Kevin Drum - July 2012

Real Obama vs. Fantasy Obama

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 1:26 PM EDT

I've long had my issues with Drew Westen, and they're on striking display in an op-ed he wrote a few days ago for the Washington Post. He says Barack Obama made "three crucial errors" after he took office:

Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table. The GOP had just decimated the economy and had been repudiated by voters to such an extent that few Americans wanted to admit that they were registered Republicans. Yet Obama, with his penchant for unilateral bipartisanship, refused to speak ill of what they had done.

....The second mistake was squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month....Instead of designing a stimulus that reflected the thinking of the country’s best economic minds, he cut their recommended numbers by a third and turned another third into inert tax cuts designed to appease Republican legislators.

....The third way the administration created opportunities for Republican obstructionism will someday become a business-school case study: It let a popular idea — a family doctor for every family — be recast as a losing ideological battle between intrusive government and freedom. In the 2008 election, the American people were convinced that families should never have to choose between putting food on the table and taking the kids to the doctor. They were adamant that neither they nor their aging parents should have to choose between their medicine and their mortgage.

This kind of thing is intensely frustrating. I actually agree with Westen's broad point that Obama should have been more aggressive than he was. And yet, these three "errors" are so ahistorical that they make me crazy. First: Obama had to invite Republicans to the table. When he took office Democrats didn't have a filibuster-proof majority. Second: Obama couldn't get a bigger stimulus. The evidence on this score is voluminous. Whether he wanted a bigger stimulus is an open question, but it's also moot. He just didn't have the votes. Third: universal healthcare wasn't an especially popular idea and the American public was far from adamant that they wanted it. Oh, it polls decently in the abstract, getting roughly 60% support over the past decade, but that's nothing special. It's the worst kind of poll literalism to think this represents a genuine, intensely-held groundswell of support for national healthcare. In reality, it's a tenuous majority.

I really don't understand why people like Westen can't make their critiques of Obama's leadership in a way that takes into account obvious political realities. Not that it would be an easy critique. If you look at past presidents who made big changes, they were mostly surfing on waves that were already cresting: FDR and the New Deal, LBJ and civil rights, Reagan and taxes. Obama just didn't have that kind of wave to ride. It's an open question why he didn't have that — one that I tried to tackle here — but one way or another, he didn't. And while I think Obama has done a poor job as leader of his party, I say that tentatively. The fact is that modern presidents simply don't have the party leverage that some past presidents have had, and Obama in particular simply didn't have a big enough majority to get his way.

As it happens, I think Obama could have done better, and in particular he should have continued pushing for more stimulus in 2009 and 2010 in the form of jobs bills, housing legislation, and less pivoting to the deficit. Still, life in the White House is pretty difficult when you have to constantly concern yourself with getting a couple of Republican votes, or, at best, the 60th most liberal Democrat — especially when the 60th most liberal Democrat is a self-righteous showboat like Joe Lieberman or a Nebraska pol like Ben Nelson. Obama probably had leverage he could have used better, but if that's your criticism, then you need to explain exactly what he did wrong dealing with Congress, not whether he gave precisely the right kind of speeches.

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Mitt Romney Praises Socialized Health Care, As Long As It's Not American

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 12:31 PM EDT

Over the weekend, as I was watching Mitt Romney extol the virtues of Israel's entrepreneurial spirit, I tweeted sarcastically, "Wikipedia tells me that top marginal Israeli tax rate is 48% on income over $125,000. I wonder if Romney knows that?" Apparently not. Here's Romney at a fundraiser in Jerusalem on Monday:

Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the G.D.P. in Israel? Eight percent. You spend eight percent of G.D.P. on health care. You’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our G.D.P. on health care, 10 percentage points more…We have to find ways—not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to fund and manage our health care costs.

It kind of makes you wonder if Romney actually knows anything about Israel aside from the fact that they fight Arabs and Persians now and again. I mean, he does know that Israel has historically been a socialist state, right? And they have universal health care. ThinkProgress tweaks Romney by suggesting that he was praising a system that includes an individual mandate, but really, they're giving him too much credit. Yeah, there's a mandate, but it's a mandate to choose which of four free systems you want to sign up with. What Israel has isn't really a mandate in the same way Obamacare has a mandate, it's the full-blown lefty dream of free, universal healthcare funded through the tax system. Properly speaking, Romney ought to be appalled with their health care system.

And wouldn't that have been great? After visiting London and questioning whether they'd manage to pull off their Olympics, maybe he should have gone to Israel and chastised them for their socialist health care system. I'm not sure what that would leave for Poland, but I'm sure something will present itself. Maybe he could attend a concert and then muse afterward about how he's always thought Chopin was overrated.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, speaking of Israel and health care, I heard an interesting story a few weeks ago. It turns out that among end-of-life patients in hospitals, CPR is essentially useless. In America, we don't care. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest, we call a code and rush to their bedside anyway. In Israel, they don't. They deliberately respond slowly, essentially letting the patient die if he or she is near death anyway. In other words, in Israel they really do have death panels.

I wonder if Romney knows that? Probably not. Also: I'd love to hear either confirmation or otherwise about this policy. Is this really common practice in Israeli hospitals? Or did I hear some kind of garbled old wives' tale?

Berkeley Earth Project Says Carbon Dioxide is Cause of Global Warming

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:55 AM EDT

I promised to link to Richard Muller's latest climate change paper from the Berkeley BEST group when it was posted on Monday, and it's now Monday. So here it is. Previous BEST papers have confirmed dramatic global warming over the past century, and the new paper is mostly an attempt to figure out what caused the warming. The answer, unsurprisngly to most of us, is human activity:

Many of the changes in land-surface temperature follow a simple linear combination of volcanic forcing (based on estimates of stratospheric sulfate injection) and an anthropogenic term represented here by the logarithm of the CO2  concentration....When we included solar forcing we found that the solar variability record assumed by the IPCC did not contribute significantly to the fit of historic temperature.

....After accounting for volcanic and anthropogenic effects, the residual variability in land-surface temperature is observed to closely mirror and for slower changes slightly lead variations in the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation Index. This is consistent with both the land and North Atlantic responding [to] the same unknown process....Though non-trivial, this number is small compared to the anthropogenic changes that appear to have occurred during the last century.

In English, this means that (a) volcanoes cause short-term spikes in the climate record, (b) changes in solar activity have virtually no effect, and (c) periodic oscillation in North Atlantic sea temperatures accounts for some of the variability we see in the temperature record. However, the primary cause of warming since 1800 is anthropogenic. That is to say: humans did it. Carbon dioxide has produced virtually all of the warming that we see around us today, at the rate of about 3.1 degrees C for every doubling of atmospheric CO2. The chart below shows the close match between CO2 levels, volcanic activity, and surface temperature.

This is pretty much the same result produced by the IPCC and the consensus of every climate scientist working today. The skeptics dived into the data, crunched it in an entirely different way, and came up with the same result: Global warming is real and human activity causes it.

Has Aid to Afghanistan Been Wasted?

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 10:57 AM EDT

Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports on the latest from Afghanistan:

A U.S. initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects in Afghanistan, originally pitched as a vital tool in the military campaign against the Taliban, is running so far behind schedule that it will not yield benefits until most U.S. combat forces have departed the country, according to a government inspection report to be released Monday.

The report, by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, also concludes that the Afghan government will not have the money or skill to maintain many of the projects, creating an “expectations gap” among the population that could harm overall stabilization efforts.

....The latest report adds new weight to the argument — voiced by independent development specialists and even a few government officials — that the United States attempted to build too much in a country with limited means to assume responsibility for those projects.

I'm genuinely puzzled here. I thought this was a lesson we had learned by the 70s. Giant infrastructure projects that can't be maintained by the local workforce are not only useless, they're counterproductive. Aid needs to be provided on a scale that's sustainable locally. How is it that we seem to have forgotten this?

Scalia Take 2: The American Public is Pretty Smart After All -- Unless We're Talking About Supreme Court Hearings

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 9:39 AM EDT

A few days ago I scolded Antonin Scalia for his belief that Supreme Court hearings shouldn't be televised because the media would just play short snippets of the proceedings and Americans couldn't be trusted to figure out what was really going on. Here's Scalia:

If I really thought it would educate the American people, I would be all for it. If the American people sat down and watched our proceedings gavel to gavel [...] they would be educated. But they wouldn't see all of that. [C-SPAN] would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of the American people would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those takeouts would not be characteristic of what we do. They would be uncharacteristic.

At the end of the post I wondered aloud whether Scalia was equally pessimistic about the public's ability to discern the truth in any other context. As it turns out, I didn't have to wonder for long. Reader JB sent me a clip from a different part of the same interview that answers this exact question. In this clip, Brian Lamb asks Scalia about campaign finance:

As a person, do you worry at all that there's too much money in politics?

No, I really don't....

But what about — people are worried that corporations now can buy....

If you believe that, we ought to go back to monarchy. That the people are such sheep, that they just swallow whatever they see on television or read in the newspapers? No. The premise of democracy is that people are intelligent and can discern the true from the false.

Italics mine. So that's that. When it comes to judging the policies of the legislative and executive branches, the public should be assumed intelligent enough to see through all the clamor and commotion and figure out what's going on. No paternalism here! But when it comes to the judicial branch, we should assume no such thing. Instead, we should carefully decide exactly what kind of access to give the public, lest the media and special interests appeal unfairly to their collective passions and leave the wrong impression of what the court is doing.

Personally, I'd say the case for a modest amount of paternalism is quite a bit stronger in the campaign finance arena than it is in the Supreme Court hearing arena, which is naturally insulated already from political and special interest influence. But apparently Scalia doesn't see it that way.

POSTSCRIPT: As long as I'm on the subject, I was surprised at how much pushback I got against the idea of televising Supreme Court hearings in the original Scalia thread. I know that we're in the middle of a presidential campaign, and in particular we're in the middle of a campaign in which Mitt Romney is rather spectacularly using 15-second TV clips to misrepresent his opponent. So it's natural to be disturbed about the misuse of televised snippets at the moment.

But as I said in comments, limiting exposure to public proceedings just because you don't like what the media will do with it is a very, very bad precedent. Transparency and access should be core liberal values even if we don't always like the results. It's one thing to restrict access because you think judges and lawyers will play to the cameras if they're on TV. That has some merit, even if, in the end, I don't find it compelling. But limiting access because you don't trust the media or the public with the information? Count me out.

Global Warming: "Humans Are Almost Entirely the Cause"

| Sun Jul. 29, 2012 3:10 PM EDT

Climate skeptic Richard Muller, who started up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature in 2010 in order to get at the real truth of climate change, last year published preliminary results showing that the climate establishment was right after all. Global temperatures really have been going up dramatically over the past century. Today he says more:

I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

....The historic temperature pattern we observed has abrupt dips that match the emissions of known explosive volcanic eruptions; the particulates from such events reflect sunlight, make for beautiful sunsets and cool the earth’s surface for a few years. There are small, rapid variations attributable to El Niño and other ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream; because of such oscillations, the “flattening” of the recent temperature rise that some people claim is not, in our view, statistically significant. What has caused the gradual but systematic rise of two and a half degrees? We tried fitting the shape to simple math functions (exponentials, polynomials), to solar activity and even to rising functions like world population. By far the best match was to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice.

....The careful analysis by our team is laid out in five scientific papers now online at BerkeleyEarth.org. That site also shows our chart of temperature from 1753 to the present, with its clear fingerprint of volcanoes and carbon dioxide, but containing no component that matches solar activity. Four of our papers have undergone extensive scrutiny by the scientific community, and the newest, a paper with the analysis of the human component, is now posted, along with the data and computer programs used.

Actually, Muller's new paper doesn't appear to be online yet. It's going up tomorrow. When it does, I'll take a look at it and post their charts for you.

However, as near as I can tell, climate skeptics, including those who said they'd trust Muller's results no matter what they showed, haven't budged an inch since he published his initial papers last year. I doubt his new paper will change their minds either. That's no surprise, since this has long since ceased being a scientific controversy. Climate skeptics are skeptics because they don't like the idea of global warming, not because there's truly any evidence that it doesn't exist. It's politically inconvenient, economically inconvenient, and personally inconvenient, so they don't want to hear about it.

I wish I knew what more we could do about this. It's pretty plainly the biggest problem facing the human race at the moment. By comparison, everything else is about like arguing over whether the deck chairs on the Titanic will help keep people afloat when the ship sinks: obviously they won't, but the debate acts as a nice distraction. But if people don't want to believe for reasons of personal/political/economic self-interest, how do you convince them? What kind of self-interest can we fight back with? Because at this point, it's pretty obvious that neither science nor the future of our grandchildren is enough.

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Romneyshambles Continues in Israel

| Sun Jul. 29, 2012 11:28 AM EDT

This has got to be a joke. After the Romneyshambles debacle of his trip to Britain, surely Mitt could at least visit Israel without sticking his foot in his mouth? Apparently not:

An adviser's vague remark to reporters here left the press scrambling for nearly three hours this morning to determine whether Romney had promised to commit American forces or other support to a hypothetical Israel strike on Iran....Romney foreign policy advisor Dan Senor briefed the press on Sunday morning, saying, “if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision."

The headline that hit news outlets across the globe by the Associated Press was: "Adviser: Romney would back strike against Iran," implying, perhaps, that the U.S. could contribute forces to such a strike. Reuters ran with: "Romney backs Israel if needs to strike Iran: aide says." Bloomberg's headline: "Romney Says He'd Back Unilateral Israeli Strike on Iran."

....The Romney campaign, meanwhile, went dark, with much of his top staff asleep in Boston or in meetings with Israeli leaders, as an international firestorm built over how Senor's comments were being interpreted.

About three hours later, however, aides distributed a comment by Senor clarifying his remarks.

How could the Romney campaign possibly be this underprepared for its first big international outing? Dan Senor has been involved with foreign policy for two decades, and the Romney campaign is jam-packed with people who know the contours of Middle East policy inside out and know exactly which words you can use and which ones you can't. What's going on?

R.I.P. Inkblot

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 11:09 PM EDT

I hate to write this post, but all of you have been part of Inkblot's life for so long that I can hardly not do it. One of our neighbors saw the flyers we posted around the neighborhood and called a few minutes ago to tell us that she had seen the body of a cat nearby. We went out to look, and it was Inkblot. There wasn't much question about the ID.

From the evidence, it looks like he got killed by a coyote. And he hadn't wandered very far after all. The remains were only a couple hundred feet from our house.

This is sad, sad news. But I want to thank everyone who sent kind thoughts our way, either via comments or email. He will be remembered.

YouTube Technical Bleg

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 4:25 PM EDT

Here's a puzzler: my browser no longer plays YouTube videos. On Thursday they suddenly stopped working on both Firefox and Opera. IE still worked, though. Today, Firefox started working again, but Opera still doesn't. I just get a big black rectangle with no controls.

Anyone know what this could be? Ad blocking doesn't seem to be the problem. My laptop still works fine using the same browser version I have on the desktop. I rebooted, of course. I don't recall installing or updating anything on Thursday. Other video sites still work fine. Only YouTube doesn't work.

And here's something else weird. When I embed YouTube videos in the blog, the normal embed codes don't work. I just get the black rectangle. But the old YouTube embed code displays fine:

  • Doesn't work: <iframe width="375" src="http://www.youtube.com/watch/xxx">
  • Doesn't work: <iframe width="375" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/xxx"> 
  • Works!          <iframe width="375" src="http://www.youtube.com/v/xxx">

I've racked my brain and I can't think of what else to try. What did I do to anger the YouTube gods?

An Olympic Tribute to the NHS? Really?

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 12:02 PM EDT

I'm a lifelong liberal. I think it would be great if the United States adopted some kind of genuine national healthcare program. It's probably my single biggest domestic policy obsession, and I assume many of my readers feel the same way.

Even so, I've got to ask: am I the only one who was a bit gobsmacked at the lengthy tribute to the NHS during the opening ceremonies at the Olympics last night? The NHS? Seriously?

Also: I heard a lot of complaining on Twitter about the NBC commentary during the first hour or so of the show. But I have to tell you, if it weren't for that commentary I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. That was Glastonbury Tor? Really? And when the tree rose out of the ground and all those grimy folks came marching out, would I have figured out that this marked the transition from agrarian England to the Industrial Age? No siree. (As for the dancing plutocrats, I'm at a loss for words.) Nor would I have figured out that the Frankie and June segment was supposed to represent yet another transition, this time into the digital age. (And was it really supposed to also represent a transition from nightmares of one kind to a "parent's nightmare" of a different kind? Was that actually Danny Boyle's intent, or did the NBC guys just make that up?)

I dunno. I wasn't a fan of the Beijing opening ceremonies, which frankly struck me as a message that the synchronized hordes of the Middle Kingdom would destroy the decadent West before long. So I was happy to see the decadent West strike back with something a bit more chaotic and free form. The opening lines from Shakespeare were a nice, understated rebuttal to Beijing. But I'd still opt for a show that you could mostly understand without it being explained in real time.