apparently thinks Larry Summers is an asshole,1 but at the same time a close reading of the book suggests that Suskind actually takes Summers' side on the merits of an awful lot of policy issues. So what's up with that?

I'm reluctant to say anything specific since I haven't read the book, but I do think this points to something that's a pervasive, and apparently intractable, problem with this genre of book: it relies too much on blind quotes. And in the case of Confidence Men, an awful lot of the sources behind these quotes apparently don't like Summers much.

I know, I know: this is hardly a blindingly original criticism. But it's still a debilitating one, and you could see the same problem at work last year in, for example, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail. The problem, bluntly stated, is that the world of the West Wing, like the world of Wall Street, is a fantastic snake pit of backstabbing, score settling, blame avoiding, and self-aggrandizement. So whenever you read a narrative about anything, you absolutely need to know who it's coming from. Often you can guess at this just by examining which side a particular narrative seems to take, but guessing is all you can do. The plain fact is that the third-person omniscient storytelling style very strongly encourages you to forget about all this.

Which is odd, of course, since books like this usually spend a ton of time talking about all the personality conflicts at work. And yet, the narrative itself acts as if these conflicts don't matter. Form and content are at war, and in the end, form wins: the reader is encouraged to think of the narratives as truth, rather than as Tim Geithner's side of the story or Christina Romer's side of the story or Rahm Emanuel's side of the story. And not to get all postmodern on y'all, but "truth" is a very, very bad way to think of this stuff. In narratives like this, it really is the case that everyone has their own truth, and unless you know that in your bones the story will never really make proper sense.

1Yes, yes, I know: big surprise. Is there anyone left on the planet who doesn't think Larry Summers is an asshole?

The Key Moment in Last Night's Debate

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 11:13 AM EDT

For what it's worth, I just want to highlight this exchange from the debate last night. It's already gotten a fair amount of attention, but I think it was by far the most important exchange of the night. Chris Wallace asked Romney about Perry's support for allowing illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities and pay normal in-state resident tuition:

ROMNEY: To go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That’s $22,000 a year. Four years of college, almost $100,000 discount if you are an illegal alien go to the University of Texas. If you are a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn’t make sense to me. That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break. It makes no sense.

PERRY: For a decade, I’ve been the governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. We put $400 million of our taxpayer money into securing that border. We’ve got our Texas Ranger recon teams there now....But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.

This really seems like a killer exchange to me. This idea that Perry wants to give a $100,000 subsidy to illegal immigrants is just electoral gold among the Republican primary crowd. And Perry is stuck: not only did he support this, but he's dug himself into a big hole by defending it so uncompromisingly. There's just no way he can back away from it now, and if Romney is smart — and he is — he is going to pound on this over and over and over.

Also note Perry's unusual tin ear here. If you don't see things his way, he said, "I don't think you have a heart." This kind of bluster goes over great when it's aimed at Obama-loving liberals, but it's like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull when it's aimed at fellow conservatives. The audience didn't like it, and I expect Romney to make very good use of this.

Breaking: Public Still Doesn't Understand Obamacare

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 10:08 AM EDT

Another month, another Kaiser poll about healthcare reform. This month they focused on pre-existing conditions. The Kaiser pollsters found that (a) lots of people have pre-existing conditions, (b) quite a few of them have had trouble getting insurance, (c) a large majority are aware that ACA prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and yet (d) those with pre-existing conditions are pessimistic that ACA will do anything to help them:

Sarah Kliff notes that this is similar to the results last month, when the uninsured were similarly pessimistic about the new law:

The explanation for the two poll results is probably pretty similar: The major parts of the health-reform law — the end to preexisting conditions and health insurance subsidies — don’t start until 2014. Health reform did have a few popular insurance reforms come online early, like the extension of dependent coverage up to age 26 and the end to preexisting conditions for kids. Those, collectively known as the Patients Bill of Rights, actually hit their one-year anniversary today. But even though those reforms are very popular, they haven’t had a wide reach. The health-reform law has yet to impact the vast majority of Americans.

I guess that's right. And yet, this poll showed that 61% of the country knows that ACA will prevent discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions. So it's not just lack of knowledge at work here. It's possible, I suppose, that people with pre-existing conditions tend, on average, to be low-information types, so they're less aware of ACA's provisions than average. We'd have to see some crosstabs to be sure. But one thing is certain: it continues to be the case that people have a pretty poor understanding of just what's in the law. Maybe that's inevitable, but it's hard not to think that it's also due to a pretty lousy sales job from the left to balance out the constant and uncompromising attacks from the right.