Kevin Drum - November 2011

Tonight's Debate Highlights

| Sun Nov. 13, 2011 2:31 AM EST

Did you miss the Republican foreign policy debate tonight? So did I, sort of. I spent about a third of the time watching the Stanford-Oregon game, about a third of the time following my Twitter stream — which was far more entertaining than the actual debate — and about a third of the time actually listening to the debate itself. So my insights are limited.

A couple of random notes. Virtually the entire debate was focused on national security: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East. Pakistan was mentioned constantly, and virtually every candidate took the opportunity to demonstrate that they knew the phrase "Haqqani network." However, not a single one of them mentioned the word "India," without which any discussion of Pakistan's motivations is completely worthless. Maybe next time.

Moderators Scott Pelley and Major Garrett did a weak job in general and a terrible job on Europe. Which is to say that in a 90-minute debate taking place while Europe is practically melting down as we speak, they didn't mention Europe once until the last two minutes. They managed to ask Jon Huntsman one question about Europe and Rick Perry half of a question. Nice work, guys.

Herman Cain almost charmingly demonstrated that he simply knows nothing about the outside world, and Rick Perry beat expectations by not imploding spectacularly again. All of the candidates insisted that they'd take a completely different approach to Iran than Barack Obama, but then proposed doing almost exactly what Obama is doing. For the most part, though, as Dan Drezner says, the candidates kept the crazy bottled up fairly well. But not always. Fred Kaplan's review of the crazy is here. Below are my favorite moments from the debate, both good (Huntsman and Paul on torture) and bad (just about everything else). Consider this the Cliff Notes version of the debate.

Michele Bachmann predicts "worldwide nuclear war" against Israel:

This is a very dangerous time. If you look at Iran and if you look at Pakistan and if you look at the links with Syria — because Iran is working through proxies like Syria, through Hezbollah, through Hamas — it seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel. And if there's anything that we know, President Obama has been more than willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street, but he hasn’t been willing to stand with Israel. Israel looks at President Obama and they do not see a friend.

Herman Cain demonstrates that he knows nothing about Pakistan:

You have said about foreign policy, "America needs to be clear about who its friends are and who its foes are." So this evening, sir, Pakistan, friend or foe?

We don't know. Because Pakistan is where Osama bin Laden was found and eliminated. Secondly, Pakistanis have a conversation with President Karzai from Afghanistan and President Karzai has said that if the United States gets into a dispute with Pakistan, then Afghanistan's going to side with Pakistan. There is a lot of clarity missing, like Speaker Gingrich says, in this whole region. And they are all interrelated. So there isn't a clear answer as to whether or not Pakistan is a friend or foe. That relationship must be reevaluated.

Rick Perry echoes Sarah Palin's explanation of her military experience:

For ten years, I have been the commander in chief of over 20,000-plus individuals in the State of Texas as we've dealt with a host of either natural disasters or having deployments into the combat zone. So, if there's someone on this stage who has had that hands-on commander in chief experience, it is me, as the governor of the State of Texas.

Herman Cain contradicts himself on torture within 30 seconds:

I believe that following the procedures that have been established by our military, I do not agree with torture, period. However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.

In the last campaign, Republican nominee John McCain and Barack Obama agreed that [waterboarding] was torture and should not be allowed legally and that the Army Field Manual should be the methodology used to interrogate enemy combatants. Do you agree with that or do you disagree, sir?

I agree that it was an enhanced interrogation technique....I don't see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.

Ron Paul opposes torture:

Well, waterboarding is torture. It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral. And it's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence. Why would you accept the position of torturing 100 people because you know one person might have information? And that's what you do when you accept the principle of torture. I think it's uncivilized and has no practical advantages and is really un-American to accept on principle that we will torture people that we capture.

Jon Huntsman opposes torture too:

We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights, and open markets, when we torture. We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries. And we lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for them.

Huntsman schools Romney on how to deal with China:

Romney: Well number one, on day one, it's acknowledging something which everyone knows, they're a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we also go before the WTO and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply, selectively, tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs.

Huntsman: The reality's a little different as it usually is when you're on the ground. And I've tried to figure this out for 30 years of my career. First of all, I don't think, Mitt, you can take China to the WTO on currency-related issues. Second, I don't know that this country needs a trade war with China. Who does it hurt? Our small businesses in South Carolina, our exporters, our agriculture producers.

[Ed. note: Huntsman is right about the WTO.]

Rick Perry unleashes his war whoop, saying he will by God use torture until the day he dies, but he will never ever call it torture:

Let me just address Congressman Paul. Congressman, I respect that you wore the uniform of our country. But in 1972, I volunteered to serve the United States Air Force. And the idea that we have our young men and women in combat today, where there are people who would kill them in a heartbeat, under any circumstance, use any technique that they can, for us not to have the ability to try to extract information from them, to save our young people's lives, is a travesty. [VOICE RISES] This is war. That's what happens in war. And I am for using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young American lives. And I will be for it until I die.

Michele Bachmann suggests we adopt China's social safety net:

What would I cut? I think, really, what I would want to do is be able to go back and take a look at Lyndon Baines Johnson's The Great Society. The Great Society has not worked, and it's put us into the modern welfare state. If you look at China, they don't have food stamps. If you look at China, they save for their own retirement security. They don't have pay FICA. They don't have the modern welfare state. And China's growing. And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with The Great Society, and they'd be gone.

Rick Perry demonstrates that he only barely knows what the euro is:

How do you prevent the European crisis from become a problem on Wall Street?

The French and the Germans have the economic forewithal to deal with this. They have the economy. When you think about the Euro and when it was established, it was done to be a competitor to the American dollar. They knew what they were doing. And now they find themselves with their overspending and-- and-- the sovereign debt being built up. And--

And that's a wrap! Time ran out at that point, so we'll never know just what painfully ignorant point Perry was about to make. Lucky guy.

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Tonight's Contest: Finish Rick Perry's Reflection on Europe

| Sun Nov. 13, 2011 12:12 AM EST

The Republican foreign policy debate tonight focused almost exclusively on terrorism and the Middle East/Central Asia region. At the very, very end, with the clock ticking down, Scott Pelley finally asked about our biggest trading partner, the European Union. Rick Perry got the nod:

PELLEY: How do you prevent the European crisis from becoming a problem on Wall Street?

PERRY: Well, the French and the Germans have the economic forewithal to deal with this. They have the economy. When you think about the Euro and when it was established, it was done to be a competitor to the American dollar. They knew what they were doing. And now they find themselves with their overspending and-- and-- the sovereign debt being built up. And--

And what?!? How was Perry going to wind this up when he was saved by the bell and Pelley cut him off? He obviously had no clue what to say about any of this and was about to wander off into free association land. All we can say is that at some point during what passes for debate prep in the Perry camp, someone mentioned the term "sovereign debt" and Perry was going to try to make some point about it. But what? In comments, please finish up Perry's remarks for him. You have 30 seconds.

Tonight's Debate Preview

| Sat Nov. 12, 2011 8:29 PM EST

Hmmm. What should I watch tonight? Stanford vs. Oregon or Republican Debate XVII: Global Armageddon? Tough choice. But I'll make a prediction anyway. Steve Benen asks:

Will Rick Perry joke about forgetting his talking points?

Answer: Yes he will. But he'll choke and screw up the punchline. And Stanford wins by a touchdown.

Fine, Obama Sucks. But Who Did Better?

| Sat Nov. 12, 2011 1:06 PM EST

Paul Krugman admits that it's impossible to know if President Obama could have gotten a bigger stimulus bill through Congress than he did in 2009. But he still has a question:

One thing I wish apologists for the inadequate stimulus would acknowledge is that Obama and his officials never, at any point, suggested or conceded that they were settling for less than the economy probably needed. Instead, they always described themselves as being bold and forceful, applying the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force to the economic crisis—even as they knew full well that friendly economists were tearing their hair out over the failure to do remotely enough.

Fine. I acknowledge it. But I'm pretty sure I know why this happened. Here it is:

Because this is the way that every political administration in human history has acted.

Obviously I'm exaggerating for effect. There are always exceptions, and I could even name a few off the top of my head. FDR routinely lauded the accomplishments of his administration but, because he considered the New Deal a multiyear package of measures, also routinely described these accomplishments as good starts, not finished products. "This law," he said when he signed the Social Security Act, "represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete."

But this is very much the exception, not the rule. Generally speaking, there's just no mileage in politicians playing down their own accomplishments, and they know it. When they win passage of a bill, it's a landmark in human history, it's the product of thousands of people working together for the common good, it's going to usher in a bright new future for all Americans. Etc. After all, if a president won't brag on his own accomplishments, who will? And if voters aren't regularly reminded of what a great job they've done, who's going to vote for them?

In fact, this dynamic is probably even stronger now than usual, thanks to the scorched-earth era of partisanship we're going through these days. When the opposition isn't satisfied with merely opposing, but routinely froths at the mouth about your agenda clocking in just shy of the collected works of Satan, the only way to keep from being drowned out is to play up the gloriousness of your own accomplishments. It's not pretty, but it's reality.

So that's that. But here's a question right back at Krugman. Like him, I think the stimulus was too small, housing policy was inadequate, and banks were treated too gingerly. But even with all that granted, the way to judge a political leader isn't by the standards of perfection, but by the standards of what human beings working in a messy political environment can accomplish. So here's what I want to know: How did Obama perform compared to his peers? By "peer," I mean the leader of a reasonably large country fighting the global economic mess. Here's the basic list:

  • USA: Barack Obama
  • Germany: Angela Merkel
  • France: Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Italy: Silvio Berlusconi
  • UK: Gordon Brown/David Cameron
  • China: Hu Jintao
  • Japan: Taro Aso/Yukio Hatoyama/Naoto Kan/Yoshihiko Noda

You can add or subtract to this list as you see fit, but I'm deliberately excluding small countries that simply don't have much of a leadership role, as well as developing countries that didn't get hit very hard by the Great Recession. So where would you put Obama on this list? I'd have a hard time putting him further down than #2, and frankly, I think you can even make a case for him being at #1. And if that's the case, then our problem isn't so much with Obama per se, it's with the current state of the art in human collective action.

But maybe I'm being too kind. Anyone want to take a crack at making the case for putting Obama lower on this list?

Friday Cat Blogging - 11 November 2011

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 4:13 PM EST

Both cats spent a lot of time on the fence yesterday, so that's what we get for catblogging this week. Unfortunately, both of them tend to trot immediately over whenever they see the camera, which makes it hard to get a good shot of them. This one of Inkblot on the left is pretty good, though. On the right, Domino is hiding behind the leaves of our Redbud tree with our neighbor's Alder tree in the background. Enjoy.

Romney and Perry: Not Two Peas in a Right-Wing Pod

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 3:05 PM EST

Would a Romney administration really be very different from a Perry administration? Peter Beinart says no, because modern Republicans are all so right-wing that there's not much difference between them. Will Wilkinson says yes, because Romney would appoint very different kinds of people than Perry to fill up all those assistant deputy cabinet positions. Matt Steinglass moderates:

I [] don't really think there's much of a clash between these two views. A Romney administration would likely involve a significantly different flavour of conservatism from a Perry administration, and would entail different alliances, recruit different people, and focus on different issues; but I doubt it would be any less conservative along a simple single-axis measurement. By way of analogy, a Republican president elected in 2000 who wasn't a Southern evangelical like George W. Bush might not have launched a multi-billion-dollar global effort to fight HIV/AIDS that involved massive funding for faith-based organisations and strict mandates for increased abstinence promotion and anti-prostitution campaigns. But it's hard to argue that the PEPFAR programme wasn't "conservative".

Agreed. But I'd look at this in two different ways. When it comes to garden variety governing, I doubt there would be a huge difference. Every individual has specific issues that they care about strongly, and that would matter a bit. Maybe Romney would try to focus attention on healthcare and Perry would try to focus more on energy policy. Who knows? In any case, that's a bit of a crapshoot and it probably matters only on the margins anyway.

More broadly, both men would find — as every president finds — that there are suffocating levels of institutional, bureaucratic, political, and public opinion pressure that simply don't allow a president to stray too far from the status quo. Even if Rick Perry were serious about eliminating the Commerce Department, for example, he'd discover very quickly that at least a couple of powerful committee chairmen derive most of their power from oversight of the Commerce Department and have no intention of allowing anyone to undermine that. Pretty much every idea for reorganizing the federal bureaucracy runs up against the shoals of congressional committees. If you want to add a department, you can probably do it because it means someone in Congress gets some extra influence. Getting rid of one is a whole different story.

But there's also a second way to look at this: How would Romney and Perry react to surprises and emergencies? And there, I suspect the differences would be stark. Sure, Perry would have a staff just like any other president, but it would mostly be a staff of ideologues that would reinforce his tendency to view everything in simple ideological terms. Romney would be just the opposite. He'd start from a conservative frame, but he and his staff would genuinely want to know what's really going on and how best to address it. They'd be better prepared (FEMA wouldn't have been gutted under a President Romney, for example) and they'd be more reality-based.

A few months ago I was pretty much rooting for a Perry or a Bachmann to win the GOP nomination because I figured (a) they'd lose big in the general election, and (b) their loss might push the Republican Party back toward the center sooner than otherwise. But it's just too obvious now that Obama is genuinely vulnerable and someone in the Republican field might well be our next president. That's why I'm now mostly hoping that the GOP base comes to its senses, holds its collective nose, and just nominates the Mittster. On a day-to-day basis, I suspect Romney would govern about as conservatively as any of the others. But in an emergency, he's the only one who seems pretty certain of responding in a non-catastrophic way.

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The Forgotten Disasters of Past Debates

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 12:58 PM EST

Are you tired of turning on CNN and seeing taped highlights of the greatest debate gaffes of all time? You know, Dukakis on rape, Stockdale blanking out, Ford on Poland, etc. (Though Reagan's meandering trip down Highway 1 in the finale of the second 1984 debate never seems to make the cut. Too cruel, I guess. I can't even find it on YouTube.) In any case, Bob Somerby is tired of it, so instead he turns his gaze in a different direction:

Are these really the worst debate gaffes? You’ll note an omission in all such reports: When the press corps remembers the big debate blunders, the gaffes are all made by the candidates! The groaners committed by the own kind are left on the cutting-room floor! Once again, your gaze is directed away from the biggest clowns in our nation’s failing culture. In the interest of balance, we offer today the real biggest gaffes of all time.

....Worst debate performances ever:
Jim Lehrer, 1996/2000/2004
Bernie Shaw, 1988
Brian Williams/Tim Russert, Democratic debate, 10/30/07
Judy Woodruff, Democratic debate, January 2000
Tim Russert, Republican debate, January 2000 (in part for its comedy value)

Bob provides details on the first two. The rest you'll have to dredge up from your own memory banks. Or YouTube.

Why Christians Still Don't Dominate the GOP

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 12:04 PM EST

The religious right doesn't have a successful candidate running for president this year, and Amy Sullivan says this isn't really anything new: of the four GOP presidential candidates since the religious right's ascendance in the 80s, only one (George W. Bush) has really been friendly toward their cause. Why? Because, she says, although solid backing from the religious right would be a powerful force, that never happens:

Candidates also know that the Religious Right–not to mention the evangelical electorate–is too divided to be able to deliver unified support....In addition, there is a serious but oft-overlooked theological and cultural division that runs through the Religious Right. Most people think of the movement as a co-production of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But while those two religious leaders did partner on some efforts, they had deep differences and kept largely to their own operations–Falwell with the Moral Majority and Robertson with the Christian Coalition. Falwell was a Baptist and a fundamentalist, highly skeptical of the charismatic Pentecostal tradition of Robertson. When Robertson ran for the GOP nomination in 1988, winning the Iowa caucuses, Falwell backed George H.W. Bush, with whom he had a long-standing relationship.

This election cycle’s version of the Robertson-Falwell split was between backers of Michele Bachmann (of the charismatic school) and Rick Perry (from more fundamentalist Baptist and Methodist roots). Even if one or both of the politicians had turned out to be stronger candidates, they would have had a hard time uniting conservative evangelicals behind them.

To outsiders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably seemed pretty much interchangeable in 2008. But they provided plenty of heat anyway thanks more to tribal divisions in the liberal movement than to serious policy differences. Likewise, Bachmann and Perry might seem two peas in a pod to those of us who don't understand the tribal divisions within the Christian Right. But they're there anyway.

Corporations Hate Regulation, Until They Love It

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 7:00 AM EST

The "Volcker rule" is a simple thing. Basically, it says that if you're a bank that takes deposits and benefits from federal deposit insurance, you can't also make risky trades that might blow up your bank and cost the taxpayers a bundle. Wall Street never liked the rule, because banks make a lot of their money these days trading for their own accounts and didn't want their trading profits cut off. They fought the idea in Congress, but in the end, the Dodd-Frank bill that passed in 2010 included a version of the Volcker rule in its final draft.

Was this a victory for common sense? Hardly. Last month regulators unveiled their first take on the actual implementation of the Volcker rule, and it had become a monster. "Only in today's regulatory climate could such a simple idea become so complex, generating a rule whose preamble alone is 215 pages, with 381 footnotes to boot," complained American Bankers Association Chief Executive Frank Keating.

Poor banks! But step back for a moment. How did Paul Volcker's baby get so bloated? Keating's crocodile tears aside, the answer is: banks. When it comes to financial regulation, fighting against new laws is merely their first line of defense. When they lose, as they did in the Dodd-Frank battle, the action simply moves to the regulatory agency charged with implementing the law. James Stewart explains what happened next:

When the proposed regulations for the Volcker Rule finally emerged for public comment, the text had swelled to 298 pages and was accompanied by more than 1,300 questions about 400 topics.

…"Here's the key word in the rules: 'exemption,'" former Senator Ted Kaufman, Democrat of Delaware, told me. "Let me tell you, as soon as you see that, it's pronounced 'loophole.' That's what it means in English." Mr. Kaufman, now teaching at Duke University School of Law, earlier proposed a tougher version of the Volcker Rule, which was voted down in the Senate. "We've been through this before," he said. "I know these folks, these Wall Street guys. I went to school with them. They're smart as hell. You give them the smallest little hole, and they'll run through it."

This is probably the biggest reason that no one should take too seriously Republican complaints about burdensome regulations strangling the economy. The truth is that most reformers prefer fairly simple rules. In the tax world, they'd prefer to simply tax all income. In the environmental world, they'd prefer to set firm limits for pollutants. In the financial world, they'd prefer blunt rules that cut off risky activity at its knees.

But businesses don't like simple rules, because simple rules are hard to evade. So they lobby endlessly for exemptions both big and small. This is why we end up with tax subsidies for bow-and-arrow makers. It's why we end up with environmental rules that treat a hundred different industries a hundred different ways. It's why financial regulators don't enact simple leverage rules or place firm asset caps on firm size. Those would be hard to get around and might genuinely eat into bank profits. Complex rules, conversely, are the meat and drink of $500-per-hour lawyers and whiz kid engineers. If the rules are complicated enough, smart lawyers can always find ways around them. And American corporations employ lots of smart lawyers.

Keep this firmly in mind the next time you hear someone from the Chamber of Commerce complaining about how many thousands of pages of regulations they have to comply with. Some of that is inevitable: We live in a complex world, and that means the rules are sometimes complex too. But they don't have to be anywhere near as complex as they end up being. We could have a simple tax code, simple environment rules, and blunt financial regulations. We could probably cut the size of agency regulations by 10 times if we wanted to.

But businesses don't want to. Sure, they'd prefer no regulation at all, but they know that's not in the cards. So in public they bemoan complexity, but in private they fight endlessly for more of it. To their lawyers, every single extra page is an extra opportunity to make more money.

No, Rick Perry Doesn't Deserve a Pass

| Thu Nov. 10, 2011 8:55 PM EST

I'm pretty astonished at the number of people sympathizing with Rick Perry's debate debacle last night because, hey, we've all had a brain freeze, right? Happens to the best of us.

I guess I should join in the fun. So here it is: I've been on TV exactly once, and I did exactly what Perry did. I told Bill Moyers I had three points to make, I made two of them, and then I trailed off and forgot the third. Luckily, it was a taped show, and that bit ended up on the cutting room floor. So none of you ever saw it.

So does this mean I should cut Perry a break too? Please. Sure, this could happen to anyone. But Perry didn't forget a complicated point, and he didn't forget something he had just formulated in his mind. He blanked on a single word. And he blanked in a way that made it obvious this wasn't something he really knew or cared about. It was just a talking point. He was like a kid reciting a poem in front of class and forgetting his lines.

But I'm just a liberal partisan hack and obviously I have it in for Perry. So I'll turn the mike over to conservative partisan hack Jonah Goldberg:

I think people in some ways are letting Perry off easy precisely because this “gaffe” was so egregious (we’ve all frozen up in front of audiences before. I think I can remember every time it’s happened to me with excruciating accuracy)....But put aside the queasy awkwardness of the moment for a second. Perry couldn’t remember that he wants to shut down the Department of Energy!? For weeks, energy reform was the only substantive policy he’d put forward. Energy is still one of the only topics he can discuss with anything approaching fluency. But he couldn’t remember he wanted to shut down DOE?

....His performance last night confirmed — with an exclamation point — the negative narrative of his entire campaign. Everyone could forgive Ron Paul if he spaced out on the name of a cabinet agency he wanted to shutter, because everyone knows that Ron Paul knows what he knows and has no problem explaining himself under normal circumstances. People are much more unsure about Perry and he compounded that uncertainty last night. It’s fine to say everyone has these bad moments. That’s true. Everyone makes mistakes. What you look for are patterns. Last night was so deadly because Perry reinforced his pattern rather than deviated from it. And he was already on borrowed time.

Right. And with that, I will now repeat my most brilliant political prediction ever. This was #4 on my list of reasons that Rick Perry won't win the Republican nomination:

He's too dumb. Go ahead, call me an elitist. I'm keenly aware that Americans don't vote for presidents based on their SAT scores, but everything I've read about Perry suggests that he's a genuinely dim kind of guy. Not just incurious or too sure about his gut feelings, like George W. Bush, but simply not bright enough to handle the demands of the Oval Office. Americans might not care if their presidents are geniuses, but there's a limit to how doltish they can be too.

I demand abject apologies from everyone who gave me a hard time over this. Rick Perry is too dimwitted to be president. End of story.