Kevin Drum - March 2012

Rebranding is the Last Refuge of Terrorists

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 12:08 PM EDT

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was recently given an early look at captured documents from Osama bin Laden's compound that will be publicly released shortly, and he reports that near the end bin Laden was apparently obsessed with the last resort of failed CEOs everywhere: rebranding.

Bin Laden’s biggest concern was al-Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried that it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for [Atiyah Abd al-Rahman], he argued that the organization should find a new name.

The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, Bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda. The organization’s full name was “Qaeda al-Jihad,” bin Laden noted, but in its shorthand version, “this name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them.” He proposed 10 alternatives “that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us.” His first recommendation was “Taifat al-tawhid wal-jihad,” or Monotheism and Jihad Group.

So there you have it. Deep-sixing the "war on terror" rhetoric really did hurt al-Qaeda. And bin Laden's only answer was to change their name to the Monotheism and Jihad Group. Somehow I don't think that would have done the trick.

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On Second Thought, Maybe California Doesn't Matter After All

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 11:19 AM EDT

Just a quick update: a few days ago I suggested that California might be fertile territory for Rick Santorum because California Republicans are pretty hardcore conservatives. And they are. Nevertheless, Conor Friedersdorf points out that our delegate apportionment rules work pretty heavily in Romney's favor:

Perhaps he's right. I'd never have predicted Santorum would get this far. Still, I'm willing to buy Drum lunch at Orange County's finest purveyor of tacos if Santorum wins more California delegates than Romney. The vast majority of Golden State delegates (159, to be exact) are apportioned by congressional district. Each district has three delegates, and it's winner-take-all within the district.

Click the link to read the rest, but the takeaway is pretty simple: Santorum might well win in the roughly one-third of California's congressional districts (mostly inland and in Northern California) that are solidly right-wing, but he won't do so well in, say, congressional districts in the Bay Area that have smaller numbers of Republicans but still get three delegates each.

So there you have it. Since I mentioned this the other day I figured I should provide an update. California probably isn't as much in play as I thought. Conor, the tacos are on me.

Showdown: A Peek Inside the Mind of Barack Obama

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

David Corn's latest book, Showdown, is a detailed account of the aftermath of the 2010 midterms and President Obama's clash with a rejuvenated Republican Party. But it's decidedly not a tour d'horizon of the entire political landscape during the following 12 months. It's told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Obama and the Obama White House, and this is where its greatest value lies. Through the lens of policy battles, you get a remarkably vivid pen portrait of Obama himself and how he thinks.

Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the book. It's December 2010. Obama wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class but not the tax cuts for the rich. Republicans have made it clear that they'll spend the entire month until Christmas delaying and filibustering unless Obama agrees to extend all the cuts. That would mean no time to get anything else done, followed immediately by the seating of a new Congress with a Republican majority in the House. So Obama cuts a deal that includes a payroll tax holiday, an extension of unemployment insurance, and a slew of tax credits:

Obama had arguably won the immediate policy battle with the Republicans. For yielding on the tax cuts for the rich, he had gained $238 billion in stimulus....The Republicans had pocketed $91 billion in the top-bracket tax cuts and $23 billion for the estate tax measure.

The math was on Obama's side. But could the president now win the political and messaging war?....Progressive activists accused Obama of betrayal. Bending on the Bush tax cuts for the rich and conceding on the estate tax was what mattered for them, not the other side of the deal. Nor did they realize that Obama was trying to clear the path for a wider agenda: Don't Ask/Don't Tell, New START, and more.

....[The next day] Obama held a press conference to discuss the deal....Obama was riled up — the public option controversy still stung — and he continued defending compromise as a necessary means of reaching long-term progressive goals....He was not just defending the tax-cut deal. He was defending his entire presidency — not from the barbs of his rabid Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim-socialist foes on the right, but from the criticism of his purported allies on the left: "To my Democratic friends, what I'd suggest is, let's make sure that we understand this is a long game."

It looked as if Obama was more upset with the Left for not applauding this deal than he was with the inflexible, filibustering Republicans for causing the dilemma. Obama believed he deserved more credit for this hard-fought compromise and for his previous accomplishments — and he wanted more backing from the Left for the tough decisions he'd have to make in the coming years while dealing with recalcitrant GOPers.

Obama was right on this: the tax-cut deal had become a defining moment for his presidency.

I've long considered the 2010 lame duck session to be an almost perfect distillation of everything Obama-related. David is right: Obama got a lot of flack from the lefty base over his budget deal. But look what it did. It produced an additional mini-stimulus, probably the biggest anyone could have squeezed out of Congress at that point. It paved the way for the repeal of DADT and the ratification of New START. It made time for the food safety bill, the 9/11 first responders bill, and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization package to pass.

And the cost? A bum deal on the estate tax, granted, and a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. That's it. The Bush tax cuts didn't get extended forever, only for two years, when we get to fight it out all over again. And the truth is that the economy was fragile enough in 2010 that extending the cuts — even the high-end cuts — was arguably the right thing to do anyway.

So that's Obama: quietly driving pretty good deals; willing to take public lumps as long as he gets something worthwhile out of all the dealmaking; giving up surprisingly little; and then getting surprisingly little credit for it all. It's no wonder he gets a little annoyed sometimes.

Hispanics Hate the Republican Party

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 4:34 PM EDT

Glenn Thrush reports today that although Hispanics have been disappointed in Obama, the Republican presidential primary has sent them stampeding back into his arms:

Hispanics, a powerful bloc whose vote could decide the outcome in pivotal states such as Nevada, Florida, Colorado and Arizona, seem to have responded by abandoning Romney, with only 14 percent of Hispanic voters favoring him over Obama in a recent Fox Latino poll — one-third of the Hispanic support George W. Bush enjoyed in 2004.

“In 2008, John McCain paid the price with Latinos for what other Republicans ... had said and done,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican Party operative who worked for McCain in 2008 and is a longtime friend who advises Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who remains popular with that state’s large Latino population. “Romney could very well pay an even higher price with Latinos, but it will be for things he’s said and done. The tragic part about it is that he’s done it to win over the very conservatives, and they still [aren’t supporting him].”

Yikes. But both Santorum and Gingrich poll at 14% too. In fact, in the Fox poll, Latinos actually prefer Romney over the other GOP candidates by a huge margin. The problem isn't so much that they hate Romney, it's that they hate pretty much everything about the Republican Party. On virtually every question they trust Democrats over Republicans by a huge margin. Nice work, tea partiers.

The Cost of Obamacare Has Gone Down, Not Up

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 2:41 PM EDT

Republicans rushed to the microphones today to announce that new projections show that Obamacare will break the bank. In fact, says Fox News, a CBO reports says that it will cost "twice as much as the original $900 billion price tag."

You will be unsurprised to learn that this is not true. As Jon Cohn patiently explains here, the previous CBO report estimated the costs of expanded insurance coverage between 2012-21. The new report covers 2012-22. In other words, the new report includes an extra year compared to the previous one. That's the main reason that costs are higher.

In fact, CBO is quite clear on what an apples-to-apples comparison shows:

The current estimate of the gross costs of the coverage provisions ($1,496 billion through 2021) is about $50 billion higher than last year’s projection; however, the other budgetary effects of those provisions, which partially offset those gross costs, also have increased in CBO and JCT’s estimates (to $413 billion), leading to the small decrease in the net 10-year tally.

As Table 1 shows, if you compare the original 2012-21 time period, CBO's new estimate of the cost of Obamacare is $48 billion less than it was last year. (The report estimates only the cost of expanded insurance coverage under Obamacare, not the entire set of costs and revenues. So the total impact on the deficit hasn't yet been updated.)

Moral of this story: Never believe anything that Republicans say about Obamacare until you check out the source yourself. But you already knew that.

Teen Dystopia Is the Latest Craze

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

A couple of days ago Marian brought home a copy of The Hunger Games, so I read it. For someone steeped in a lifetime of science fiction, it didn't really strike me as anything special. Man, the ultimate prey! Fine. Still, I get that it's a book for teenagers, and obviously they aren't as jaded by the basic plot device as I am. No harm, no foul.

But what I didn't realize is that The Hunger Games has apparently unleashed a whole new genre. Abby McGanney Nolan explains:

Like the flu virus, the genre of dystopic novels for young adults has many strains. The one featuring a teenage girl battling for her life got a massive boost in the fall of 2008, when the first volume of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy was published.

....Why have readers been so drawn to catastrophic futures when the present seems troubled enough? Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness?....While The Hunger Games begins in Appalachia, three more recent dystopias, Marie Lu's Legend, Veronica Roth's Divergent, and Moira Young's Blood Red Road (all the first of trilogies, optioned by the likes of Ridley Scott and the producers of Twilight), rise up out of, respectively, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the American flatlands that have been reduced to a second Dust Bowl. In each case, the teenage-girl narrator has grown up sheltered in a zone of relative comfort. Her troubles multiply as society's flaws are revealed to her and she must fight for survival and the safety of her family.

It doesn't actually surprise me all that much that teenage girls, a demographic practically defined by angst, would find these kinds of narratives appealing. If you think the world is heartless and authoritarian, what's not to like about a fictional world where a teenage girl fights and beats an establishment that's heartless and authoritarian? Seems like a natural.

In any case, since I'm not a teenage girl, I think I'll skip the rest of these books. Right now I just have to decide whether to bother reading the rest of the Hunger Games trilogy. Pros: it will only take a few hours and I'll be acquainted with yet another segment of pop culture. Cons: Sort of obvious. Any advice from my readers? Should I bother with books two and three?

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At Last, the Final Chapter in the Black Liquor Saga

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 1:00 PM EDT

Brad Plumer reports that Congress had to play some pretty serious budget games in order to fund the two-year highway bill that it passed yesterday:

But what happens after two years? At the moment, it looks like the federal government will simply run out of money to fund the nation’s transportation needs....When 2014 rolls around, the trust fund will be broke. 

....Here’s how the $109 billion Senate bill got paid for. Right now, the gas tax is set to raise $72 billion over the next two years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate bill would also pull some money from the next 10 years of trust fund revenue to fund spending for the next two years. But there was a cost to all this gimmickry. According to the CBO, the Highway Trust Fund will go bankrupt in 2014.

And even then, there was still a $10 billion shortfall in the Senate bill. So they had to scrounge around for the rest. Some of the money — about $3.7 billion — came out of a separate trust fund intended to clean up leaking underground fuel tanks (which was originally paid for by part of the gas tax). Another $2.8 billion came from ending the tax deduction for “black liquor,” a byproduct of paper manufacturing. Another $743 million came from revoking passports for people who owe $50,000 in back taxes. The IRS got some more money to collect delinquent Medicare taxes and transfer some tariffs into the Highway Trust Fund.

Black liquor! You should read Brad's post to learn more about the Highway Trust Fund shenanigans, but really, I'm highlighting this because it gives me an excuse to link to one of my favorite little stories of all time: Chris Hayes' 2009 piece about a federal tax credit for black liquor. I don't want to give away the punchline, though. "Once in a while," Chris wrote, "I hear a story that gives me the queasy feeling that I'm nowhere near cynical enough." That was the story of black liquor. Do yourself a favor and go read it.

UPDATE: I spoke too soon. Commenter veeger explains:

Actually, the black liquor provision got dropped from the final agreement after GOPers and Dems alike objected to it. Plumer must be looking at the version of the tax title that was reported out of the Senate Finance Committee. The provision was removed between the committee and floor action.

Sigh. More background here.

Obama and Shaye: Will the White House Explain its Actions?

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 12:26 PM EDT

Adam Serwer thinks I asked the wrong question yesterday. After reading Jeremy Scahill's article about imprisoned Yemeni journalist (or, according to the U.S. government, imprisoned Yemeni al-Qaeda frontman) Abdulelah Haider Shaye, I asked "Is Barack Obama a Murderous Sociopath?" The headline was provocative, but the question was real. Scahill's article strongly suggests that Shaye is an innocent journalist who's in prison solely because he's a thorn in the side of the American national security establishment.1 I don't know the truth of the matter any more than anyone else, but that doesn't strike me as Barack Obama's MO. In fact, if Obama really did ask the Yemeni president to keep Shaye in prison in retribution for his reporting of a U.S. attack on al Majala that, in the end, has caused Obama very little trouble, it would be close to sociopathic. Perhaps, instead, Obama really does have evidence suggesting that Shaye is allied with al-Qaeda?

Here's Adam:

What we have here is really the central problem of national security in the post-9/11 era: Are the people the government says are terrorists, the people the US government asserts the right to detain indefinitely the people our government asserts the right to kill far from any declared battlefield, actually guilty? Unfortunately when it comes to terrorism, it can be difficult to ascertain, let alone prove, culpability.

When considering the overarching question, the least appropriate option I think, is simply assuming the government has justifiable reasons for its actions. The Bush administration said Gitmo held the worst of the worst, it then proceeded to release the vast majority of detainees without ever charging them with a crime. The Obama has assumed the authority to kill even US citizens suspected of terrorism abroad without oversight from the other two branches of government. Institutions tend to do what they can get away with, a tendency that can become ever-more problematic when they can do so under cover of official secrecy.

The response to the government declaring someone a terrorist should be, "prove it." A sham trial by a US client regime propped up by US aid offered because of war on terror expediency doesn't cut it.

These are the key issues, all right. The question, given the legitimate sensitivity of intelligence sources, is whether the U.S. government is required to be entirely transparent about every single action it takes. In this case, President Obama expressed "concern" about the release of Shaye, which caused the Yemeni president to withdraw a pardon that was in the works. Should Obama be required to explain in detail the reasons he did this?

I don't know how to address this except to say that I think it's a really hard question. Bright lines sound great from a distance, and there's no question that bright lines are appropriate sometimes. They're brightest in the case of direct U.S. action against a U.S. citizen. They're a little less bright when it's U.S. action against non-citizens. They're less bright still when it's a matter of nudging a client state to take action against a non-citizen. And it's even less bright on a hot battlefield.

Human rights groups widely believe Shaye's trial was a sham. But Shaye himself declined to offer a defense and his lawyer boycotted the trial. And the U.S. government isn't talking. So there's very little public evidence in either direction. Maybe Obama has information about Shaye's connections to al-Qaeda that he can't make public because it would endanger lives or compromise sources. Maybe he doesn't. If he does, should he have to make it public regardless of the consequences? Or if he's not willing to do that, forego any pressure on the Yemeni government?

I don't know. I think the line is pretty dim here. The plain fact is that when it comes to terrorism and the intelligence community, there are some cases where the public just isn't going to be informed. That's true of every country and every leader. So, like it or not, there are sometimes going to be cases where the question really does come down to whether you trust the president. That seems to be the case here. I'd like to see reporters press the White House further on this, but until someone digs up further information I'm not sure what the alternative is.

1Scahill's Nation piece is largely concerned with Shaye's reporting of an American attack on the village of al Majala, and that's what I addressed in my post yesterday. Via Twitter, however, he made it clear that he thinks al Majala is just a small part of the story: "I personally believe the US wanted Shaye locked up because he was regularly interviewing AQAP people and Awlaki....I believe the US wanted Shaye to stop interviewing these people. That's not a lawful reason to lock up journalists." More here.

Republicans Getting Ready to Approve of Violence Against Women

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 11:01 AM EDT

There's a new front brewing in the War Against Women™:

With emotions still raw from the fight over President Obama’s contraception mandate, Senate Democrats are beginning a push to renew the Violence Against Women Act, the once broadly bipartisan 1994 legislation that now faces fierce opposition from conservatives.

....“I favor the Violence Against Women Act and have supported it at various points over the years, but there are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition,” said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who opposed the latest version last month in the Judiciary Committee....Republicans say the measure, under the cloak of battered women, unnecessarily expands immigration avenues by creating new definitions for immigrant victims to claim battery. More important, they say, it fails to put in safeguards to ensure that domestic violence grants are being well spent. It also dilutes the focus on domestic violence by expanding protections to new groups, like same-sex couples, they say.

Is it possible that Democrats filled the reauthorization bill with new measures that Republicans object to? Sure. Is it possible that this is all part of some clever plan to take advantage of the recent contraception fight? Not likely. That fight wasn't deliberate in the first place, and in any case the modifications to VAWA were all done last year since the act was up for reauthorization in 2012.

Democrats may be taking advantage of the moment, but Republicans are making it easy for them. Their public objections are mostly focused on culture war issues (gays! immigrants!), but their base hates the whole idea of VAWA. No compromise is going to be enough to mollify them once the talking heads get hold of this, and that's going to turn the reauthorization fight into yet another anti-feminism battle royal, not a normal legislative give and take. Fasten your seat belts.

Ben Bernanke is Everyone's Favorite Whipping Boy

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 1:37 AM EDT

Roger Lowenstein has a profile of Ben Bernanke in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It's called "The Villain." On the cover, though, it's called "The Hero." Ironic! "The left hates him," says the subhead. "The right hates him even more. But Ben Bernanke saved the economy—and has navigated masterfully through the most trying of times."

It's kind of weird, though. Lowenstein provides loads of evidence that the right hates Bernanke, but he doesn't actually come up with much evidence that we lefties hate him too. In fact, he's only got two things. First, some guy in Lowenstein's neighborhood has an "End the Fed" bumper sticker on his car. No, I don't get what that's supposed to prove either. Second, Paul Krugman has said some critical things about Bernanke on occasion. I'm actually kind of curious to know what Krugman thinks of this. Lowenstein insists that Krugman been "scathingly critical" of Bernanke, but my take is that he's been more like mildly disappointed. Phrases like "shameful passivity" and "wimps out" are just shots across the bow by Krugman's standards. When he's truly being scathingly critical, there's really no mistaking it.

There are folks on the left who are scathingly critical of Bernanke, of course. But you don't find them on the pages of the New York Times or the hallways of Capitol Hill. You find them on blogs. It's just not the same as it is on the right, where presidential candidates, members of Congress, and major pundits and talking heads slag him routinely.

But enough of that. Let's criticize Bernanke from the left and make Lowenstein's article more accurate for him. We lefties all tend to think that the Fed ought to temporarily target a higher inflation rate while the economy remains weak, but Lowenstein explains why Bernanke doesn't agree:

One obstacle is practical. Fed policy works, in part, by getting the market to do the Fed’s work (if the Fed is buying bonds, traders who want to be on the same side of the markets as the central bank will buy bonds too). But any policy adopted by less than a 7-to-3 majority by the Fed’s Open Market Committee would not be viewed by markets as a credible policy, likely to endure, and Bernanke is not guaranteed to get this margin today. “No central banker would do it,” Mankiw says of raising the inflation target; the political reaction would be too severe.

....This might seem to support Krugman’s thesis that Bernanke would like to boost inflation but has chickened out. But after talking with the chairman at length (he was generally not willing to be quoted on this issue), I think that, although Bernanke appreciates the intellectual argument in favor of raising inflation, he finds more compelling reasons for not doing so. First is the fear that inflation, once raised, could not be contained....Second, raising inflation is not always so easy....As Bernanke is well aware, this problem has generated an extensive literature, the gist of which is that the Fed would have to promise to be, in effect, “irresponsible.” In other words, the Fed would have to say, “Even when prices start rising, even when inflation starts to get out of hand, we will still keep rates near zero.” That is what sparked the inflation of the ’70s: people thought inflation was permanent, and a borrow-and-spend mentality set in. If Bernanke were to re-create that climate, it would be hard to shut down.

In other words, we still don't know why Bernanke doesn't support a higher inflation target. We don't really even know if Bernanke supports a higher inflation rate. Lowenstein's second point is that higher inflation can only happen if the Fed makes a credible commitment to it, and his first point is that the Fed currently has too many inflation hawks for anyone to believe a Fed commitment even if it made one. This says nothing about Bernanke's personal views. It just says that right now he can't do it. But would he if he could? Lowenstein says his "sense" is that "Bernanke is too much a sober central banker to want to risk the Fed’s credibility on inflation," and I guess that's a no. Or a maybe.

There are some other odd bits in the piece. I'm not really sure Lowenstein is right about the 70s, for example. Maybe some economists want to weigh in on that. And I was surprised to hear that "no one knows" whether raising interest rates on reserves can keep the money supply in check. I've always been under the impression that this is one of the bluntest tools in the Fed's arsenal. The question isn't so much whether it would work, it's making sure you don't put too much gunpowder in the bazooka. Maybe some economists want to weigh in on that too.

And what's my take on Bernanke? I think he did a pretty good job in his first term, but I'm not sure he's been anything special in his second — though I can't say for sure whether anyone else could have overcome the Fed's ideological inertia any better. In any case, a monetary specialist was just what we needed in 2007-09, but I would have preferred someone a little more dedicated to financial regulation for 2010-14.