Kevin Drum - February 2012

The Month of Santorum

| Wed Feb. 8, 2012 9:13 AM PST

So Rick Santorum won three states last night. Does this mean we all have to pretend to take him seriously for the next three weeks? I'm feeling a little queasy over the possibility already.

At the same time, I'm getting ready to concede that my valiant efforts to show that Mitt Romney isn't really all that strongly disliked were misguided. Republican voters just don't like the guy, do they?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Hypocrisy Trope That Won't Die

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 5:37 PM PST

President Obama has publicly condemned the Citizens United decision and has publicly opposed the role of super-PACs in campaign finance. Recently, though, he signed off on a plan to actively support Priorities USA Action, a leading Democratic super-PAC that's had trouble raising as much money as its Republican counterparts. "We're not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back," explained Obama's campaign manager. "With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can't be unilaterally disarmed."

Is this hypocritical of Obama? For the thousandth time, no, no, no. The playing field is the playing field, and once a public policy has been legally put in place you'd be a sap not to play by the same rules as everyone else. If you oppose the mortgage interest deduction as a matter of policy, you still have every right to take the deduction as long as the rest of the country keeps it in place. If you're a Republican governor who objects to the stimulus bill, you'd be actively irresponsible not to take your share of the money once it's there. If you oppose earmarks, you still have an obligation to your district to take them as long as they exist.

This trope needs to go away. Seriously. Just deep six it. We should never hear this nonsense again.

Catholics Do Not Have a Deep Moral Objection to Contraception

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 4:50 PM PST

Should secular Catholic institutions (such as hospitals and universities) be required to abide by federal rules that say healthcare plans have to cover contraception? Or should they receive a conscience exemption from this rule, as churches themselves do?

Two new polls today shed some light on this question. The first one, from the Public Religion Research Institute, asked if all employers should be required to offer healthcare plans that cover contraception:

  • All Americans: broad agreement, 55%-40%
  • Catholics: broad agreement, 58%-37%

But maybe respondents weren't specifically primed to think that some employers are churches that have theological objections to birth control. So the second survey asked the general question first (getting similar results to the PRRI survey) and then asked specifically if Catholic hospitals and universities should be included:

  • All Americans: broad agreement, 57%-39%
  • Catholics: broad agreement, 53%-45%

In both cases, the numbers are much higher for Democrats and Independents. It's really only Republicans who object much, which strongly suggests that most of the objection is rooted in ideology, not religious conscience.

Now, there's obviously no reason that churches should be bound by opinion polls, but here's why this matters anyway: as I mentioned in passing a few days ago, it's important to understand whether contraception is truly a matter of contention in America. It's arguably reasonable, I think, for the government to tread carefully in areas where there's substantial, highly-charged controversy, such as abortion. But contraception just isn't one of those areas. Catholics agree with the new policy on healthcare plans at the same rate as other Americans; what objection there is, is mainly ideological, not religious; and as a much-cited Guttmacher survey shows, 98% of sexually-experienced Catholics use active methods of birth control. The takeaway from all this is pretty clear: conservatives may oppose the contraception requirement for ideological reasons (which is fine), but it's plain that contraception is simply not a moral hot button for Catholics. To put it plainly, it's not a matter of conscience. It's a matter of conscience only for a tiny number of men in the formal hierarchy of the Catholic church. That's it.

My position on this is plain: the church hierarchy's objection to birth control is medieval and barbaric. All those Catholic pundits raising hell over the new contraception regs should spend their time instead raising hell with their own church over a policy that's caused incalculable pain and misery for millions of women around the globe. Instead, they're all claiming that although they don't have any problem with contraception, they think the government should be more sensitive toward those who do. But it turns out there's practically no one who does. They're all pointing their fingers toward a group of people that barely exists.

When there's a societal consensus in a secular country, religious institutions have to accept that, and in America there's a virtually unanimous societal consensus on contraception. Americans don't have any problem with contraception. American Catholics don't have any problem with contraception. And on a public health basis, requiring healthcare plans to cover contraception is common sense. No one — almost literally no one — thinks there's any problem with it. It's a non-issue.

Chrysler is Just Trying to Sell You a Car, Okay?

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 1:24 PM PST

Matt Yglesias on the Chrysler Super Bowl ad that seems to have Karl Rove and the right-wing outrage machine in an uproar:

Apparently Clint Eastwood is personally upset that some people took Chrysler's "halftime in America" to be a positive commentary on the Obama administration.

This seems totally untenable to me. Whether Eastwood or Chrysler executives like to talk about it, the company—currently enjoying double-digit sales growth—would not currently exist today if not for the Obama administration…Whether you like what he did or not, there's no denying its impact. The automobile industry of the upper Midwest is still with us specifically because Team Obama chose to ensure that it would remain there.

I don't get this. It's yet another one of those things that I see, think nothing of at the time, and then subsequently learn has become a cause celebre.1 To me, this just seemed like an ad for Chrysler, very much in line with their campaign of the entire past year, which revolves around the "comeback" of Motor City and the grit and hard work that made it possible. I don't know if that's a good advertising theme or not, but it's the one they chose.

To say that Chrysler's ad is a commentary on Obama because Chrysler got bailed out is to say that every Chrysler ad is implicitly a commentary on Obama. Ditto for every Citibank ad and every AIG ad. That's crazy. They're ads for cars, bank accounts, and insurance policies. I think Jon Cohn probably has the right take here:

I have no idea whether Rove really believes Chrysler produced that ad in order to do President Obama a political favor.2 But the fact that he and other Republicans are so worked up could mean that they are scared—not of the advertisement itself, but of the themes it contains.

Those themes are optimism and national pride. As Salon's Joan Walsh noted on the Ed Show Monday evening, Republicans have basically owned those themes since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan won an election with them. But lately President Obama has been the one making the case that it's morning in America or, at least, just before dawn. He did it in the State of the Union and he's done it in a series of major speeches since.

…If the recovery continues, Obama will have a pretty powerful claim to reelection: That his economic policy choices, made in the face of fierce Republican opposition, are paying off. Rove knows this as well as anybody. I suspect that's the real reason he's so angry.

Yep. I suspect so, too.

1For the record, this happens to me nearly as often on the left as on the right.

2Actually, I think we do have a pretty good idea. He doesn't.

It's Almost Time to Boost the Economy. Almost.

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 12:16 PM PST

Ben Bernanke told Congress today that the long-term deficit is indeed a problem, but it's a problem for the long term. The best way to address it is to combine future budget tightening with present-day budget loosening, which will boost the economy and produce lower deficits in future years:

Bernanke raised concerns that a sharp, immediate push to reduce the deficit could harm the recovery in the upcoming months. In January 2013, he pointed out, the Bush tax cuts will expire, and the major spending reductions triggered by the Budget Control Act will take effect, absent any further action by Congress. As a result, “there will be sharp change in fiscal stance of the federal government. Without compensating action, it would indeed slow the recovery,” Bernanke told the committee members.

However, Sen. Pete Sessions (R-Ala.), the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, pressed Bernanke to answer whether the country’s current deficit was itself holding back the recovery and discouraging key market players. “They’re not reacting to the current level of debt. What they’re attentive to is the process,” Bernanke said, pointing to the political dysfunction that led to the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the US credit rating last year.

Roger that. But it's still a little too early, I think. If Congress takes action right now, it risks having an effect this year, thus helping President Obama. Better to wait until summer, when a sudden conversion to Keynesian pump priming will be timed perfectly to help the economy in early 2013, when a Republican might inhabit the Oval Office. Timing is everything in politics, after all.

Gay Marriage Ban is Unconstitutional — For Now

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 11:20 AM PST

A district court and now the 9th Circuit court have both ruled that California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional. This is great news. However, I assume that it doesn't really matter much since the case will now go to the Supreme Court, which has a history of not really caring about the opinions of the hippies on the 9th circuit. I further assume that the Supreme Court will be divided 4-4 on this question, with Anthony Kennedy providing the swing vote depending on his mood that day. Lately, though, his mood has been conservative, so the betting money says this will get overturned 5-4.

That's pretty deflating, isn't it? But who knows? Maybe I'm wrong. I'm sure serious court watchers will weigh in soon.

Also of note: this was a very narrow decision. Basically, the court said that California already provides same-sex couples with all the rights of opposite-sex couples, and Prop 8 does nothing to change that. All it does is prohibit same-sex relationships from being legally described as "marriage":

Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.

....All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of 'marriage,' which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships. Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for "laws of this sort."

In other words, this ruling has no impact at all in states where same-sex couples don't already have all the rights of opposite-sex couples, and the court declined to make a broader ruling that might have addressed that. (Though they say they wouldn't have hesitated to do that if the narrower ruling hadn't been available to them.)

Also of note: the court ruled that the backers of Prop 8 did indeed have standing to defend it in court. They lost on the merits, not because they had no legitimate right to defend Prop 8 after the State of California decided not to.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Republicans Once Again Unleash Reality Distortion Field

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 11:01 AM PST

In 1995, when congressional Republicans grew annoyed that independent reviews of science produced answers they didn't like, they shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. In 2001, when Senate Republicans grew annoyed that parliamentary procedure produced results they didn't like, they fired their parliamentarian. Now, in 2012, congressional Republicans are annoyed yet again with the real world, and their answer, yet again, is to create a new reality more to their liking. Bruce Bartlett explains:

On Feb. 3, the House passed H.R. 3582, the Pro-Growth Budgeting Act of 2012. Innocuous on the surface, its long-term purpose is to institutionalize Republican economic policy into the very fabric of budgetary analysis.

The legislation would require that the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation do a “dynamic” analysis of major legislation....The dynamic calculation would be supplementary and not replace the current official scoring methodology, but the obvious long-term goal is to require official revenue estimates to incorporate “Laffer curve” effects in order to make it easier to cut taxes and harder to raise them.

....My concern is that the Republican effort is just a smokescreen to incorporate phony-baloney factors into revenue estimates to justify unlimited tax cutting....It already has a very well-financed Center for Data Analysis that the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, used to analyze his budget plan last year, bypassing the Joint Committee on Taxation and C.B.O.

Moreover, my memory is still fresh regarding the documented Republican effort in 2003 to suppress internal estimates of the cost of the Medicare Part D program. Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, has testified to the pressure that was put on him by a Bush administration political appointee, Tom Scully, which was documented by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Dynamic" analysis has been a hobbyhorse for years among movement conservatives, all of whom are convinced that the CBO is engaged in a liberal vendetta to prevent tax cuts by issuing reports showing that tax cuts will....produce less tax revenue. Sneaky! Dynamic scoring, they're convinced, will show just the opposite, and blow the field wide open for more and more glorious tax cuts.

As usual, though, it's not clear to me what the purpose of this legislation is. Are they seriously trying to get it passed? That seems unlikely. Are they going to use it as trade bait in future budget negotiations? Maybe. Or are they doing it solely because it's a hobbyhorse among the tea party crowd and they want to show that they're truly dedicated to the cause? My guess is Door #3. But you never know. They might actually be serious about this stuff.

UPDATE: A reader points out something I should have mentioned: CBO has done dynamic scoring before on its own, and the results have been pretty undramatic even with a Republican appointee in charge. For example, CBO's analysis of the 2004 budget is here, and the results of dynamic scoring are in Table 16. Result: maybe a bigger deficit than standard scoring, maybe a smaller deficit. And the differences were small no matter what.

Of course, maybe that just means they weren't using the right dynamic model. I'm sure there's a more agreeable one around somewhere.

The Komen Foundation's Even Bigger PR Problem

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 10:15 AM PST

Clara Jeffery has a piece today about the Komen Foundation and what they can do to recover from their Planned Parenthood fiasco, and it's worth a read. But it reminded me of something I've been meaning to point out: one of the remarkable things about this controversy is that a lot of it hasn't really been about the controversy itself. Rather, for a lot of people it seems like it was just a long-awaited excuse to finally blow up over their long-simmering dislike of the Komen Foundation and its seemingly endless commercialization of all things breast cancer related. I don't really have much to say about this since I'm pretty removed from the whole thing, but one PR lesson Komen should learn is that apparently there's long been a helluva lot of unvoiced annoyance/discontent/exasperation/anger/etc. toward the Komen Foundation among a lot of women. And now that it's finally out, it's going to be hard to stuff it back into its bottle. I wonder if they had any idea before this that they were so heartily disliked by so many people who — until now — just didn't feel like it was OK to say so out loud?

Obama's Choice: Good Policy or Good Politics

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 8:52 AM PST

Jonathan Chait takes note today of the progress President Obama has made in his campaign to highlight Republican obstructionism and work around them with executive orders that he can implement on his own:

I was skeptical last October that Obama’s initiative would help his approval ratings, but it looks like I was wrong. Obama’s poll numbers have climbed over the last several months, with his net job-approval rating, which had bottomed out at minus ten percentage points, approaching parity.

....Republicans are beginning to grasp their own inadvertent complicity in Obama’s comeback. Some, of course, believe that their failure lies in having compromised too much. But political realism is advancing. Representative Tom Cole bluntly asserts that his party simply needs to disappear from the national debate: “The big thing for us is to not be part of the conversation instead of trying to inject ourselves into it.” It’s sound advice. If Republicans weren’t charging around threatening to overturn decades of American social policy and possibly plunge the world into economic crisis if Obama refuses to accede to their goals, Obama would have a harder time defining himself in opposition to them.

The payroll tax fight offers the first test of whether or not the new breeze of tactical realism will prevail, or be overwhelmed by countercurrents of militant obstruction.

This also means that we'll soon get a test of Team Obama's view of the importance of politics vs. policy in an election year. If Obama's campaign is working, then it's actually in his interest to (subtly! quietly!) pick a fight with Republicans so that they'll look obstructionist yet again over the payroll tax holiday. But if it's policy that he really cares about, then he'll just take the win if Republicans offer to cave in. We should find out soon which it is.

Math Alert: "Dozens" of Earmarks Might Not Be All That Many

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 11:07 PM PST

From the Washington Post today:

Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.

The Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members and compared them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008. The process uncovered appropriations for work in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by the lawmakers or their family members. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to companies, colleges or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.

The Post story includes descriptions of a bunch of these earmarks, and some of them sound pretty self-serving, others not so much. But I have to admit that the first thought that crossed my mind when I read this was: "Really? Dozens? That's a lot less than I would have expected."

Here's the thing. Congress approves about 10,000 earmarks a year. So that means something on the order of 40,000 earmarks since 2008. At a guess, if 40,000 earmarks were distributed by throwing darts at a map, more than a few dozen would come up near members' homes. In other words, if anything, members seem to be actively trying to keep earmarks away from their homes.

I hope the Post uncovers some funny business here. That would be fun. I'm also aware that I'm more geekish about this stuff than most people. Still, I wish that when stories like this got published, the reporters would do at least a little bit of statistical due diligence. Is "dozens" a lot or a little? I know that math is boring, but a little context would go a long way here.